Let’s get this out of the way: Manchester City is going to win the English Premier League. It is the class of English soccer, and the end of its unbeaten streak doesn’t change that.
With that said, what a performance from Liverpool. The Reds blitzed City over a nine-minute stretch during the second half of their showdown last Sunday at Anfield, scoring three goals in that span to set the stage for a monumental 4-3 victory, which ended City’s run at “Invincible” status. It was Liverpool’s best win since Jurgen Klopp took over in 2015.
And it wasn’t just the opponent that made the win so grand. It was the circumstances. Only days before, Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho, the club’s talisman going on three years, to Barcelona. Without him, Liverpool’s Fab Four — Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane — shrunk to a Fab Three, which doesn’t have quite the same ring. There was a line of thinking that Coutinho-less Liverpool would see a dearth of creativity and dynamism in the center of the pitch and take a step back in quality. That notion has since been dismissed.
The loss of Coutinho would spell trouble at many clubs, even those like Liverpool with vast resources at their disposal. But Klopp has ushered out his star man — adding a wad of cash to the transfer coffers in the process — without losing a step. Klopp responded with the best win in the Premier League this season, maybe in many seasons, showing Liverpool has enough collective talent to replace a player as good as Coutinho without losing its edge. Between that talent becoming increasingly efficient in Klopp’s high-energy system and that system becoming increasingly ingrained in the club culture, the Reds are setting themselves up for another run among the best in the world
The sting of losing Coutinho was blunted by the fact that Liverpool has a ready-made replacement and arguably better player already in its ranks. Salah has been sensational since transferring to the Merseyside over the summer. The Egyptian attacker has racked up a whopping 23 goals in all competitions for Liverpool a bit more than halfway through the campaign, 18 of which were scored in the Premier League. He also scored what would ultimately be the game-winner against Manchester City in stunning fashion:
INCREDIBLE Mo Salah for @LFC!
– NBCSN (@NBCSN) January 14, 2018
If you polled Liverpool fans, I think most would take Salah over Coutinho. Coutinho was brilliant in his time at Anfield, but he never had a stretch like Salah’s had since joining the Reds. Salah has the potential to be among the best in the world and mentioned with names like Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. A club with the ambition of Liverpool needs a player like that to reach the heights its fans believes it should reach.
But Salah is far from the only weapon Liverpool has on offer. The other members of that new Fab Three, Mane and Firmino, netted goals against Manchester City. So did Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who already looks more comfortable in Klopp’s set-up than he ever did in Arsene Wenger’s archaic system at Arsenal.
Klopp’s set-up played a major role in the win over City, and it will play a major role in big matches ahead. The system is predicated on relentless pressing, working together and corralling opponents into places they don’t want to be. To do that, stamina and teamwork are a must, so those are attributes Klopp drills into his players. As it so happens, stamina and teamwork are attributes that will serve any player well, in any system. Even when the game plan isn’t working, the Reds can still hang their hats on their stamina and teamwork. When the plan is working, you get results like a 4-3 victory over a previously undefeated Manchester City.
Of course, this is still not Liverpool’s year. There will be no catching City in the Premier League, and the Champions League is one of the most difficult tournaments in the world to win. (Although Liverpool’s stamina should serve it well in the two-leg tilts of the UCL knockout round.) This team still has weaknesses. But there are ways to improve Liverpool’s outlook in both the short and long terms
Short term, it must learn how to close games, which begins on the defensive end. City isn’t the first team to stage a late comeback against the Reds this season. In the past few weeks, the Reds gave up late goals to Burnley and Everton that would have led to poor results if not for late heroics. The record transfer of Virgil Van Dijk, who wasn’t in action against City, should help with that. He adds some much needed steel to the defense and actually scored the game-winner against Everton in his first appearance.
In the long term, more depth is needed, as David Usher laid out in a recent post for ESPN FC. Usher notes one of the factors that have led to Liverpool’s recent success — well-conditioned players who understand Klopp’s system — are hard to come by. Liverpool’s first 11, as well as its top subs, can run for days. But new players will have to get their fitness up and learn the Klopp system. That takes time, so it behooves Liverpool to start looking for more backups and training them now.
Even though there are needs that must be addressed, the core is there to lead Liverpool to the most successful stint the club has seen in decades. With Arsenal in a down period and Tottenham potentially selling its best assets in the next few years, a spot is open among the title contenders — City, Manchester United and Chelsea. The time may not be now for Liverpool, but it’s coming soon.
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Cy Brown writes about football, golf, soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CEPBrown.