Cup action has given fans a much-needed break from Premier League action after each side played three league fixtures within a week, and considering we’ve just passed the half-way mark of the season, now is as good a time as ever to reflect.
We begin with a report on title-hopefuls Liverpool. The Reds are 2nd after 20 games and have the Premier League title within their sights, sitting five points behind Chelsea at the summit. Jurgen Klopp has valued optimism and belief within the supporter base since his arrival in October 2015, something that he has thus far achieved.
Nothing will be valued or remembered more than the first league title that Liverpool capture in the Premier League era, one that would break a 26-year drought. Jurgen Klopp has the tools, even if somewhat unconventional, and experience, winning two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund, to do just that.
Transfers – In
Sadio Mane is undoubtedly the key addition for The Reds this season. Signed for £32 million from Southampton, the Senegalese international has starred for his new club with nine goals in 19 appearances, starting out on the right and drifting between left-sided and central roles in Klopp’s fluid front three. The impact of his temporary absence due to the African Cup of Nations remains to be seen.
Former Newcastle man Georginio Wijnaldum joined the club for a hefty fee also, at £26 million, but has slotted in so seamlessly that it’s hard to notice he’s played just 22 games for Liverpool. A technical midfielder with an eye for a goal, Wijnaldum has provided stiff competition for Emre Can for a starting berth in the centre.
Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip arrived from Bundesliga clubs Augsburg and Schalke, respectively, for a combined total of £5 million; not a bad bit of business by the club. Liverpool fans wouldn’t be blamed for believing the former was nothing more than a mere bench warmer after Lucas Leiva had been selected ahead of him in games against Leicester and Bournemouth, but an impressive showing in the Merseyside Derby revealed why Klopp fancied the experienced Estonian.
As for Matip, his free transfer to Liverpool was a masterstroke by Jurgen Klopp. The Cameroonian is arguably the number one centre-half at the club and is yet to lose in any of his 12 league starts.
On a less positive note, Loris Karius and Alex Manninger were added to the goalkeeping ranks for a combined outlay of £10 million. The former has struggled to prove himself as the successor to Simon Mingolet, drawing much media attention and criticism in the process, while the latter is yet to make a single appearance for the club.
Transfers – Out
In hindsight, Liverpool were right to let Joe Allen leave the club. He joined Stoke for £13 million, and although he has done a fine job, he was simply never going to get the playing time he needed if he stayed.
The same can be said for Christian Benteke, Jordan Ibe and Brad Smith, all of whom left for Premier League rivals on permanent deals, while Mario Balotelli and Kolo Toure left on free transfers, the latter re-uniting with Brendan Rodgers at Celtic.
Martin Skrtel and Jose Enrique headline the list of long-serving farewells; it’s strange to think that Enrique was still at the club despite not making an appearance since January 2016.
Transfer Grade: B+
The arrivals of Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan have all made a positive impact on first-team proceedings. The drawbacks of their summer window was adding to their goalkeeping problems rather than solving it; Loris Karius, at least for now, is not the answer to their weakness in the position.
Most Improved Player – Phillipe Coutinho
It’s difficult to look past Brazilian magician Phillipe Coutinho, who has become a lynchpin for The Reds. His goal scoring has improved but it’s his overall contribution across the park that has impressed the most. He is believing more in his teammates, refraining from the sometimes erratic decision to pull the trigger from anywhere outside the box. When he does have a pop, however, it’s completely understandable. His goals against Arsenal are a reminder of the threat he possesses, one that’s now internationally recognised in the Brazilian national team.
Moment of the Season – Sadio Mane vs Everton
Jordan Henderson’s stunner against Chelsea could easily have taken this spot, but it’s the significance of Sadio Mane’s poached effort against local rivals Everton that overtakes it. With 90+ minutes on the clock, Liverpool were deadlocked with Everton in a game stingy on chances. Substitute Daniel Sturridge was direct in the build-up, skewing a shot that somehow beat Joel Robles but bounced off the frame of the goal. The striker’s instinct kicked in and Mane was alert while Everton defenders snoozed, tapping in the rebound and securing all three points for Liverpool. Should The Reds go on and win the Premier League, this is one of the moments they will view as season defining.
Moment to Forget – vs. Bournemouth
If anyone needs a counter-argument to theory that Liverpool will win the league, look no further than their display away to Bournemouth in December. Emre Can’s screamer had the game seemingly dead and buried in the 64th minute, but the two-goal buffer proved insufficient. A quick Bournemouth move built from inside their own half showed both their counter-attacking prowess and Liverpool’s general vulnerability to such attacks, halving the deficit to one goal with 15 minutes remaining. What followed was a horror show from a Liverpool perspective and a dream for Bournemouth that not even their most die-hard fan could have fathomed after seeing their club enter administration and face the prospect of falling out of the Football League nearly 10 years ago.
Perhaps a minor criticism of Jurgen Klopp in this scenario was both his lack of defensive substitutes made when the momentum swung in Bournemouth’s favour and the depth available to him on the bench that day; he obviously had little faith in Klavan, Moreno and Alexander-Arnold, his three unused defensive substitutes.
Goal of the Season – Jordan Henderson vs. Chelsea
Jordan Henderson has been much maligned in his Liverpool career, mostly in his early days, and that is partially explainable in understanding that he is viewed by many as the heir to Steven Gerrard. That is a task of such difficulty due to the combined affinity of Gerrard for both performance and background, being a local Liverpool lad, that he simply cannot live up to. What he can do is provide more moments like this; a stunning long-range curler right into the top corner, leaving a top-class goalkeeper like Thibaut Courtois completely helpless. On a side note, considering the run of wins that Chelsea went on soon after this, Liverpool will be quietly happy knowing they’ve gotten their visit of Stamford Bridge out of the way.
Phillipe Coutinho is also worth a shout for his effort against Arsenal on the opening day, as is Adam Lallana for his thunderbolt against Leicester. Roberto Firmino’s classy chip against Crystal Palace showed what Liverpool’s other Brazilian is all about, while Sadio Mane’s solo goal against Arsenal (also on the opening day) cannot be forgotten.
Overall Grade: A
Slip-ups to Bournemouth and Burnley are minor blemishes on what has otherwise been a successful half-season for The Reds. They’re in the title race for the first time since 2013-14, but there is one major difference: reliance, or lack thereof.
Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool relied on Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to score week in, week out; which they did. Jurgen Klopp prefers a more rounded, unpredictable approach. There is no number one striker at the club and any of the front or midfield three are responsible for scoring goals.
The one similarity that could be their undoing is the defence. Liverpool shipped in a whopping 50 goals in the 2013-14 season, a deficiency that ultimately cost them the title. If Jurgen Klopp can tighten Liverpool up at the back then they have every chance of winning the Premier League.