Wow. I wasn’t going to write anything else this weekend after my take on the 2-0 win at Wolves; assuming that Man City would win comfortably at home to Crystal Palace. But no! Roy Hodgson finally does something useful for Liverpool, and suddenly the gap is four points in the Reds’ favour after 18 games. So here’s a quick festive freebie!
There’s still time for Liverpool to collapse, because collapses can happen, especially to teams new to the pressure. Becoming the favourites can affect you mentally, although of course, it doesn’t have to automatically be a bad thing, if you can harness the energy properly. But it may be possible that the Reds go to the home of the erstwhile clear favourites on January 3rd with the luxury of defeat not being fatal. Whatever happens, City won’t be miles ahead after that match. A few weeks ago such a scenario seemed unthinkable.
Look at history for examples that give Liverpool hope.
After that sensational unbeaten season 15 years ago, Arsenal started the next campaign with eight wins and a draw; similar to Man City this season, although they won 13 of their first 15 league games. The “momentum” (if such a thing exists) will have been seen to carry them through to the new campaign, and the Gunners would have been favourites for the title at that point. They were top, five points clear, after nine games. Invincibles MkII! But then they won only two of eight games from October onwards, losing twice.
Arsenal had a new pressure: Jose Mourinho’s super-expensive Chelsea team. And so, a year after Arsenal were “Invincible”, they dropped to 2nd, with 83 points, and five defeats, from being unbeaten and racking up 90. They ended up well adrift of Chelsea.
The pressure of being chased may be catching up with City after a phenomenal season and a tiring World Cup for several players. City famously had no challengers last season, and while they still cannot be written off, they haven’t had it all their own way this time around. They are still an amazing team, but looking fallible.
Sometimes, the better you are, the more you struggle when things don’t go your way.
Liverpool had to follow City’s games, week after week, and City kept winning, as did Jürgen Klopp’s men. But when Liverpool finally got to go first and put pressure on, the City team has twice crumbled, at Chelsea (after the Reds won 4-0 away at Bournemouth) and now at home to Crystal Palace, as the Reds easily accelerated past Wolves, a team who had already taken points from City.
City are starting to look human, just as Lyon showed them to be in Europe. Over the next five years you’d still expect City to win more titles than anyone else, but it’s looking less nailed-on for 2018/19.
The title is starting to look Liverpool’s to lose, and it’s natural to get nervous about that; but it’s better than being four points adrift. Perhaps ideally you’d be placed just behind until game 38, similar to what Arsenal did to United in 1998, then spring past to win the title; but you can’t guarantee the other team will slip up, as you wait in the wings. Liverpool have to try and win every game, week after week, to try and put some kind of insurance into place. Failing that, they just have to keep the title race alive as long as possible.
I think the fact that Klopp has twice led Dortmund to titles will help, along with his work ethic, intensity and, unlike his rival, some humour and levity. Of course, perhaps City’s players are tiring a little of Pep Guardiola’s methods – not that there’s anything wrong with them, but it probably feels a bit overwhelming after 18 months of constant striving for perfection. Defending the title is harder, too, for obvious reasons. Maybe they will slack off a bit, just to ease the mental pressure on them, before recharging in the summer.
As well as Arsenal’s invincibles, Chelsea fell away after looking almost uncatchable during Mourinho’s initial stint. Some of the greatest Liverpool sides – 1980, 1984, 1986 and 1988 – all failed to win the title the next season. Man United’s golden generations had fallow years under Alex Ferguson. These teams never look like crumbling, or having a below-par season, until they crumbled.
The hysteria and pressure may get to Liverpool eventually, as it usually does when a title challenge is in the offing. But maybe Leicester can provide an example – the way they solidly battled to a title, as the underdog, and rarely slipped up; refusing to fall away.
Remember, Liverpool’s squad and team, after football inflation, cost half that of the Manchester clubs, so Leicester can give hope even to a relatively rich club, if those riches are still dwarfed by others. And of course, Leicester also broke the rule of prior experience; the manager and the players were not used to the situation, but even when it was theirs to lose they never really buckled under the pressure. Perhaps that was different as no one expected them to stay the distance.
The worst time in a title race is always the “Kevin Keegan” moment; which has happened to other teams and not just Newcastle, including Man United in 1997/98; when a big lead is let slip, and a panic sets in, and that sense of being unable to halt a slide sets in. It happens in games, when it feels won, as AC Milan know all too well. (Liverpool have also failed from being 3-0 up a few times.)
In 1998, Man United were 11 points clear of Arsenal after they’d played 30 games, although the Gunners had three games in hand. That still looked pretty unassailable, for yet another title to United, as Arsene Wenger’s men had to win all three to still be two points behind. But they ended up Champions.
In 2009/10, one of the best Man United teams of Ferguson’s era were ahead of Chelsea after 32 games, winning five on the bounce as the Blues twice dropped points. But Carlo Ancelotti’s team won the league. [Edit: Ronaldo had been sold, but United were still the champions of the past three seasons.]
Liverpool will have bad days ahead this season, deserved or not. But also, if Dejan Lovren is asked “can you go unbeaten?”, as journalists ask players ad nauseam, why shouldn’t he stay positive? It didn’t backfire against Wolves, after all. Saying “why not?” is fine. Saying “no way, we’re rubbish” is not so good.
Right now, Liverpool have leadership all over the pitch, and a sense of invincibility. But that can quickly evaporate. For now, however, let’s enjoy the ride, and be proud of a team with an incredible 48 points after 18 games. If that isn’t unsustainable then there’s no shame in that. If City claw back some points, there’s no shame in that. Just try and make the most of the way things stand, and as Klopp says, take it one game at a time.
Until then, festive greetings to you all! And may 2019 bring us everything we desire….