Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool have come of age after making steady progress
Draw against Manchester City at Anfield may have preserved reigning champions' status as title favourites, but it also shows home team's pragmatism and mettle
Saturday’s glimpse of Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez in neighbouring technical areas was a reminder that the Premier League’s summit clashes used to be grudge matches.
Jurgen Klopp’s meetings with Pep Guardiola are more mutual admiration societies. Their teams traded few blows in Sunday’s stalemate, but the managers traded compliments.
“I am pretty sure they are the best in the world at these transitions,” the Manchester City manager said.
The speed with which Liverpool turn defence into attack persuaded a normally uncompromising strategist to compromise. City adopted a more cautious gameplan at Anfield.
It was an indication Liverpool have suffered for their success. Their excellence has brought expectations. Klopp’s status as Guardiola’s nemesis meant it felt underwhelming when Liverpool drew with City.
For almost anyone else, it would have qualified as a triumph.
The fact Liverpool drew a blank contributed to that unsatisfactory impression. Their formidable front three were blunted, as they have been in recent weeks. Mohamed Salah has one goal in eight games, Sadio Mane none in seven and Roberto Firmino none in five.
Slow starts render it less likely they will replicate last season’s 91-goal exploits.
Instead, perhaps because outliers do not become the norm, perhaps because opponents are concentrating more on defence against Liverpool, perhaps because of individuals’ form, Klopp’s side are undergoing a shift.
They look less reliant on blistering brilliance. This is a team built on more conventional principles and more solid foundations.
Perhaps Liverpool’s only real Kloppian game so far was the 3-2 win over Paris Saint-Germain. Otherwise, their iconoclastic manager has abandoned anarchy for the traditionalists’ emphasis on clean sheets.
The importance of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk and the improvement of Andrew Robertson and Joe Gomez can be measured in the statistics.
Liverpool have made their best start to a season defensively in 40 seasons. They have only conceded three times in eight league games and, to put that into perspective, the last time they began so frugally, they were only breached a then record 16 times in the 1978/79 campaign.
Their current start has been rendered tougher by a fixture list Klopp is now able to brand “crazy”.
With the exception of a trip to Arsenal, the month after the international break offers respite, games with Huddersfield Town, Cardiff City and Fulham seeming a chance to rotate after an understandable reliance on the tried-and-trusted in early-season heavyweight clashes.
Perhaps some could be coaxed back to sharpness with the aid of rest. The back-ups Daniel Sturridge and Xherdan Shaqiri may be the most in-form forwards at Anfield.
The summer addition Naby Keita deserves more time to see if he can add an X-factor to the midfield, but a reliance on the workmanlike James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum is readily explained with reference to intimidating opponents who discouraged experimentation.
Yet if the draws with Chelsea and City and the run of four games in all competitions without a win have taken the gloss off the start, it remains laudable that Liverpool have taken 20 points from their opening eight games. “I would buy this,” Klopp said.
They are seven points better off than they were 12 months ago.
Progress has come in fits and spurts in his reign, but Liverpool have advanced every year. A mutation into title challengers could have been abandoned by this stage. Away games at Crystal Palace, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea came laced with peril.
If Klopp has built his team backwards, starting at the front and them improving the rear half in the last two transfer windows, Liverpool now have different ways to win and, indeed, different ways to draw.
If Sunday’s stalemate meant a supposed title decider was indecisive and City thus preserved their status as favourites, if Riyad Mahrez spurned the ideal opportunity to condemn Liverpool to defeat, the result nevertheless showed the mettle of Klopp’s side.
Maturity may have brought pragmatism and come at a cost to the drama, but Liverpool might have come of age.
Updated: October 8, 2018 01:20 PM