Is it too early to get excited about Liverpool winning the Premier League? It’s hard not to get carried away by the tantalizing thought that they are on the verge of breaking what will be, by the end of the season in May, a 27-year title drought.
Jurgen Klopp’s team are exciting, with a bewilderingly brilliant attack. Their movement and appetite for work are spellbinding and in Philippe Coutinho they have a forward who is emerging as a genuine top-class attacking talent.
On the Kop the craving to win the Premier League verges on compulsive. It is unfathomable that a club of Liverpool’s size and status has not claimed the title since 1990. Especially since the Reds had dominated the top flight, winning the league 11 times in the previous 18 seasons before their last success.
Back in the glory years they used to scoff at rivals who started thinking about titles in the autumn. “You don’t win trophies in November,” was a mantra that emanated from Anfield. They would do well to remember this. There have been better starts to the season that have petered out in the proving grounds of winter and spring.
The closest parallel comes from Liverpool’s most loathed rivals, Manchester United, another club who inexplicably spent 26 years without winning the league. In 1985, United began the season like a steam train. They opened the campaign with a 10-game winning run and reached the second week in November with a record of 13 victories and two draws that put them 10 points clear at the top of the table.
United appeared unbeatable. They were powered by Bryan Robson, England’s best player, whose pace and aggression were complemented by Gordon Strachan’s craft and intelligence. Up front Mark Hughes gave them a bristling, brutal attacking threat. On the morning of Nov. 9, their 16th league match, a tabloid paper led with a back-page headline that said: “Give it to them now.” The title, it seemed, was destined for Old Trafford at last.
That afternoon, United went to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday and were beaten 1-0. They would eventually finish fourth, 12 points behind Liverpool.
There were many factors in the collapse. Injuries to Robson deprived United of their best player, they ran out of steam in the depths of winter and the weight of expectation from the media and the Stretford End was growing with every season that the club failed to top the division. It would be another seven years before United ended their long run without a title.
It may seem like ancient history but the lessons for Liverpool are clear. There are so many things that can go wrong between November and May that it is foolhardy to think beyond the next three points.
Klopp knows this. He is already playing down the possibilities of winning the Premier League. Liverpool are a work in progress, an uplifting, thrilling work but nevertheless a team still in transition.
The manager has only had the benefit of one pre-season with his squad and it has proved significantly more productive that anticipated. Klopp has imbued his principles in the players and, at least going forward, has honed an impressive unit.
His forays into the summer transfer market were relatively conservative but judicious. The scattergun approach to player recruitment of recent seasons has been replaced by a far more focused process with the 49-year-old having the ultimate control.
Klopp’s ability to get the right blend out of an unbalanced squad has been remarkable. It has earned Michael Edwards a promotion to the newly created position of sporting director.
Edwards is a lucky man. Under previous manager Brendan Rodgers, owners Fenway Sports Group believed their transfer policy, which was shaped by the new sporting director, was correct and the issue was a matter of management.
Klopp appears to have proved this. One of the world’s best managers, he has contrived to get some of the players at his disposal performing to unanticipated heights. Yet to win the title he needs three or four new additions. Another summer of clever buying will put Liverpool much closer to where they need to be.
To win the Premier League Liverpool need to stay free of injuries. The absence of Coutinho, Roberto Firmino or Adam Lallana would affect the swarming attacking play that has left opponents shellshocked. Sadio Mane needs to stay healthy, too, and the loss of the Senegalese to the African Cup of Nations this winter will leave a gap in the side. Mane’s pace and thrust have given his teammates space in which to thrive.
The biggest concerns are at the back. Clearly, if Lucas Leiva is forced to fill in too often at centre-back it will be a problem. On the other hand, James Milner has performed brilliantly at left-back, adding intelligence and leadership to the back four. It will take a while for Loris Karius to settle in the Premier League but the 23-year-old goalkeeper should learn quickly. Clean sheets will likely be rare for Liverpool but the relentless attack will render many opposition goals meaningless.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic at Anfield. The Klopp revolution is way ahead of schedule. Indeed, at this rate of progress, the manager will win the Premier League with Liverpool. It may not be this season, but being on top of the table is uplifting enough for the moment.
Even if it is only November.
Mourinho wrong in calling out Smalling, Shaw
It’s hard to know what is going through Jose Mourinho’s mind. Calling out Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw for withdrawing from Manchester United’s victory over Swansea City was harsh. Both have been receiving pain-killing injections to play. The impact in the dressing room will extend far wider than the two players who were criticized.
The United squad are already questioning their manager’s level of engagement in training and embarrassing those who have played through pain will raise more eyebrows.
At least this time Mourinho has picked on defenders. Just over a year ago in his final weeks in charge of Chelsea, he was publicly doubting the commitment of Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s best player. It was always going to rebound on Mourinho. Smalling and Shaw are much easier targets.
Even so, sometimes it’s hard to believe the United manager has 16 years of experience in the dugout and a clutch of trophies that include two Champions Leagues. He has taken to saying and doing things that even a rookie coach would avoid. It is hard to see things ending well at Old Trafford if it carries on like this.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.