Should Liverpool go on to win the Premier League this season, it will be interesting to see quite how this title bid comes to be remembered.
History always has a knack of recalling things slightly differently; sometimes that is due to the benefits of hindsight, retrospect and new information, but often its our ingrained desire for simplified, romantic narratives taking precedent over the accuracy of the nitty gritty. Constant inconsistencies and permutations are just too inconvenient to digest and retell. It’s much easier to shape events and themes around basic stories we can all follow.
So there’s every chance this Liverpool team will come to be misremembered, because of our preconceptions of Klopp’s side going into this season. The Reds didn’t quite match Manchester City for goals last term but going forward – and especially in the Champions League – they were decisively rampant. Mohamed Salah set a new record for Premier League goals in a single season, Sadio Mane netted 20 times and Roberto Firmino seemed to be redefining the role of a centre-forward in a modern 4-3-3.
That’s how we like to think about this Liverpool side – an unrelenting attacking force spearheaded by a world-class front three, perhaps the best front three around in terms of quality and compatibility. But Liverpool’s season hasn’t been built around the supreme performances of their forwards; vast improvements at the other end of the pitch have taken them to the table’s summit with only 11 games left to go.
Klopp would argue that his teams defend from the front, and that Firmino particularly is as important out of possession as any of his centre-halves. But the numbers are telling – by this point last season, Liverpool had scored six more goals in the Premier League, and across all competitions the front three had netted 65 times. This term, their combined tally is just 44 (stats worked out via various pages on Transfermarkt).
Sunday’s Northwest derby seemed to capture the rebalancing of which players Liverpool are suddenly so dependent on in a microcosm. Manchester United – albeit a Manchester United drastically depleted by injuries within the first half an hour – could barely get past the industrious Jordan Henderson and Fabinho in midfield to test the back four. But at the other end of the pitch, the front three that were so fearsome last season couldn’t find a moment of individual brilliance between them.
Of course, there are important caveats. Firmino withdrew through injury early on, so this was by no means Liverpool’s attack at its best. Likewise, due to the gravity of the situation, Klopp picked his sturdiest midfield, which somewhat limited the flow of supply into Salah and Mane. Nonetheless, you feel that the front three of last season, or at least the Salah of last season, would have twisted a few defenders inside out to pop up with a winning goal. Instead, both of Liverpool’s widemen produced their worst performances of the campaign.
And it inevitably highlights the contradiction behind Liverpool’s title bid; rather than the scintillating attacking football of 2017/18, defensive resilience and a new-found grit has got them through games.
But that isn’t how we’d like to remember them – historically, both Liverpool and Klopp are synonymous with excitement, entertainment, ambition and flair. The resident result-grinders, at least in the context of the Premier League title, are Chelsea, a club Liverpool are supposed to be the antithesis of. The idea of Liverpool winning the title ugly just doesn’t fit into our preconceptions and historic assumptions.
Perhaps the phrase ugly is a little overzealous, but Liverpool have certainly been a less beautiful beast than last season – immovable rather than irresistible. History, however, will unlikely remember them in that way; the two campaigns will be fused together, a brush of romanticism will be applied and while the impact of Liverpool’s defensive recruits over the last year will of course be acknowledged – chiefly Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson – the relentless nature of the front three will be in the forefront of our minds.
Thing is, they just haven’t been quite so relentless this time around, when history’s spotlight is firmly set on them. And history, eventually, will only recall what we want it to recall – a Liverpool side that always thrilled, rather than one that relied on being almost impenetrable.