WE'VE concluded the first month of the new Premier League season and after Liverpool's confident victory over Arsenal last Monday it's hard to tell where last season ended and this season picked up.
I feared the short turn around and lack of fans would see the champions struggle to find the form that won them the title for the first time in 30 years. But if anything, the Merseysiders may look a better prospect after the first round of games of the new campaign. They certainly upped their performance from when the two sides met in the Community Shield.
Positive Covid-19 diagnosis aside, the arrival of Thiago Alcântara and Diogo Jota seems to have reinvigorated the squad who have since put in some of their best performances as a team in their victories over Chelsea and the Gunners.
After the Arsenal game, much was made of the ‘exchange’ between Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, when the Corkman raised the ire of the German by pointing out that despite Liverpool performing so well, some aspects of their play was, "sloppy". Hearing this, Klopp was clearly annoyed by any such suggestion, quickly querying which game the former Man United star had been watching?
Klopp's irritation was understandable when one looks at some of the stats from the game. Liverpool dominated the possession, shots, passes, and crosses completed. But most striking of all was the physical domination the side imposed on the Londoners. Their fitness and work ethic, in conjunction with the side’s high pressing game, ensured the victory in impressive style.
But in saying that, Keane’s analysis was not wrong either. He accepted Liverpool’s brilliance in their three wins from three games but was also right in noting aspects of Liverpool’s tactics that leave them open to sloppy errors. Their opening game against newly-promoted Leeds saw them struggle to kill off the game as frailties in defence saw the Yorkshire side come back at Liverpool three times. Only a brilliant penalty save from keeper Allison stopped Chelsea from getting back in the game. And Arsenal’s early lead was more down to Andy Robertson fluffed clearance than anything Lacazette did in scoring it.
Klopp rightly recognises the brilliance of his players’ pressing prowess but probably knows well that his tactics will always leave them open to counterattack or a well-placed pass over the last line of defence. With his full-backs usually up in the opponent's box, it heap pressure on keeping a disciplined high line from the centre backs to spring the off-side trap yet still be close enough to track the break should they make it through. It explains why the acquisition of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson has been generally recognised as a key component in Liverpool’s successful championship run.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta admitted as much after the game, pointing out how impressed he was with van Dijk closing down an attack and then returning a pass 60-yards up the field to the chest of a forward.
Liverpool pressing ideology, like that of fellow proponents Bayern Munich, is a bit of a high-wire balancing act. When it works it a spectacle of breath-taking speed and beauty and capable of beating any side in the world. If it has an off day, against a quality side of equal ability, it is capable of embarrassing defeats exemplified by large margin losses to Man City in recent years.
But in most situations, as it was in Monday, Liverpool know that even they go behind to an opponent their skill, speed, and resourcefulness in the pressing game is likely to bring them the result in the end, as most sides simply cannot keep up with them.
Of course, it is too early to guarantee Liverpool’s ongoing success and the likes of Man City, Man United and Leicester will be in the hunt when it comes down to it. However, City, United and Wolves' long run in Europe last season, short break, and no pre-season has already disadvantaged some of Liverpool’s main competitors for the title, as they struggled to nail-down early results. They will get up to speed, in time, but that time will offer Liverpool the chance to open up an early lead whether they are sloppy or not.