There are times when Jurgen Klopp remarks how much he likes Liverpool’s new team, enjoying their journey and openly admitting that he is not quite sure yet where their destination lies. For others, however, their progress may be more predictable. Liverpool seem to be in another title race. That does not surprise their principal rivals.
“This season, they are back to being very competitive again,” said Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva. “We expected it after a tough season for them.” Which, assuming Silva was reflecting a long-held theory at the Etihad Stadium, may show the esteem in which City hold Liverpool, or the sense they can never really shake them off.
But it was instructive. The alternative theory is that Liverpool have exceeded expectations thus far, that it was anticipated they would get better, but not to the extent of competing with City, both over one game at the Etihad and over a season. And while Klopp and Trent Alexander-Arnold both accepted Liverpool could have played better on Saturday, while City were the likelier to take three points, they still ended the longest winning run at home in England since the 19th century.
Liverpool’s revamped midfield has been key to their improvement— (Getty Images)
If Silva is right, if Liverpool are back, it can reframe a debate about Klopp’s reign and their future. Last season, it was tempting to wonder if Liverpool were simply in decline; a title challenge would suggest it is merely a year of transition. In the last three seasons, they have mustered one assault on the quadruple, featuring a 92-point league campaign in 2021-22; in the other two years, they got 67 and 69 points respectively, just salvaging a top-four finish in the first, just failing to in the second. It could have been their new norm.
And yet two off-years from the title race may simply have been single-issue campaigns: one when they were without fit specialist centre-backs, the other when, due to injury, age and a loss of form, the midfield malfunctioned badly, with a knock-on effect for the rest of the team.
Certainly Liverpool’s revival in 2021-22 suggested there were no other underlying problems then. A bigger rebuild was required more recently but Silva noted: “We knew their energy was going to be back so it’s going to be tough.” That midfield athleticism – a contrast with a fading Fabinho and the thirty-somethings Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Thiago Alcantara – may have been summed up when Ryan Gravenberch carried the ball 30 yards to help set up Alexander-Arnold’s equaliser. It showed the profile of Klopp’s newer breed of midfielders: go back to Liverpool’s title-winning season and Fabinho scored a spectacular goal against City, but the old guard could not have done that. The 2023 influx are more attack-minded.
Alexander-Arnold’s goal rescued a point for Liverpool— (Getty Images)
A reason to doubt Liverpool’s credentials was that there has been no Fabinho in the rebuild. These games can call for them and the absence of a specialist destroyer at the base of the midfield may have explained why Liverpool were more restrained, seeking to keep bodies around Alexis Mac Allister. “Can Macca play as a (No) 6? Yeah, he can,” said Klopp. The games when the Argentinian passer is least suited to the role are the tough away matches; Liverpool have already had five of them, with trips to Chelsea, Newcastle, Tottenham, Brighton and City so far. The remaining fixture list could suit a passer better: so, too, the most inventive attacking right-back, in Alexander-Arnold.
That Liverpool have only been beaten once is telling: Saturday was both a game they would have lost last season and one they did. That lone defeat now came at Tottenham, with nine men, after a wrongly disallowed goal; yet the mood afterwards in the dressing room was not of anger with the officials, but of satisfaction with their performance. It was another game that illustrated they can defend: if midfielders in their thirties were a problem last year, centre-backs in the same decade, in Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk, are resisting both attackers and the passing of time now.
Van Dijk looks back to his best in Liverpool’s defence— (Getty Images)
And yet Liverpool did not play like champions at the Etihad Stadium. Silva’s verdict instead highlighted the sense they are a team with a proven ability to stay the course in title races. Van Dijk outlined a pragmatic formula. “All those seasons we were close or won the league we didn’t get carried away,” the Liverpool captain said. “We took it game by game and that’s the motivation and mindset we should have. It’s no secret we want to challenge for everything we are competing in and this year we are looking consistent something we were missing last year.”
It is something they seem to have recaptured: with the signings of Mac Allister, Gravenberch and Dominik Szoboszlai, with more resolve, running power and momentum. None of which automatically means they will reel in City. All of which means the champions have the sense that history is repeating itself, that Klopp and Guardiola are embroiled in another season-long duel. “It’s nice for the Premier League and fans when it’s this tight,” said Silva, sounding admirably impartial. If that is no shock to him, the spectre of Liverpool looms large over City again.