With a comprehensive pre-season under their belts it was expected that Liverpool would start well this season and that’s certainly been the case only dropping two points from their opening seven games – and those coming away at Stamford Bridge.
They go into this Sunday’s humdinger against Manchester City joint top and in fine fettle and this despite their recent EFL Cup exit and a lacklustre Champions League reverse in Naples. A victory at Anfield and the narrative will be set: that the Reds are mounting a serious title challenge and have a very real chance of finally being crowned Premier League champions.
Unsurprisingly, amidst this impressive romp down the opening straight their ferocious front three have been scoring for fun. Having bagged 57 league goals between them last season, already Salah, Mane and Firmino have amassed eight through August and September this campaign. Encouragingly this time out they are also being ably assisted from the bench with Daniel Sturridge chipping in with four across all competitions.
With the empirical knowledge that the trio can sustain this form throughout a campaign it is a strike-rate that should prompt fear in their immediate rivals and especially given that their superstar Egyptian has to this point been a pale imitation of his usual self.
Yet what should really be unnerving City, Chelsea and the rest is that nobody is particularly talking about Liverpool’s Fab Three this term. Their impact is now established and expected; their threat almost taken for granted. What is grabbing the attention is something that was almost unimaginable during Jurgen Klopp’s first two and a half years on Merseyside and that is their solidity at the back.
Over the course of 630 minutes – with 360 of those away from their fortress – Liverpool have only conceded on three occasions with one of those an individual error from their keeper that is unlikely to ever be replicated again. At this stage last year their back-line had been breached twelve times; the year before ten times.
In 2013/14 under Brendan Rodgers, when the Reds came within a whisker of securing a famous title, they shipped in 50 goals, the second worst return from the top eight that season. This time out, should they continue in the same miserly mind-set they will equal the record set by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2005 for fewest conceded.
What this all amounts to is the distinct possibility of a team known for their rip-roaring attacking relish and relentless gegenpressing pulling off their greatest achievement through a facet traditionally considered their biggest flaw. This would be the footballing equivalent of Lee Westwood winning a major due to his putting or Novak Djokovic storming to Wimbledon success by prioritising his net play. This would be something truly quite remarkable.
The transformation began in earnest with the capture of Virgil Van Dijk back in January and from the get-go his admonishment of colleagues for haphazard positioning or a failure to clear made it evident there was now a totem leader around which Klopp could build.
The fine form of Andrew Robertson down the left additionally solved a long-term problem area for Liverpool, with the Scot offering as much security out of possession as flying impetus when attacking. The emergence of local-boy Trent Alexander-Arnold was a huge plus too and the teenager’s performances grew in prominence as the season progressed.
It is fitting though that these singular players are highlighted here because even though Liverpool’s defensive displays improved immeasurably for the second half of last term this is still what their back five consisted of: individuals. And frankly, from the days of Rodgers onward the Reds could always claim to have extremely talented defenders capable of looking impregnable on their day.
What they didn’t have was a unit and what all units are forged on is a centre-back pairing blessed with a mutual understanding of the other’s game and ideally qualities that complement the other.
This is why it could be claimed that the long awaited repositioning of Joe Gomez into the heart of Liverpool’s rear-guard has been a more substantial factor in their new-found parsimony than even the immediate impact of their summer purchase Allison. Of course the Brazilian has been a significant upgrade on Karius and Mignolet. Of course he has been exceptional and helped to exorcise the ghost of Kiev.
But finally now Liverpool has a base from which to work from; a partnership that affords them balance and solidity where previously a gap, gaffe or example of poor judgement was only a through-ball away.
Naturally money can be brought into the discussion because spending £142m on two players is hardly a subtle way to address a concern. That though would overlook the pittance spent on Robertson, and their patience with Gomez having brought him north from Charlton at 18 years of age.
That would discount the nurturing of their home-grown international Alexander-Arnold and dismiss too the detailed coaching against reputation of Klopp to construct a back five that is consistently nullifying the best that the Premier League can throw at it.
Most of all, it would be churlish considering the quantum leap that has collectively been taken.
Should Liverpool go all the way and lift the trophy in May that would be an outstanding achievement on its own merit. But it would also be incredibly done against type.