Sanjay Nair discusses the Christmas jinx which seems to have a hold on Liverpool and their Premier League title hopes.
And so after a weekend of surprises, Liverpool are atop the Premier League table at Christmas.
In spite of the four-point gap over Manchester City, Liverpool fans are still looking at this with nervous enthusiasm. But surely… every team that has been top at Christmas during the last 10 years at least has gone on to win the title the following May.
So why even the slightest bit of doubt? Because it has been a case of every team BUT Liverpool in that statistic.
Over the past decade, in a pattern of once in 5 years, Liverpool have been in exactly the same position only to falter either during the manic festive period or early into the New Year.
The 2008-09 team under Rafa Benitez begun and finished strong, but a few damaging draws during January and February against mid-to-lower table opposition put paid to the title hopes.
The 2013/14 team with the exciting SAS upfront and Gerrard and Coutinho behind were one of the best attacking Liverpool outfits in recent memory. But as lethal as they were in front of goal, they were also prone to defensive calamities which eventually contributed to their decline under pressure. What might have been more painful is the fact that on both occasions, we conceded the race to one of the Manchester clubs.
Whether the 2018-19 Liverpool side can finally break the Christmas jinx and end the 29-year-old hoodoo will depend on how well we can keep the focus in key areas. A comparison of these 3 areas might be a place to start with.
A fortress in place, home and away
Almost halfway into the season, the additions of Alisson and van Dijk have brought about the calmness and steel to our defensive setup which has ensured that the likes of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold have absolute freedom to join the attack at every given opportunity.
Gomez, Matip and Lovren have also provided terrific performances whenever asked to partner VvD at the back. There has not been a collective failure at the back which has meant we have not conceded heavily. Defensively, home or away, this is the best of the 3 defensive combinations that have been put in the title race scenario.
The key to this defence holding up all the way is going to be, without a doubt, Virgil van Dijk not missing out due to injuries or suspensions. Amen to that!!!
Depth in Midfield
The Klopp revolution at Anfield is almost complete and this can be ascertained with the depth in midfield that he has brought in. No longer do we look at the bench and groan.
Defensive and attacking options are aplenty, no longer epitomized by club captain Jordan Henderson no longer being a certain starter anymore or Mr Versatile James Milner asked to cover in at right or left-back whenever the need arises.
There is no complacency anymore and a healthy competition for places seems to be taken in the right spirit by the players. Klopp has proved a master this season at easing players into the side only when he feels they are ready and we have seen just how well this has worked with Fabinho.
Mo Salah’s form
Just how well and how consistently we manage to break down teams was always going to depend on Mohamed Salah since an in-form Salah was always going to cause a lot more goal-scoring opportunities for those around him.
With the standards he set last year, not just for himself but for the entire Premier League, being so high, it was always going to be a tough act to follow. A minor blip of a scoring drought even had some calling him a one-season-wonder, but Salah has slowly got back to his devastating best.
While earlier he could be seen perhaps ‘trying too hard’, he has been absolutely brilliant in the last few games. Luckily for Liverpool, it has not only been the Fab-3 or bust so far. Shaqiri, Sturridge and even Origi have popped up at just the right moments to get us crucial points.
The key, however, is always going to be how many Mo Salah can get. If he continues to perform at this level, there should be no reason why another 25-30 goal season will be beyond him.
So far Jürgen Klopp has worked hard and has worked wonders to get us this far. Every year so far has been an improvement and this IS perhaps our best shot at the Premier League title in years. It is going to take all of his man-management skills to keep this side going with the same intensity for another 5 months. The arsenal at his disposal is undoubtedly the best Liverpool have had in years.
15 wins in 18 games has been a dream start. Another 15 wins in the remaining 20 games, difficult as it may be, might just be enough. The next month or so will give a clearer picture of what is to come.