London: The last time we saw Liverpool they were discombobulating Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola setting a new post-match sarcasm record and Raheem Sterling heading off on England duty with hellfire in his eyes.
When this international break has passed, we return to the eerie sense that the 2019-20 Premier League title race was settled in November.
Liverpool hold an eight-point lead over Leicester City and are nine clear of Guardiola’s defending champions. The brutal majesty of Jurgen Klopp’s team hardly breeds hope among the other top six clubs that Liverpool have it in them to fall from grace. Only one Premier League side has been further clear of the chasing group at this stage. In 1993, Manchester United assembled a nine-point lead and won the title. In 2017, Manchester City were eight points ahead and won the title. So, we might be tempted to ask one another: “Anyone for tennis?” Except that there is plenty going on underneath to suggest that a new Premier League landscape is forming.
Perhaps spooked by the whiff of inevitability about Liverpool’s first English championship for 30 years, the league this week recited its four best stomping comebacks.
Last season, City were 10 points back at the end of December, but finished with 14 victories to win the best-ever title race. In 2012, City surged from eight points back on April 8 to win the league with that Sergio Aguero goal in last-day stoppage time. Arsenal’s 10-in-a-row in 1998 overwhelmed Manchester United, who had been 11 points ahead; and in 1996, United were the fliers, crashing Kevin Keegan’s internal software as Newcastle’s 12-point lead ended up as a four-point deficit.
This is meant to give Leicester, Chelsea and City encouragement. Well, nice try.
What could discomfit Liverpool? Virgil van Dijk being injured for a long spell — or their three ace attackers all packing football in to form a jazz trio? Otherwise there is no trace of weakness. This is a side with an iron spirit, a ruthless edge, several ways of winning a game and a visible conviction when they step on to the field that they intend and expect to win.
For the first time in more than 30 years, it can be said that Liverpool are at the level they reached in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were a winning machine propelled by an inspirational manager and big personalities. This Liverpool team have the same daunting feel about them; the same spark of alchemy. They are European champions once more and have grown in stature with that accomplishment. They have a necessary mean streak, too, as Sterling found at Anfield 10 days ago, when he was knocked about.
The tiny margins that separated Liverpool and City six months ago have shifted and widened in Klopp’s favour, for two reasons. City have regressed defensively, while Liverpool have continued to grow and harden, with 11 wins from 12 in this campaign. In his dozen seasons as a top-flight manager, 25 is the lowest number of points assembled by Guardiola after 12 matches. His almost manic behaviour at Anfield indicated panic, and power sliding away.
The great Liverpool players back in the day made enough money to pay off their mortgages. Klopp’s will be rich enough to buy a small country. But the older generation held one big advantage while they created dynasties. Yes, they knew Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest or Ipswich Town would rebuild and try again. There were no victory laps back then, either. However, this Liverpool team can hear the drumbeat of rival corporations trying to come right back at them — a modern phenomenon that helps keep this season interesting.
Leicester are in that category. Supposed one-off-miracle champions in 2016, they were meant to return to provincial invisibility and leave the big clubs to put the furniture back the right way up. Instead, Jamie Vardy has reclaimed the top of the scoring charts and Leicester pursue a fifth straight league win at Brighton.
At Chelsea, who are third, a self-denying policy of farming out swarms of the country’s best youngsters has been reversed, to the benefit of England and Frank Lampard. Stamford Bridge is now the stage not for Roman Abramovich’s transfer market poker games, but a young, hungry, magnetic team.
Below Sheffield United, who have “come up” admirably, Arsenal and Tottenham are in turmoil as the fear of losing touch deepens, while Manchester United must eventually spend their way into some sort of revival, with or without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The point is that Liverpool’s well-earned dominance is not a shutting down of the Premier League’s appeal. All around, there is a frantic scrambling to change, catch up, challenge Liverpool as they contemplate their remaining 26 fixtures. Leicester’s return and Chelsea’s reinvention are a small signal to Anfield that winning the league would be best enjoyed as an epic triumph in itself. “Perches” now come with only short-term preening rights.
If this season feels foretold, modern inbuilt future-churn will keep the next 26 rounds of games and the Christmas programme interesting — quite apart from Liverpool’s excellence.
West Ham v Tottenham, 4.30pm
Bournemouth v Wolves, 7pm
Arsenal v Southampton, 7pm
Brighton v Leicester, 7pm
Palace v Liverpool, 7pm
Everton v Norwich, 7pm
Watford v Burnley, 7pm
Manchester City v Chelsea, 9.30pm
Sheffield v Man United, 8.30pm
Aston Villa v Newcastle, midnight