Commentary: Invincible Liverpool look set to regain past glory
As the Reds emerge runaway leaders in the English Premier League, John Duerden says a lack of squad depth could be the only stumbling block to a 19th league title.
SINGAPORE: If you had told fans in England back in 1990 when Liverpool were celebrating an 18th league title that the club would go at least 30 years before lifting the trophy again, nobody would have believed it.
The Reds had dominated English football all the way through the 1970s and 1980s, winning 11 domestic leagues and four European titles. They were a relentless machine.
Such days look like they may be about to return. Liverpool are champions of Europe but the prize the Reds really want is the English Premier League title. Many think that after a wait of three decades this is their year, even though it is only November and there is still two-thirds of the season still to play.
That is how impressive Liverpool are. It is not just the eight-point lead at the top of the table - teams have squandered similar leads in the past.
It is not just the fact that they are evolving year after year. It is the belief that stands out. The confidence is almost visible especially at home at Anfield where Liverpool have not lost a league game since April 2017, an amazing run of 46 games.
It was Fortress Anfield again on Sunday (Nov 10) when Liverpool passed the biggest test of their season so far with flying colours. Champions Manchester City arrived and then were two goals down within 13 minutes thanks to some breathtaking attacking play from Liverpool. It ended 3-1.
Last season, the two teams were neck and neck in the title race. Liverpool lost just one game out of the 38 - to Manchester City - as they collected a staggering 97 points. That would have given the team the title in 25 out of the previous 27 Premier League seasons but not this time. Manchester City managed a point more.
So to defeat City, a club that has spent over US$1 billion on players since being taken over by the Abu Dhabi Group in 2008 and has Pep Guardiola - the Spaniard is regarded by many as the best coach in the world - in charge of the team was always going to be a big result.
And so it is. Liverpool fans are a rare breed in that they would not swap their leader for Guardiola. Juergen Klopp arrived in the port city in October 2015 and has completely revolutionised the club. Of the first team regulars when Klopp first arrived, only captain Jordan Henderson remains.
The genial German has assembled a team full of exciting attacking talents. The three-man attack is perhaps the most potent and exciting in the world.
Mohamad Salah of Egypt, Senegalese striker Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino of Brazil are fast, mobile and almost impossible to defend against when they are at the top of their game - as they usually are these days.
The midfield has taken time to build but Henderson has developed from an energetic player to an authoritative leader. In May 2018, Klopp signed Fabinho and in the 31 league games the Brazilian has started, he has yet to taste defeat.
His spectacular strike after six minutes put Liverpool ahead against Manchester City but it is not his goals that have helped the Reds move to the next level but his intelligence, elegance and ability to read the game.
Fabinho has a new nickname as "The Lighthouse" after Liverpool’s assistant manager, Pepijn Lijnders said he is “like a lighthouse inside the organised chaos that we want”.
Klopp has also built a fine defence, waiting patiently until he could sign Virgil Van Dijk in January 2018. The Dutch centre-back may have cost £75 million (US$83 million), a world record for a defender then, but has been worth every penny and in September this year was the runner-up in the FIFA’s Player of the Year award.
After Liverpool lost the 2018 UEFA Champions League final to Real Madrid with goalkeeper Loris Karius making two grave mistakes, Klopp showed that he could be as ruthless as his attack and quickly signed Brazilian shot-stopper Allison.
READ: Commentary: Ahead of England's big clash, rivals Man Utd and Liverpool deal with reversals of fortune
Much cheaper were the two full-backs, probably the best pairing in the world, with local lad Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right and Scotsman Andy Robertson on the left.
It all adds to a formidable unit especially with a respected tactician, motivator and man-manager as coach.
Gary Neville was commentating on television during the win over Manchester City. The former Manchester United defender summed up where Liverpool are right now.
“They love the manager these fans, they love the team, they believe in the team,” Neville said. “They have won the Champions League and they’ll never have a better chance to win the Premier League.”
However, Neville knows that, as impressive as Liverpool have been, there is still a long way to go. He was part of the Manchester United team that were 12 points behind Newcastle United in January 1996 but still went on to win the title.
As their games this season have proven, Liverpool are made of sterner stuff. But while their starting 11 are recognised as the best in the league, Manchester City have greater strength in depth.
The Reds have been relatively fortunate with injuries so far but that can change especially as the team is competing on numerous fronts at home, in the UEFA Champions League and also in December’s Club World Cup in Qatar.
But what their squad depth lacks, their manager makes up for as Steve Kerr, the coach of NBA team Golden State Warriors and a Klopp fan, points out.
"What I like is that he also seems to enjoy it," Kerr told NBCSN. "It's not just that he's a madman. He's laughing, and smiling and fist-pumping, and I love the concept of joy in sports. It's one of the most important values to me and the Warriors. It's a powerful emotion, a powerful factor for a great team of any sport. Joy, enjoying what you're doing and the joy of just feeling young and free, and playing."
When Liverpool are playing like they are and winning like they are then it is not a surprise that Klopp and the millions of fans around the world are enjoying this ride.
Whether they are happy next May when the season ends remains to be seen but at the moment there are few who would bet against it.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).