Liverpool have lost one Premier League game this season. For some, though, that is not good enough.
The predictable and tiresome narrative that emerged following Sunday’s goalless draw with Everton was that Jurgen Klopp’s side have thrown away their chance of the title – “bottled it”, to use the favoured terminology.
The reality is very different. Away from the frenzied and reactionary world of Twitter, Liverpool remain very much in the title race. They are, with nine games still to play, a point behind Manchester City. And they have now come through all of their most difficult away trips of the season.
There is still plenty to be positive about, despite the apparent need in modern day football to treat every slight blip as a catastrophe. It is still close at the top and Liverpool have proven themselves capable of challenging City all the way.
If Liverpool do not win the league, it should not be considered a disaster. Yes, the Reds’ lead over City did at one point suggest they were strong favourites. But Pep Guardiola’s side – a team that managed 100 points last season – are perhaps the best in the division’s history. Losing out to them would not be shameful.
It should be remembered, too, that Liverpool finished fourth last season, on 75 points. That is only five more than they have already this campaign.
Regardless of where they finish this season, their progress under Klopp has been remarkable.
Of course, viewing such a situation rationally and with nuance is not common in the Premier League. Tottenham, who have made huge strides under Mauricio Pochettino, are more often derided for not winning trophies than they are praised for their rapid development.
Liverpool will inevitably be treated the same way. If Klopp’s side finish with more than 90 points this season – which they are well on course to do – but miss out to City, they will be mocked, not commended.
— James Milner (@JamesMilner) March 4, 2019
In most other Premier League seasons, Liverpool would be out of sight at the top by now. That they are not is a testament to Guardiola’s City team, one with far greater resources and squad depth than Klopp has at his disposal.
Liverpool have dropped points in recent weeks, drawing against Leicester, Manchester United and Everton at a raucous Goodison Park on Sunday. After each of these results there has been vocal criticism. But that is only because expectation has risen so exponentially.
Liverpool cannot be expected to win every game. The consistency with which they have played so far this season has given them a chance, but they have always been the underdogs.
Often, too, the performance of the opposition is ignored. Everton played their part in a feisty, scrappy Merseyside derby on Sunday, but the focus was solely on Liverpool’s deficiencies, their inability to find a winning goal. As a frustrated Klopp said after the game, “we don’t play PlayStation”.
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If Liverpool do not win the Premier League, it will not be because they weren’t good enough, not because they lost their nerve. It will be because Manchester City were even better. It is a battle between two excellent teams, and one must miss out.
Liverpool this season have conceded an xG per game of 0.84. They have let in just 15 goals in 29 games. At the other end of the pitch, they have averaged an xG per 90 of 1.92. Only City, who continue to perform at a relentlessly high level, can match these statistics.
For Liverpool, it is unfortunate that their best season in many years has come at a time when Guardiola and City are so dominant. That they have been able to sustain a title challenge at all is impressive.
Again, though, it will not be viewed like this if Liverpool fall short. It will be seen as a failure, in the same way that a hard-fought draw at Goodison Park was seen as a calamity.
The problems Liverpool have had over the last few weeks – Salah’s dip in form, a lack of depth in defence – have been so conspicuous because City will never have similar issues. If Leroy Sane is off his game, Riyad Mahrez can slot in to the team. If John Stones picks up an injury, Vincent Kompany is there to replace him.
Some perspective, then, is required when assessing Liverpool’s season. They were never expected to overcome this City team and that they are still very much capable of doing so is deserving of the highest praise.
Perhaps, for once, the focus should be on what Liverpool have done well this season, not on their shortcomings. And perhaps everyone should wait until the gap at the top is larger than one point before dismissing the Reds’ chances of finishing top. It’s far from over yet.
*odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell