Three seasons ago Liverpool reached their lowest point in the league since the top division of English football was revamped into the Premier League. This came two seasons after the Reds were a Steven Gerrard slip away from winning what would have been their 19th league title. After their best outing in most people’s lifetimes, Liverpool found themselves amongst the middle of the pack at ninth place. In their first seven games of what would be Gerrard’s last season with the club, Liverpool had conceded two more goals than they had scored. They could only manage to snatch three points in one of their last five outings. Brendan Rodgers, who was once touted as the man who would take Anfield back to its glory days, was on a day-to-day basis with his job. After a stalemate against their city rivals Everton, it was time for him to receive the pink slip. Luis Suarez had been their best player two seasons prior. After winning the Golden Boot with 31 goals and 12 assists, he left for the Camp Nou. Raheem Sterling walked out a year later on a £57.3 million transfer fee that sent him to Manchester City. The money received for Suarez (£74 million) and Sterling were not put to proper use. Their replacements were subpar players who were never going to be able to fill their shoes. Forget talent, the best ability in a player is availability. The replacements for the dynamic pair were hardly on the pitch, to begin with. And when they were, they looked lost in the aftermath of Liverpool’s infamous run. After a run that would have nearly ended their barren run, Liverpool were soon in the marinating in their mid-table mediocrity. And it looked like this would be the norm for a club that was once heralded as a European giant.
Then came the arrival of one Jurgen Klopp. Liverpool were going to need to undergo a project to rebuild itself from the ashes of the 2013-14 season. In each year since his appointment, progress has been made and the club only aims to keep going forward. Klopp’s first season in charge was never about getting back to the top four. It was about setting a strong foundation for the way in which they currently play. An eighth-place finish and an appearance in the Europa League final was satisfactory for a manager who only had the January transfer window to tinker with his squad. The next season, Liverpool got back into the top four and qualified for the most elite club competition. Just last season, they sold their best (at that point) player in Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona. Like the Luis Suarez transfer, this could have sent Liverpool spiraling down the table and back into the mediocrity that summed up much of Rodgers’s tenure. Instead, the spent much of the £106 million that they got from Coutinho on a player who is now one of the best center backs in the world – Virgil van Dijk. He shored up their vulnerable defense and Liverpool has a dream run that culminated in them reaching the Champions League final.
Forget, for a moment, Liverpool’s poor performance against Napoli a few days ago. Liverpool fans should have nothing to complain about since Klopp took the reins of the club. In his three years at Anfield, they went from a pedestrian team to one that is knocking on the doors of the best in the world. But the road to being one club footballs’ best goes through Manchester City who currently holds the mantle of being the best in England. Tomorrow, we will find out if the status quo is to remain or if there is a new sheriff in town who will take the title of being England’s most elite.
The front office leadership has changed at Anfield. Eight years ago, it was run by Damien Comolli. He was the mastermind behind the signings of Luis Suarez and Andy Caroll during the 2011 January Transfer window. Shortly after, the Frenchmen was appointed as the Director of Football for the club. He was retained by the new owners of the club – Fenway Sports Groups – and it was from here where his things started to go downhill for him. Comolli was ahead of his time (in comparison to fellow Directors of Football at other clubs) in that he was using analytics and data to recruit players. Unfortunately, he created a team that played an outdated style of football. His numbers have him a team that was built around long balls and crosses. While this was a philosophy he was familiar with during his coaching career, it was never going to work given the direction the Premier League was taking. He was able to recruit the right players for a system that was ridiculously inefficient. In the seasons following his mutual departure from the club, Liverpool continued to struggle with their transfer policy. They overspent and overpaid washed up players with plenty of experience or gambled with unknown young talents.
In the years since his departure, Liverpool has established themselves as one of the best recruiters in football. Klopp has desired for versatile and positionless players who can play with a high tempo and can carry out an aggressive press. There is a way in which using data can help build the right team in which the game is played. Klopp’s philosophy and execution is just perfect for this. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah were all brought in one summer after another to form a fearsome attacking trio. All three joined Anfield as they entered their primes. And most importantly, all three satisfy both the eye test and the numbers game. The arrival of Naby Keita put things over the top. He embodies Klopp’s perfect player. The only thing he cannot do is move slowly on the pitch.
