Slowly, subtly, there has been a change of atmosphere at Anfield. Although Jurgen Klopp remains cautious, batting away any talk of winning the Premier League title, others are beginning to wonder just what might be possible for Liverpool.
Six league wins in a row to start of the domestic season and a demolition of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League (forget the 3-2 scoreline; Liverpool destroyed the French champion), coupled with Manchester City’s less-than-convincing start have prompted thoughts that perhaps a first league title in 29 years is possible. Just how serious those ambitions are will become clearer over the next two weeks as Liverpool faces Chelsea twice (Wednesday in the Carabao Cup, Saturday in the Premier League), travels to Napoli in the Champions League (Oct. 3) and then faces City itself in a return to league play (Oct. 7).
Last season, it was easy to isolate Liverpool’s weaknesses. It had problems at the back, particularly at the heart of its defense. Neither of its two goalkeepers really seemed to be of the highest level, and there was a lack of depth in midfield, something made clear by the way Trent Alexander-Arnold was forced into service in the center while preparing to play as a fullback in the Champions League final.
But this year, thanks to around $300 million of spending, Liverpool has addressed those issues. Virgil van Dijk arrived in January. It’s a blunt metric, but Liverpool has won 13 and drawn four of the 20 league games he has played, conceding 12 goals at an average of 0.60 per game. In the 24 league games it played without him last season, it won 14 and drew eight, conceding 28 goals at an average of 1.17 per game.
Alisson, despite his error against Leicester, already looks like a significant upgrade in goal over either Loris Karius or Simon Mignolet, while Klopp is now perming three from James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita, Fabinho and, slightly suprisingly, Xherdan Shaqiri in midfield–and that’s despite having lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the season to a knee injury. Adam Lallana’s return from injury has gone almost unnoticed, but he could slot in either in midfield or in the forward line. It says much for Liverpool’s squad depth that this start has come despite Roberto Firmino missing a game with an eye injury and with Mohamed Salah some way short of his best form.
That squad depth faces a further test on Wednesday evening as Liverpool meets Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. The competition is usually taken as an opportunity to rotate the team, and the expectation is that Fabinho, the summer signing from Monaco, will make his first start. Shaqiri and Daniel Sturridge, who performed so well after being thrust into the Champions League game against PSG, will start. If Dominic Solanke isn’t involved against his former club, meanwhile, he will wonder if he is ever going to get a game.
The dilemma Klopp faces–and that faced by Maurizio Sarri, who has enjoyed an almost equally impressive start as Chelsea manager–is deciding how seriously to take the Carabao Cup. There is little doubt that both managers would happily trade defeat on Wednesday for a victory in the league meeting at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Equally, it’s clear that Klopp’s team selection against Southampton last Saturday, selecting Joel Matip and Shaqiri in place of Joe Gomez and Milner, was made at least in part with this upcoming run of fixtures in mind. So vital could the Chelsea and City league games be that he may even be tempted to rest payers for the Champions League game away to Napoli next week. After all, Carlo Ancelotti’s side does not look quite as ferocious as Sarri’s Napoli did last season, and, in the group stage, particularly after the opening win over PSG, there is perhaps a little room to maneuver.
This is a vital period for Liverpool, a test of how far it has come from last season, of how effectively those three big doubts have been answered. But it’s also an important period for the Premier League. At the moment it feels as though, unexpectedly, there may be a proper title race this season. Give it a couple of weeks, though, and City might have a four-point advantage over Liverpool, which would temper that excitement and mean whatever drama remained domestically would be in the cups.
By then, of course, either Liverpool or Chelsea will have gone out of one of them.