With two pivotal games against Arsenal and Manchester City coming up, can Liverpool sustain its title challenge or will Spurs or City overtake it at the top of the table?
Jurgen Klopp remained admirably calm. A six-point lead at the halfway point of the season, he insisted, is “nothing.” The race will run “until the final day,” “We are in it,” he said on Boxing Day, “and that's important. We're just creating a basis for the rest of the season, and the basis after the first part of the season is obviously a good one." But he must know, as everybody knows, that the crunch is coming. Liverpool faces Arsenal at home on Saturday and then Manchester City, seven points behind in third, away the following Thursday. Win both of those and, while second-placed Tottenham will still pose a threat, the title will be closer to Anfield than at any point since 1990.
It’s remarkable how quickly things have shifted at the top of the table. A month ago, it felt that Liverpool still hadn’t really found top form this season, that its impressive record was the result of its capacity to cling on. Manchester City, it seemed, was the overwhelming favorite, slicker, more fluid, more consistent.
Since then, Liverpool has clicked up a notch. Mohamed Salah looks back to the form of last season and the goals are flowing again. Fabinho has settled at the back of midfield. There have been flickerings from Naby Keita. Xherdan Shaqiri has hit a patch of form that has compensated for a dip from Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane going through a spell in which it seems he cannot score.
That’s in addition to underlying changes. The arrivals of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson have clearly improved Liverpool at the back, but Klopp has also slightly tempered his hard-pressing approach. The result is that Liverpool has conceded only seven goals this season, equalling the Premier League record for the halfway stage.
And just as Liverpool has begun to play with the verve of last season, City has unexpectedly faltered, losing three of its last four. It hasn’t been outplayed in any of them, but in each a similar pattern has emerged. There’s a bite gone from a defense that has now not kept a clean sheet in nine games. Even more worrying, there has been an odd flatness from City late on each. Behind and needing a goal, it has been unable to apply pressure.
Pep Guardiola has admitted his side has lost confidence, which plays into a wider pattern. Guardiola’s sides have been consistently excellent for a decade, but if there has been a flaw it has been the way they have had a tendency suddenly to concede goals in batches: three in quick succession to Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United last season, three in 20 minutes to Leicester the season before, his Bayern leaking three in the final 13 minutes in the Champions League semi-final first leg in 2015.
It’s happened too often to be coincidence and it seems to be caused be two inter-related factors. Firstly, that Guardiola defenses are selected for their ball-playing capacity first and their defending second. Maintaining possession can itself be a means of defending, which is why City conceded only 27 goals in the Premier League last season. But when teams break through the press, City can be vulnerable.
In addition, there is Guardiola’s role. He is more of a micro-manager, more of an interventionist, than any other Premier League manager, guiding and controlling, his players have little agency. At its best, that leads to a tactical coherence that produces highly sophisticated and intricate football. But it also perhaps means City lacks leaders on the pitch; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in his controversial autobiography, described Guardiola’s Barcelona as resembling “obedient schoolchildren”. In adversity, Guardiola sides lack the sort of personality that can yank a game back his side’s way. Guardiola is averse to conflict, does not relish that sort of personality in the side.
More specifically, City has missed Fernandinho, who has a knee injury, over the past two games. That role at the back of midfield, so vital in a Guardiola side, is the only one where City does not have top-class cover. Leicester notably prospered on Wednesday by shifting James Maddison up against Ilkay Gundogan, who took on Fernandinho’s role.
It’s not clear when Fernandinho will be back but the pieces seem to be falling into place for Liverpool. It’s true that it still has to play away at Manchester United, while City has already played all the other members of the Big Six away (it’s true also that Tottenham, six points back in second, has 11 of the remaining 19 games to come at home), but with City wobbling, Liverpool goes into this vital spell playing as well as it has all season.