It is now an unprecedented 22-point lead at the top of the Premier League table for Liverpool – a lead that suggests that Jurgen Klopp’s seemingly unbeatable team are casually strolling their way to a first top flight title in 30 years.
(Image courtesy BBC.co.uk)
In fact, some have suggested that Liverpool’s dominance is simply proof of the overall weakness of the league this season, suggesting that the Reds have easily brushed aside opponents on this long unbeaten run.
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Of course, anyone paying more than cursory attention to Liverpool games would quickly dismiss this notion. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, paradoxically, this is a title chase tight and tense in every way – except the points gap.
As The Athletic‘s Oliver Kay writes in his excellent piece on the subject:
“On paper, it looks like a procession. In reality almost every recent game has been a battle. That is something that the league table doesn’t illustrate – something that reflects better on the league as well as showcasing Liverpool’s powers of endurance”
Take Saturday’s 4-0 trouncing of in-form Southampton, a game, very much like the title chase: tight and tense in every way – except the score line.
The Saints’ energetic high press forced the home team into errors and troubled them for a long spell of the first half. But Liverpool came through the storm and although the final score was a little harsh on Southampton, the truth is that it could have been even more.
Adversity and ultimate triumph, that’s been a recurring theme of Liverpool matches all season. The late reversal at Aston Villa was probably the most extreme but there have been several close games of late. Wolves threatened to end Liverpool’s unbeaten run at Molineux a fortnight earlier, only for a late Firmino goal to settle matters; Man Utd hung around at Anfield until Salah’s late solo clinched the points; and Spurs put up a spirited fight-back after trailing at home, only for some wayward finishing to help Liverpool through.
Those are the kind of “battles” Liverpool had to fight through to achieve this historic lead. It’s not that long ago that this team couldn’t keep a clean sheet – only two from their first 15 matches – and it’s worth noting that eight of their first 13 wins were by a one goal margin. Yet, they have turned that around too; only three of their last 11 wins were decided by the odd goal, and the Southampton game was their 11th clean sheet of the season – the most in the Premier League – and the 9th in their last ten games.
There are those who would have you believe that Liverpool’s lead has been influenced by favorable interventions by the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.
You may have seen the “Anti-VAR” League tables making their rounds on social media (like this one below from a few weeks ago), an inane attempt to show how Liverpool wouldn’t be so far ahead but for VAR decisions. You’ll notice that there is no critical analysis as to whether those VAR calls upheld the rules of the game – did they confirm correct referee decisions or overturn referee mistakes? – only the fact that a VAR review occurred and in whose favour the decision went. How could anyone give credence to something like this?
As such, when referee Anthony Taylor ruled out Sadio Mane’s goal against Wolves because he deemed Adam Lallana’s pass a handball offence, the subsequent VAR review – that showed the ball came off Lallana’s shoulder and allowed the goal to stand – is only considered a favourable VAR call for Liverpool. Yet, VAR did Liverpool no favours here; it only ensured they weren’t deprived a perfectly good goal due to a refereeing error.
There are clearly a few contentious calls that have gone Liverpool’s way – VAR upheld the “no penalty” decision against Man City in November, as well as the “penalty” decisions against both Leicester and Spurs at Anfield in October, and have seen Chelsea and Wolves goals ruled out for marginal offside calls – but they’ve had many contentious VAR decisions go against them too.
At Old Trafford in October, for instance, a VAR review allowed Man Utd’s goal to stand, despite what looked like a foul on Divock Origi in the build-up. Then Mane’s goal was (rightly) ruled out for handball after another VAR review. But Liverpool fought back to take a point following Lallana’s late equalizer in the only Premier League they’ve failed to win this season.
It was a similar story at Villa Park two weeks later. Trezeguet’s goal looked marginal – VAR ruled onside. Firmino’s goal looked marginal – VAR confirmed offside. That’s two close calls, both in favour of the home team. It was looking like one of those days, but Klopp’s “mentality monsters” kept pushing and scored twice in added time to take all three points.
