Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! As Liverpool continue to set the Premier League alight, we ask writers Kieran Connell and Matt Blake if the Reds can go all the way this year.
YES! They’re in it to win it
“The red juggernaut is on the move, and it’s going to take some stopping” – Dr Kieran Connell, journalist and Liverpool fan
The Klopp effect
He celebrates goals so hard his glasses fall off. He gives his players piggybacks. If you’re honest, you probably wish Jürgen Klopp was managing your team. Along with his touchline antics, Klopp is also a man with a plan. In just twelve months he’s transformed Liverpool into a ruthless attacking machine, dosed up to the eyeballs with vim and verve, and his time at Dortmund showed he knows exactly what it takes to guide an underdog to the title. He is a father to his players, a teacher, a spiritual leader. Last season was about laying the foundations. This year, Klopp’s taking the Kop back to the top.
No Europe, no problem
In 2013-14, when Liverpool came within a Steven Gerrard slip of winning their first title in the Premier League era, they had the benefit of no European distractions. No energy-sapping travel, no glamour ties that made an away clash with Stoke barely worth getting out of bed for. This season, Liverpool are in the same position. Like Leicester City last year, every league match is a final. Liverpool already have momentum following impressive wins against Arsenal, Chelsea and Leicester. The red juggernaut is on the move, and it’s going to take some stopping.
Yes, you read that right. James Milner, owner of the world’s most sensible haircut and a player whose boringness is celebrated by a Twitter parody account (@BoringMilner). Not only is he one of just two members of Liverpool's current squad who knows what it takes to win the Premier League (he did it twice with Manchester City, Daniel Sturridge did it with Chelsea), but he also epitomises this side’s willingness to put the team before the player. Asked to fill in at left back this season, Milner has efficiently got on with the job and even bagged a couple of goals. Klopp likes teams that are greater than the sum of their individual parts. It worked for him in the past. And it’s working for him again.
If this Liverpool side does have star quality, it’s to be found in their Brazilian duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. If Coutinho embodies everything we love about Brazilian footballers – tricks, flicks, and 30-yard screamers – Firmino’s tireless work ethic and willingness to press means that he is the archetypal Klopp footballer. The pair’s movement and understanding makes them a nightmare for opposition defences. Stopping one means that you make space for the other. Stopping both? That's about as likely as a James Milner mohawk.
Anfield’s capacity has been expanded by more than 8,000 this season. It’s contributed to a sense of belief around the club, which had evaporated by the end of Brendan Rodgers’ reign – maybe because of that slip, or maybe because someone thought it would be a good idea to replace Luis Suárez with Mario Balotelli. At Liverpool, harnessing the power of the Kop is half the battle. The fans have started to believe again and under Klopp’s guidance there is only one direction Liverpool are headed: on the road to Premier League glory.
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NO! They’ll run out of steam
“Liverpool will need more than a fighting spirit to become kings of this jungle” – Matt Blake, sports writer, Virgin Media
Natural order is restored
Leicester’s magic last season masked a mediocre Premier League elsewhere. Not one of the “big teams” lived up to their price tag, instead they floundered, dawdled or disintegrated altogether. This season, however, feels different. Under Mourinho, Manchester United have bulked up, Man City look slick and fluent, and Chelsea actually seem capable of scoring more than they concede in a game. The silverbacks have reclaimed the troop; natural order is restored. Liverpool will need more than just a fighting spirit to become kings of this jungle.
Scoring’s not the concern for Liverpool – they’ve already bagged 18 goals in seven games. But they have been leaky at the back, conceding ten goals – more than all of their title rivals. More worrying still, they haven’t kept a single clean sheet in the league so far (even Middlesbrough have kept one). To win this tournament, you need a watertight defence. Liverpool's is dripping.
Henderson's the key
Jordan Henderson has become the linchpin of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. His lunging tackles and Pirlo-esque passes over the top have cemented him into the team’s campaign hopes this season. He’s also Liverpool’s most prolific tackler (19 so far) and made more successful passes than anyone in the league (508). The trouble is, his legs seem almost as fragile as a Roy Keane smile. At 26, he is middle-aged for a footballer and the joints may just be starting to creak. Last season, for example, injuries sidelined him for a total of 17 Premier League games. If they are going to grout those cracks in that defensive wall, he must stay fit. It’s a massive ask.
Klopp's too rigid
Bouncing up and down the touchline like an enormous set of bristly wind-up chatter teeth in specs, Jürgen Klopp has inspired a far more dynamic style than that of managers past. But he is unwilling or unable to adapt to the vicissitudes of a difficult game. Never was this more evident than in the Reds' 2-0 loss to Burnley in August. Liverpool dominated, but couldn't score. Games like that are about finding a way to win. I fear Klopp has only one way. His substitutions seldom change things, just replenish what's there. Moreover, when his hard-running players grow tired after Christmas, can he squeeze out a final push to the end? I'm not sure he has the tactical range.
Liverpool melt under heat
Anfield is undeniably home to some of the most passionate fans in world football. But such fierce dedication can come at a price. After 26 years without a domestic title, the pressure to win is immense. The Reds have been impressive this season, but can they hold it up for another 31 games? Since their UEFA Champions League final defeat to Milan in 2007, Liverpool have become specialists in melting under heat, losing last season’s Europa League final to Sevilla, the 2015 FA Cup semi-final to Aston Villa and all but handing the Premier League title to Manchester City after losing to Chelsea in 2014. History speaks. If they are to win now, they must make a friend of pressure. It can be their enemy no more.
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