Establishing the most efficient way to play football is only sums half one-half Liverpool’s plan. When needed, their ownership group is not hesitant to break the bank. Throwing money at their inadequacies is another way to solve their problems; especially for a club that is among the top ten richest teams in football. This calendar year alone, Liverpool broke two different transfer records. The Reds splashed out a touch under £71 million on Virgil van Dijk and broke the record fee for a defender. After a disgruntled few months at Southampton, he joined Liverpool in January and has shored up their defense. Liverpool were in need of a starting goalkeeper before the infamous performance of Karius in the Champions League final. They went after Alisson who in his first season as Roma’s number one option established himself as the next best thing between the sticks. He was bought for a hefty £56.3 million. (This record was subsequently broken by Chelsea at the end of the summer transfer window when they signed Kepa from Athletic Bilbao for £72 million.) The two have anchored and patched up Liverpool’s biggest weakness. As impressive as they were going forward, they were equally vulnerable at the back. Once a problem, their defense now appears to be their biggest asset. In the league alone, they have only conceded three goals. They have rank as one of the best teams in Europe in terms of goal difference. The fifteen they have scored has certainly played a huge part in this.
Liverpool have had an undefeated started to this season’s campaign with their 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge being the only instance where they have dropped points. Once known for their reckless spending, Liverpool are devoting more money than ever before on new signings. The only difference is that they have been astute with their targets and have brought in the perfect players for Klopp’s system. Speaking of whom; the German manager is signed through 2022. And James Milner was hit is prime at the ripe age of 32. He is the only player above the age of 30 to play heavy minutes. With most of their players entering or in their primes, this is such a marvelous squad that is at the disposal of one game’s finest tacticians.
Liverpool’s transfer policy looks cute in comparison to City’s spending since the Abu Dhabi United Group took over the club a decade ago. They can the amount of money Liverpool have spent in the past 18 months simply because they can. City’s title run last year is already in the history books. The Citizens’ broke numerous records in pursuit of their first league title since 2014 – most notably, they were the first club to break the 100 point mark in the Premier League. Riyad Mahrez was their sole summer signing with City breaking the £57 million fee they spent to sign Aymeric Laporte (Mahrez was bought from Leicester for £60 million). The Algerian has been the preeminent outside the top six for some time now. Once the best player on a title winning side, Mahrez is now a depth signing for Pep Guardiola. Through all their league games so far, fourteen outfield players have had more game time than 27-year-old. Pep’s side are only above Liverpool because of their superior goal difference. Neither side has looked at their best ahead of their matchup at Anfield.
The narrative surrounding Liverpool’s ability to challenge City’s hold onto the title gained a lot more traction than the latter’s ability to repeat their sheer dominance over the league. Liverpool did finish fourth last year. Nevertheless, they have looked like an entirely different side since the arrival of van Dijk. Oh, and their road to the Champions League final included a smackdown against City (whom they beat thrice last season). The additions of Alisson and Keita added two world-class players into their starting XI that, and you guessed get, made the Champions League final. The midfielder might miss the clash after being stretchered off against Napoli though is expected to return for the Super Sunday fixture. Liverpool were predicted to finish second in ESPN’s “Way too early” 2018-19 table. The betting markets have changed Match Week One with Liverpool’s final points tally getting bumped up from 81 to 88. All this, when added to Kevin De Bruyne’s knee injury (City’s best and most vital player), has everything favoring The Reds at this point in time.
All of this may be well and good for Liverpool though City are still on pace to be as good as last year (arguably the best team in Premier League history) despite still only being on second gear. Liverpool dominate games with Klopp’s trademark Geggenpress and staccato pressure style of play. While this has gotten the better of City in the past three outing, this may be just an outlier in comparison the full data set of City’s performances last season. Forget the obvious counting statistics like points and goals scored, City were by far the league leaders in the areas that separated them from the other nineteen Premier League teams. Attempting the most shots, conceded the fewest, having the highest expected goals, conceding the worst ones, winning back the ball at the quickest rate and keep the ball for the longest time. In every statistical measure that showcases Manchester City’s up-tempo and relentless style of play, they were miles ahead of everyone else. Liverpool have not been at their best either so Napoli set out a blueprint to nullify their front three with a three center back lineup of their own. City have the personnel for the same.
The margins between the two clubs are still very slim. They were neck-and-neck from during the second half of last season. City grabbed 45 points with a goal difference of 31. Liverpool had 40 points with a goal difference of 28 despite rotating their players for their Champions League run. City have yet to be challenged so far. Liverpool have twice played Chelsea, played at Wembley and have had to go to Naples in the past ten days. The Premier League is known for making something out of nothing in order to grab headlines. One game represents less than 3% of the total games a team plays. That being said, this fixture will decide which of the two favored teams to win the league will get the edge over the other. If City win, they will continue on the historic run that won them over 100 points and the league last season. Should Liverpool win, they could be the team that prevents Guardiola’s side from becoming a dynasty?