They’ve had goals disallowed after VAR reviews too – one for offside at 1-0 in the Watford game at Anfield, another for a van Dijk foul on de Gea at 1-0 in the Man United game at Anfield – but they made sure those would remain mere talking points in games that both ended 2-0. The theme continues: adversity and ultimate triumph.
And that’s just the thing: Liverpool’s resilience, their ability to put these hiccups behind them and still win means it’s easy to make the claim that they haven’t lost any points to any debatable VAR decisions. Take the Southampton match again. Much has been made of the Saints penalty claim – when Danny Ings stumbled and fell after a Fabinho tackle in the Liverpool box – just before Liverpool raced off to the other end to score their first goal.
A VAR review did not overturn the ref’s no penalty decision and since Southampton lost, that has become a big talking point and labelled a pivotal moment of the game. Yet, Liverpool had strong claims for a penalty too, much earlier in the game when Shane Long appeared to foul Firmino in the box. The ref waved play on and a VAR review allowed his decision to stand. Both sides got the short end of VAR calls, but while Liverpool’s 4-0 win ultimately made that a moot point for them, Southampton’s defeat only amplifies their feelings of being hard done by.
Then there is the matter of injuries. To go by the prevailing narrative, Liverpool have enjoyed a relatively injury free campaign, at least when compared to their closest rivals, Manchester City who have had to make do without the influential Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sane.
Of course, there is no question that the absence of Laporte especially has hampered City’s performance this season – although it should raise questions about recruitment and tactics that the absence of one player, no matter how influential, would leave a club the size of City trailing by so many points.
But, more to the point, there is no question that Liverpool’s excellent run has effectively masked the injury troubles they have endured – and shrugged off – on their way to this commanding lead.
The biggest, most obvious loss happened 36 minutes into the first game of the season when Alisson Becker tore his calf muscles, an injury that would leave the Premier League’s best ‘keeper out for the first eight games of the season. That could have been damaging – many rival fans hoped it would be – but Liverpool shrugged it off, reserve keeper Adrian stepped in and held the fort admirably. Eight wins from eight meant there was never any reason to lament the absence of the brilliant Brazilian stopper.
Shortly before his return, a rash challenge by Leicester’s Omar Choudhury left Mo Salah hobbled, forcing him to miss games at Crystal Palace and Man United, and endure pain and discomfort for several weeks. Salah’s form suffered as a result, but Liverpool just carried on winning.
Then, at the end of November, Fabinho damaged ankle ligaments in a Champions League game against Napoli at Anfield. The Brazilian, up to that point, had been arguably the Premier League’s stand-out midfield anchor and he had played a huge role in Liverpool’s dominant start.
He wouldn’t return for two months, missing 10 Premier League matches, including the busy Christmas schedule and Liverpool’s trip to the World Club Cup in Qatar. In his absence, Liverpool won 10 out 10 in the Premier League and returned from Qatar triumphant.
He wasn’t the only one missing: centre backs Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip were also crocked by early December, and by the end of that month, they’d be joined by forward Xerdan Shaqiri and Naby Keita. The former three haven’t played in the Premier League in 2020 – and Keita only just returned after missing the whole of January.
Sadio Mane has also joined the ranks of the wounded, missing games against West Ham and Southampton after hobbling off with a hamstring tear at Wolves on January 23rd.
Now, you could argue that none of these absences quite rise to the level of taking Laporte out of Manchester City’s team for five months – there are those who think only an injury to van Dijk would be equivalent – but no one can argue that Liverpool have not had to cope with significant injury concerns this season. The fact that so little has been made of it is just further testament to this team’s ability to shrug of adversity and keep on winning.
Ominously, for others, Liverpool will return from their winter break with a squad in the healthiest shape its been in months. Both Lovren and Matip are back, Keita played a part in the Southampton win last week, and Milner and Mane could well return for the Norwich game next weekend. It’s just what Klopp needs as a potentially historic season enters the home stretch.
There may yet be more adversity along the way – perhaps even beyond VAR and injuries – as Liverpool chase that elusive title and continue the defence of their European crown, but as they’ve shown time and again, they are more than up to the task.
Ultimate triumph beckons in May.