The joke last season was that if Liverpool could only play teams in the top six, they’d win the league at a canter.
This season the Reds’ record against the top sides has been less impressive than it was in the past, but we’ve recently seen a glimpse of some proof that they may have fallen back into that familiar pattern.
Liverpool sit in fourth place and have only lost once in the Premier League since they were humbled at Wembley in October. Indeed, that’s their only defeat of the season against a side outside of the top six. But it was the manner of that one defeat which is alarming, and their subsequent loss in the FA Cup a week later, too.
There’s something very odd about Jurgen Klopp’s side, who can outplay Manchester City in masterclass culminating in a blazing few minutes of frenetic improvement – like unwrapping a mushroom in Mario Kart – only to see that lead almost evaporate before the end of the game. And then, as if to emphasise the fall from grace, they went and lost to Swansea the very next game, before being dumped out of the cup this weekend at home to West Bromwich Albion despite taking the lead in the fifth minute.
It presents an obvious question, though: how come Liverpool can’t beat teams who don’t play like they do?
The problem is well-known: Liverpool struggle against teams who sit deep and invite pressure, but they have the ability to tear apart any team who are open and come at them. Even with Philippe Coutinho, one of the most creative players in world football, in their side they would still struggle in attack in those games. Without him, they are even less suited to such a game. On the other hand, despite their clear defensive frailties, they could pick apart Manchester City more times than the runaway leaders could do to them.
On Tuesday, Klopp’s side will travel to Huddersfield, though, and it’s a game which might not suit them given their recent struggles.
Normally when the managers are good friends and former colleagues, you’d expect the pre-match talk to be about how the smaller team’s manager might know the bigger one well enough to pull off an upset. On this occasion, you might have expected the hard-pressive Wagner to be bullish about such a game, too. Instead, though, the evidence we have – see, for example, the Terriers’ game against Manchester City at the John Smith’s Stadium in November – suggests that Huddersfield may well approach the game in the same way they and Newcastle approached games against the league leaders.
City could overcome it, though, so why should we worry about Liverpool?
It’s a question which has been debated at length and will continue to be: because it continues to happen and because signing Virgil van Dijk hasn’t been the overnight fix that some thought it was going to be. But the problem for Klopp is that Premier League football has become so binary. There are the haves, who mostly play expansive football, and the have-nots who, on the whole, don’t.
In the top division it’s becoming more and more pronounced. But that’s a huge problem for Liverpool. There are fewer haves than have-nots. And if the Reds can beat the haves, that’s all well and good. But lose to the have-nots, and you’ll never win the league.
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