Rejoice! We’ve made it to the final international break of 2020 and the next one isn’t until the end of March. By that time, Liverpool could be closing in on retaining their Premier League title.
This past month has been tough for everybody, but never has the famous Bill Shankly quote of “Ay, here we are with problems at the top of the league” been more true for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
The long-term injury to Virgil van Dijk has been compounded by extended absences for Fabinho and Thiago, plus the continued unavailability of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita in midfield.
But Liverpool have dealt with these problems impressively and Sunday’s draw at Manchester City has seen them edge to being favourites to win the title this season with the bookmakers. Klopp’s side have a five-point lead over Pep Guardiola’s side (albeit City have a game in hand) at this juncture in the season. They’re a point behind Leicester City, who they play after the international break, at the top.
Perhaps it was strange that the current champions weren’t already the bookies favourites, but there’s certainly reason why that now looks unlikely to change.
Here are five keys for Liverpool to retain their title.
1. Centre-back consistency
Since Van Dijk’s injury, Joe Gomez has been partnered in Liverpool’s defence by four different players: Fabinho, Nat Phillips, Rhys Williams and Joel Matip - the latter himself returning from an extended time on the sidelines.
In the six games since Van Dijk’s injury, Liverpool have conceded four goals - with two players making their first starts at centre-back in two of those games. It’s impressive.
But finding consistency in defence will be key for Klopp, who will be hoping Matip in particular remains injury-free. That, though, looks unlikely for a player as injury prone as the Cameroonian, in which case Fabinho will be featuring more as a centre-back than as a midfielder for the foreseeable.
There’s also the need to rest Gomez at some stage. The 23-year-old cannot continue to play three times a week. So Fabinho and Matip will also need to start together.
Incredibly, Gomez and Matip was the 37th different centre-back pairing to start a game for Liverpool under Klopp, and who knows, a new signing in January could increase that number further this season.
2. Tactical flexibility
Not long after Liverpool won the title, assistant boss Pepijn Lijnders admitted the need to find ways to ensure the Reds didn’t become too predictable. He spoke of teams shutting down the threat from full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The additions of Thiago and Diogo Jota have given Liverpool new flexibility.
Klopp threw Guardiola a curveball with a 4-4-2 / 4-2-4 setup, and afterwards declared that the days of opponents knowing exactly how Liverpool set up in a 4-3-3 are over. “We can play three or four different systems (now),” said Klopp.
“Usually, people know which system we play. That’s now water under the bridge.”
This will be key for Liverpool this season, ensuring they remain unpredictable and difficult to play against.
3. Thiago the talisman
And the use of different systems fits in with Thiago, who would have returned from injury himself by now had he not suffered a setback on his recovery from Richarlison’s red card challenge in the Merseyside derby.
Thiago will fit in perfectly in a 4-2-3-1 set up, which was how he featured most often at Bayern Munich.
The silky Spaniard’s passing ability will relieve pressure on the defence too, offering Liverpool control in the centre of the park and being able to dictate the tempo of the play.
Keeping the Barcelona graduate fit will be key for Klopp’s side this season, as removing one world class player in Van Dijk can be replaced by the addition of another in Thiago.
4. Rotation, rotation, rotation
After the signing of Kostas Tsimikas in the summer, Klopp spoke of the “most intense season of our lives” ahead and how rotation will be required more than ever before.
Injuries to key personnel have blocked some of the rotation Klopp would have wanted so far, but as players like Tsimikas and Thiago find their feet and fitness, Liverpool will be further strengthened.
The following players are yet to start a Premier League game this season, but all will do so in the coming weeks: Takumi Minamino, Xherdan Shaqiri, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Neco Williams, Kostas Tsimikas and Divock Origi.
The use of these players in December - during which is a pretty favourable fixture list - will ensure the main men remain available for the run-in later in the season.
5. The rivals
Of course, Liverpool retaining the title won’t be just down to what they do but also their rivals - and all signs point to their title contenders, whoever they may be, being nowhere near the levels of the last few seasons.
Whoever wins the league this season won’t be reaching the points totals of the last three seasons and unlikely to even get close to the 90 points mark.
Indeed, if you remove Liverpool from the equation you could anticipate a season like 2015/16 when Leicester won the Premier League with 81 points. Such a points total could yet win the league this season given how wild it already is and will continue to be.
Nothing is going to be easy, but it would take something even more problematic than the past two months have been for Liverpool not to win the title this season.
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