After two record-breaking seasons, it was always likely that, in this compressed 2020-21 campaign, Liverpool would not be able to keep up the kind of ridiculous levels shown in each of the last two seasons.
Given the fixture schedule and the multitude of other issues offered up by the coronavirus pandemic and its offshoots, it always looked virtually impossible that a side who took 198 points over the past two seasons – that’s 2.6 points-per-game for those keeping count – would do likewise again.
However, losing both starting centre-backs, as well as the superstar right-back who has become so integral to the side’s success in an attacking sense, among a whole host of other niggling injury issues, was certainly not part of the plan.
Nor of course was conceding seven in that Aston Villa defeat.
And yet, here they stand, one point off the top of the table – taking 2.125 ppg – and absolutely cruising in the Champions League.
Amid the social media scrutiny of FSG – yes, there are some absolutely furious at a perceived lack of summer spending – Jurgen Klopp’s starting choices and whether Gini Wijnaldum really is that important, they remain – along with Manchester City – the Premier League title favourites.
They continue to score goals, their defence – even without its leader Virgil van Dijk – has continued to stand up to scrutiny and in the big games, they often step up.
Just look at their last two matches: Atalanta away was meant to be a banana skin against the free-scoring Italians. They ran riot with a five-goal win. Man City away, they cancelled out Pep Guardiola’s men and waltzed off with a welcome point that kept them ticking over into the international break.
Now they return and you could well question whether they’re finally at breaking point.
Joe Gomez has joined Van Dijk on the long-term injury list, Mohamed Salah has contracted Covid-19, and Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are all dealing with minor issues of their own.
Certainly it’s an issue. But crisis? What crisis?
The next seven weeks or so will define what sort of season this will be for the Reds.
And what it will most certainly show is that the side who reached 99 points last season and are currently only (yep, only) on course for 81 this season – the figure City reached last year and which was still 15 points ahead of third – are still very much the team to beat.
Their utterly ludicrous unbeaten home record, now standing at 63 Premier League games and dating back to April 2017 continues to offer the perfect platform in their quest to retain the title; for an added layer of clarity, the next best are Wolves and Spurs, both on three.
It goes without saying but, even without fans, Anfield stands them in good stead.
Starting with Leicester – the current table toppers – and their visit to Merseyside on Sunday night, Klopp’s men face 11 fixtures before the curtain comes down on 2020.
Three of those are in the Champions League, where a win at home to Atalanta next time around will secure safe passage to the last 16, making the final two fixtures redundant, allowing for key men to be rested and greater opportunities for fringe men.
Of the eight league matches, only one is against a fellow member of the so-called ‘Big Six’: Spurs at home on December 16. Other than Leicester and a home encounter with Wolves on December 5, they meet no other side who finished in the top half last year; Crystal Palace away on December 19 is the most difficult of the other five games slated.
Even with a second string defence, it is very much a manageable run for a side who, according to Understat.com, have the league’s best attack based on expected goals (xG), boasts the league’s best expected points total (xPTS) and, despite conceding more than anyone but Leeds and West Brom, actually has a mid-ranking defence based on expected goals conceded (xGA).
Heck, things aren’t exactly running smoothly, but it will be absolutely no surprise if on New Year’s Day it is the current champions who top the table.
To do so, Klopp will lean on Rhys Williams, Nat Phillips, Joel Matip, Fabinho, perhaps even Henderson, at the heart of his defence.
Simultaneously, Klopp, Pep Lijnders, sporting director Michael Edwards and the men behind the scenes can continue to analyse, assess, re-analyse and re-assess what the team has at its disposal and what it needs come the opening of the January transfer window.
Right now, a new centre-back looks a must. Publicly, the declaration may well be that they’re happy to wait until summer, but privately, don’t be foolish enough to think they haven’t already started looking to see what deals can be done what deals would need to wait and what deals could be pushed forward with a little extra nudge (Hello, Dayot Upamecano!)
Results and how well the secondary figures do will dictate what happens when 2021 arrives. But between now and then, whether it’s 4-0, 2-1, 3-2, 1-0, whatever, it’s all about churning out the wins.
After all, the big prizes aren’t dished out in January. Before the opening of the transfer window it is all about picking up results, managing injuries and remaining in title contention.
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