Premier League

Why Liverpool will challenge for the title this season

 • by Sam McGuire
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In the eyes of many, Liverpool are the team best equipped to threaten Manchester City’s bid to retain the Premier League this season. Having turned areas of weakness into positions of strength during the summer transfer window, the Reds are no longer considered to be underdogs.

Certain parts of the media are already claiming this team is the best the Merseysiders have ever assembled, much to the ire of fans of rival clubs.

Countless articles have already been published, just three games into the season, to suggest Naby Keïta is Liverpool’s answer to Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne.

Praise is regularly being heaped on Virgil van Dijk. The world’s most-expensive defender is now considered to be peerless in the English top flight after dominant performances in the opening weeks, while Alisson has been described as the missing piece to Jürgen Klopp’s puzzle.

The Brazilian shot-stopper is yet to concede a goal and kept the 100 per cent win record intact with a fine save to thwart Pascal Groß late on against Brighton & Hove Albion. The German tactician and his players are under pressure like never before to challenge for that elusive Premier League title.

Fans of last season’s Champions League finalists have every right to be getting carried away. Furthermore, the media are right to take this team seriously.

Underlying numbers

The Reds are currently top of the Premier League having taken nine points from a possible nine. They share top spot along with Watford, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur but are the only team so far with a goals against column that reads zero.

The defence, which has been the club’s Achilles heel for the best part of a decade, now looks assured and competent. However, according to some, the goals aren’t flowing quite as freely as last season. A variety of reasons have been offered up for this – from the pressure being too much for the attackers to Mohamed Salah being a one-season wonder.

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It’s a myth. Liverpool’s forward line is still as potent. In fact, they’re probably more dangerous than last season.

The Reds may have only beaten Brighton by the one goal on Saturday, a far cry from the nine they put past Chris Hughton’s men during the 2017/18 campaign, but they still created high-quality chances. Their xG (expected goals) for the match at Anfield was 1.83 – the third highest this weekend, with only Fulham and Bournemouth able to better that total.

The narrative from Monday evening was that Crystal Palace pushed Liverpool all the way, with the away side needing a penalty and a last-minute goal to come away from Selhurst Park with a 2-0 victory, but that didn’t tell the whole story. Klopp’s men had an xG of 2.83 while the home team’s total was 0.38.

No team in the Premier League this season has a higher xG than the current table toppers, though City, Chelsea and Spurs have all scored more goals.

Liverpool’s xG total of 8.52 puts them 0.54 ahead of Pep Guardiola’s side. The Reds haven’t played any of the top-six teams yet and the sample size is tiny, but if the current xG90 average of 2.84 is extrapolated over an entire 38-game season, the team would finish with an xG total of 107.92. Not bad for a team seemingly struggling to break down the opposition.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Merseysiders outperformed their xG last year by close to seven.

That’s just going forward. Defensively, Liverpool are the best in the league in terms of xGA (expected goals against) with a total of 1.32 from the three matches. The team closest to them are Watford with 2.27 and then City with a total of 2.35. Again, it’s premature to really read into these numbers but, for contextual purposes, that average over the entire season works out at 16.72.

It may only be three matches into the new campaign but Liverpool have the highest xG and the lowest xGA. The praise is justified.

Balancing a new-look starting XI

It’s easy to forget that there was a lot of change on Merseyside his summer. The only area of the starting XI to remain the same was the forward line but even that has been adapted somewhat to help bed in a rejigged midfield. Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita

Keïta, who finally arrived from RB Leipzig, took up a left centre-midfield position but it’s clear he’s under instruction to push forward to make it an attacking four whenever possible. It’s resulted in Roberto Firmino dropping deeper at times to create space which the Guinean can attack. He’s already proven why he was worth the wait

The Liverpool No.8 has pushed James Milner to the right side of midfield, too, with Gini Wijnaldum filling in at the base with Jordan Henderson still lacking full match fitness.

The full-backs remain the same but at centre-back, it’s Joe Gomez filling in for the injured Dejan Lovren beside van Dijk. The pair have struck up an understanding but it’s a far from an established partnership with the England international learning on the job.

He’s been solid beside the experienced Dutchman with the duo doing their best to protect Alisson. It’s overlooked but Liverpool changed the backbone of their team this summer with two of their starting XI in their opening three matches never playing in the English league before.

Liverpool’s Brazilian shot-stopper looks unfazed but it’s worth remembering goalkeepers regularly struggle to adapt to the rigours of the Premier League, especially playing behind a new-look defence and midfield.

That’s not to suggest the Reds are at a disadvantage due to making so many changes to the starting XI, but the fact Klopp’s managed to find a balance to his team to fit in new signings and still get results is being overlooked.

A summer of change

It wasn’t just on the pitch that there was change. Klopp went into a pre-season as a manager without Željko Buvač by his side for the very first time. The summer following a Champions League final defeat.

Other managers may have struggled if they found themselves in this situation. After all, a break-up of a long-term partnership can have a negative impact on a team but the Reds were ruthless during the build-up to the new campaign, picking up big wins over Manchester United, Napoli and Torino, while coming from behind to beat Manchester City in the International Champions Cup.

Pepijn Lijnders returned to the club to take up a more prominent position alongside the manager and appears to have adapted seamlessly to his new role, with his fingerprints all over Trent Alexander-Arnold’s slightly tweaked role down the right this term.

Unlike previous campaigns, the hype is very much justified, and this Liverpool team are the real deal and deserve the plaudits for their early season form. 

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