Are Liverpool really ready to reclaim the Premier League crown they won by 18 points in the dark days of COVID in 2020? Saturday’s “summit conference” away to leaders Manchester City is the acid test of whether they are contenders or pretenders.
Jurgen Klopp’s “mentality monsters” turned into comparative midgets last season when finishing fifth, but the team the manager christened his “Liverpool Mark 2.0” have been rebuilt into a dangerous outfit, scoring in every game this season. City’s thrilling 4-4 draw at Chelsea last time out allowed Liverpool to move within a single point of the top with a 3-0 win over Brentford, and this is as close as they have been all season, enough to set pulses racing in the red half of Merseyside.
That Stamford Bridge blockbuster underlined again how City, for all their class and aura of invincibility, can be vulnerable if opposition teams are bold enough and good enough to have a go at them. Remember how Wolves beat them at Molineux in September by congesting the half-spaces and relying on the fast breaks of Pedro Neto and Matheus Cunha to pull off a surprise 2-1 win? Might that be the template for Liverpool? Arsenal also managed to beat the European champions, albeit in a tighter affair in which City for once looked utterly punchless.
This is a different Liverpool to the title-winning team, which profited greatly from the number of goals created by the superb raids and deliveries of fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, for the fabled striking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané.
Of course, Salah is still in lethal form. His two goals against Brentford in the last round of matches lifted him to 200 in his English career. But Mane and Firmino have been replaced by the improving — but still erratic — Darwin Núñez, Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota (four goals in his last five league games), and the stylish Dutch player Cody Gakpo, who can also put in a shift in midfield.
The speed of Nunez, a scorer in Uruguay‘s great win in Argentina, might be a particular threat at the Etihad. It is in the engine room that this re-invented Liverpool have changed most. The old guard of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Gini Wijnaldum provided a hard-working solid box-to-box unit as their team lifted the title, with Henderson being voted Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers Association, a coveted award dating back to Stanley Matthews in 1948.
The latest midfield model has new signings Alexis Mac Allister, a visionary passer in Argentina’s World Cup win, and Dominik Szoboszlai, the poster boy of Hungarian football who has astounded colleagues with his fitness and talent in a stellar start to his Anfield career. Ryan Gravenberch, cold-shouldered at Bayern Munich, is taking the eye as well. When everyone is fit, Klopp can also call on the veteran Thiago, under-rated Curtis Jones, Wataru Endo of Japan, the promising Harvey Elliott, and Stefan Bajcetic, who made such a good impression last season. It is an embarrassment of riches in a key area.
It could be argued that this revolutionised midfield has made Klopp’s team more clever, crafty and creative, and less reliant on the fast raids of the two fullbacks. Against that, do the new brigade offer quite the same shield to be the back four? Probably not.
Mac Allister has often been asked to play the No. 6 holding role, which is a change from the more advanced beat he occupied previously in his career. Might he be left on the bench at City after playing and flying back from the huge Brazil vs. Argentina clash only three days prior to the Etihad assignment? Endo, a natural defensive midfield type, could get the vital job of sitting in front and protecting the back four.
Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson of Brazil and City’s Julián Álvarez of Argentina are also rushing back from that big South American clash. Indeed, 28 players from the two squads have been on international duty, as this 12:30pm Saturday lunchtime kickoff is hardly ideal for either manager (don’t get Jurgen Klopp started on that subject). Selections might well be influenced by who is deemed fit and fresh enough to play. City’s Erling Haaland and Éderson missed recent international games with injuries, though it would be no surprise if they are all declared fit for such a key match. (Rodri was also thought to be hurt, but did appear in Spain‘s second game over break.)
To pass this big test of their credentials, Liverpool have to do what no other team has managed at the Etihad in this calendar year: avoid defeat. City have brushed aside all comers on their home ground since Everton earned a valuable point there on New Year’s Eve. That is 23 successive home victories.
The fixture has become huge and feisty. Liverpool have not won away to City in the Premier League since a 4-1 triumph in 2015 only a month after Klopp was appointed. At the time, many said it was the day he “really arrived,” but it was so long ago that Martin Skrtel was among the scorers and the likes of Samir Nasri and Jesús Navas were in a City team managed by Manuel Pellegrini.
Since then, the results of the City vs. Liverpool league games at the Etihad have read (City scores first) 5-0, 1-1, 2-1, 4-0, 1-1, 2-1, and 4-1 last season. You can always argue that was then, this is now and all trends are there to be broken, but those results underline how hard it is to win away to Manchester City. Brentford were the last team to do it, by-passing the City press with long balls and cashing in with two goals from Ivan Toney.
Klopp will know his team, who are boasting a 100% record at Anfield, need to improve away from home, where they have not often impressed, particularly in the recent trip to Luton where only a late Luis Diaz equaliser saved their blushes. The defence looked shaky in the 2-2 draw at Brighton, too.
So it might come down to this — is this new Liverpool resilient enough to withstand the kind of attacking menace which City produce most weeks at home? Or can Liverpool find holes in the City defence, as Chelsea did a fortnight ago?
The answers to those two questions will tell us plenty about whether “Liverpool Mark 2 ” can repeat the exploits of their original stars.