How Jurgen Klopp changed Liverpool from Champions League hopefuls to Premier League contenders
For the first time in decades, Liverpool are more likely to win the Premier League than the Champions League, or indeed any other cup competition this season – despite losing their unbeaten streak to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday.
Previous Premier League campaigns have been defined by defeats, or at least dropped points, to lesser sides, with the Reds lacking the consistency required to win via a league format.
Not this season, though.
Liverpool are no longer blowing teams away with blistering periods of intensity yielding multiple goals, but are controlling games with their defensive stability, calmly selecting moments to score and clinically recognising opportune moments to take chances.
That is not to say that demolitions can no longer take place – the 5-1 victory over Arsenal shows that is very much still possible – but wins of that kind are rarer, and slip-ups rarer still.
Consistency has been the key that Klopp has used to unlock the Reds’ title potential. Already stern tests in the form of Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park and Leicester City at the King Power Stadium have been navigated and with consummate ease.
The 2016-17 season saw a dismal 2-0 defeat against Burnley, and a 6-1 win over Watford was just as likely as a collapse at Bournemouth, where the Reds were 3-1 up, only to contrive to lose 4-3.
The 2017-18 season was characterised by moments of European brilliance sprinkled between disappointing defeats to the likes of Swansea City and frustrating draws with teams like Burnley, Watford, Everton, West Brom, Stoke City and Newcastle.
The 2018-19 season has been a consistent roll of league wins, punctuated with the odd hammering of Bournemouth and respectable draw with Manchester City or Chelsea, facilitated by a tendency to switch to a 4-2-3-1 system – favoured in Klopp's time at Borussia Dortmund – against the lesser sides, and remaining with a more solid 4-3-3 in the bigger games.
Liverpool finished 25 points behind Manchester City last season, but, in the same campaign, beat them three times in all competitions, showing they were more than a match; improvement was not required in the big games, but in the others where concentration often slipped.
Klopp's side, even before the German arrived, have always capable in one-off matches or cup ties, but could never be trusted to go through an entire league season with the same level of consistency.
Over the last 18 months or more, though, the improvement has been telling. Liverpool's last Anfield defeat in the league came in April 2017 against Crystal Palace. Since then, draws have become more sparse and three points are usually a given, especially against teams lower down in the league standings.
Away from home, too, Liverpool have been close to perfect, particularly in the second half of 2018, now capable of weathering storms, and still able to score at crucial times.
Over the 37 league games Liverpool played in 2018, they accrued 88 points – their best ever tally for a calendar year.
This season, just after the halfway mark, Liverpool had four more points than in 1987-88, their previous record points total after 20 league matches, and the Reds have four more points since August than what Arsenal managed to pick up in the entire calendar year of 2018.
Prior to Thursday, Liverpool had won each of their last nine Premier League games; only Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have taken points off them in the Premier League in 2018-19 and not one of them had beaten them.
No team in Premier League history has been so far in front on New Year’s Day and not gone on to win the title, but this year the competition is sterner than ever before: only once before in Premier League history has a team with 15 wins in their first 20 league games not won the league, yet this season, two of Spurs, Manchester City or the Reds will face that unhappy reality.
For Liverpool, though, records are being broken all over the place: December saw them win a club-record number of games in a single calendar month – eight.
They had already surpassed their points total for the 2011/12 season before New Year and in scoring five in one game against Arsenal, matched the number Crystal Palace have scored at home in the entire season so far.
The Reds have the best defence in Europe – even with no Joe Gomez – and have conceded just 10 times in 21 league matches, and twice in a single game on only one occasion.
Defeat to Manchester City was nothing more than a blip.
The quality of the attack has never been in doubt, but over a Premier League season, defence has invariably been the crucial determinant in which team wins the title.
Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, in particular, have been crucial in that transformation from a team best suited to cup competitions to one poised to go the distance in the league.
With two or three of Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner and Jordan Henderson in front of them, and the pressing machine Roberto Firmino in an evolved deeper role, their whole defensive nature has been revolutionised.
A season after Manchester City became the best Premier League side ever and threatened to dominate for a decade, Liverpool have matched that so far and could yet eclipse it just 12 months later.
Liverpool could still win the Champions League this season, but winning the Premier League seems a more realistic ambition – and it’s been a long time since anyone has been able to say that.