Forget Salah, Liverpool making case for defense
Liverpool is so much more these days than the prolific Mohamed Salah and its relentless attack. There's a new-found robustness to Juergen Klopp's entertainers, as the opening weeks of the Premier League season have demonstrated.
After three games, Liverpool is the only team in England's top flight yet to concede a goal. The 1-0 home win over Brighton on Saturday made it seven straight shutouts in the league at Anfield, stretching back to March 3.
Indeed, since what will go down as a defining 4-1 loss at Tottenham in October last year when Liverpool produced a much-ridiculed defensive display, Klopp's side has let in only 22 goals in 32 Premier League games, easily the best record in England.
A minor restructuring of team shape and a major shift in mentality in the transfer market is behind this defensive tightening, which — coupled with the team's continued threat going forward — is fueling its bid for a first English league title since 1990.
Klopp's preference for an attacking central midfielder, like the now-departed Philippe Coutinho or Adam Lallana, behind his three-man frontline of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane has given way to a solid three-man block in central midfield, affording the defense better protection. Currently that comprises James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Naby Keita, three very hard-working center midfielders.
Perhaps more importantly, Liverpool finally invested heavily in a commanding center back when it brought in Virgil van Dijk for $99 million — a world record for a defender — in January and then a world-class goalkeeper in Brazil international Alisson for $84 million — then a world-record fee for a keeper — in the offseason.
Since Van Dijk's league debut on Jan. 22, Liverpool has conceded just 10 goals, the fewest in England, and earned 11 clean sheets, the most in England. The Dutchman was described as an "SUV" by Klopp recently and he was excellent in both of Liverpool's wins last week, against Brighton and in the 2-0 win at Crystal Palace on Monday.
Alisson already appears to be a big upgrade on Loris Karius, who, it must be said, was part of those strong defensive numbers at the end of last season. The Brazilian is hardly lacking in confidence in these first few weeks in England — against Brighton, he scooped the ball over an onrushing attacker, brought it down and passed it to a defender in a moment of quality that brought roars of approval from Liverpool's fans.
"You've seen his wee chip got applause from the crowd," Liverpool left back Andrew Robertson said, "but I'm not sure if the gaffer (Klopp) wants to see that too many times!"
Tougher tests are coming for Liverpool — Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City are among its next five league opponents — and it's yet to be determined if Joe Gomez will be a long-term partner for Van Dijk at center back. The 21-year-old Gomez, who can also play at right back, is filling in while Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are injured.
But it already seems like clean sheets will be as prized and as frequent as Salah's goals this season.
It's a question that likely will be running through Burnley manager Sean Dyche's mind all week: Does he really want his team to reach the Europa League group stage on Thursday?
Burnley, a well-drilled side known for being greater than the sum of its parts, has been unusually sloppy and sluggish in losing to Watford (3-1) and Fulham (4-2) in the Premier League over the past two weekends. Dyche won't admit to it but playing in the Europa League qualifying rounds clearly seems to be taking it out of his players.
The team has played every Thursday for the past month, beating Aberdeen and Istanbul Basaksehir each over two legs to get to the playoff round. They are 3-1 down to Olympiakos heading into the second leg at home on Thursday.
The opportunity to play in European competition comes once in a generation for clubs like Burnley. But is it worth it if the price, potentially, is relegation from the Premier League?
"Players get barraged now with news stories and it's mostly negative about the Europa League and games and things like that," Dyche said. "But that's the reality now: can we keep going in different competitions?"
Bournemouth's players showed once again they are never more dangerous than when they are behind in a game.
After rallying from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in an eventful game against Everton on Saturday, Bournemouth has amassed 25 points from losing positions since the beginning of last season. That's more than any other Premier League club in that period, according to stats supplier Opta.
The team's biggest comeback win came the previous season, its first in the Premier League. Losing 3-1 win after 76 minutes, Bournemouth scored twice in three minutes and again in injury time to beat Liverpool 4-3 in December 2016.
Steve Douglas is at www.twittercom/sdouglas80