It isn’t a sight you see too often. One of the best teams in the world—some would say the best—defending with 10 players in the penalty box, frantically heading, hoofing and shinning a barrage of balls pumped into the box by their opponents. You’d have been forgiven for thinking that the reigning champions of England, Manchester City, had turned into Stoke City, renowned for their “defence-uber-alles" approach. But, as the reigning champions portrayed against Liverpool, sometimes you have to play inelegant football to get the points. At the final whistle on 3 January, as City looked relieved with their 2-1 victory and Liverpool looked crestfallen, the 2018-19 Premier League season had taken a fascinating turn.
Liverpool remain the league leaders (on 54 points), but their lead has been cut down to four points. Had they won, this lead could’ve been an insurmountable 10 points. Both City (on 50 points), and third-placed Tottenham (on 48) now have reasons to hope that Liverpool can be pipped to the post over the remaining 17 games.
The winter festive season in the Premier League is renowned for the sheer number of matches that clubs have to play. Through December, Liverpool have been in imperious—and according to some pundits, title-winning—form, winning all of their seven games, scoring 22 goals and letting in just three. During this same period, Manchester City’s title defence had a serious wobble: they lost to Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Leicester City. At the beginning of December, they had a four-point lead over Liverpool and were sitting pretty at the top of the table. By the end of December, Liverpool were on top, with a seven-point gap. Tottenham did well in the same period, but a shock defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers brought their title ambitions down to earth.
However, Manchester City’s win over Liverpool changes the picture somewhat, and now it’s Liverpool’s nerve and concentration that will be tested. The most successful team in England has not won the league since 1990, and both of their recent tilts at the Premier League, in 2008-09 and 2013-14, have ended traumatically. In the aftermath of both their second-place finishes, Liverpool have gone on a downward spiral, with their best players leaving and the club having to endure seasons of mid-table mediocrity. But in neither of those two seasons has Liverpool looked this formidable. In 2008-09, the club had some of the world’s best central midfields in Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano functioning at their peak, along with a striker as lethal as Fernando Torres. Yet, that year, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side had a better defence. Liverpool only lost three games that season, but drew far too many. Brendan Rodgers’ 2013-14 side had strikers Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge in the forms of their lives, but a ridiculous defence that let in 50 goals saw them fall short again, this time to Manchester City. So Liverpool have been contenders before, but they wouldn’t want a repeat of those seasons.
This year, however, Jürgen Klopp has a much more balanced side. They already had one of the best strike teams in the world in forwards Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Crucially, they have a miserly defence as well, marshalled by goalkeeper Allison and centre-half Virgil van Dijk. They’ve let in a mere 10 goals all year so far, and till the defeat to City, they’d been on an unbeaten run. The midfield remains a bit lopsided, made up of energetic enforcers who don’t necessarily add much creativity. But increasingly, it seems that this is the best chance Liverpool have had in a long while to end their 27-year drought. The League remains theirs to lose and the question now is whether they have the nerve. City, who won the League at a canter last year, have the requisite title-winning experience and know how to pace themselves over an entire season. Liverpool remains a confident team, and while on a high, they can blow anyone away. Klopp’s job now is to ensure that doubts don’t creep in.