Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool is beginning to draw parallels with Rafael Benitez’s best, largely because of two men – Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk, writes Sam Patterson (@sam0007ster).
Last weekend’s scrappy win against Brighton was oddly satisfying and so was the 2-0 win at Selhurst Park earlier that same week. While the Reds were good, they did not have to be at their best.
Instead of their usual scintillating attacking performances, we’ve witnessed a dogged Liverpool. A resolute Liverpool, which didn’t need to get out of third gear. Liverpool’s defensive stability is helping them grind out wins against defensive teams.
There’s been nothing “helter skelter” if you like. For the first time in many years, there’s no nervous clenching of fists every time the opposition win a corner. Jürgen Klopp’s men, thus far, have been professional, well-organised and have coolly weathered inevitable periods of pressure.
However early, parallels are beginning to emerge between this team and Rafa Benitez’s in 2008-2009. A well-oiled machine, perhaps the most capable of the “Gerrard-generation”. The best equipped Liverpool side in the Premier League era to maintain a title tilt while challenging in Europe.
That team had a top-class spine which consistently delivered home and away. Sometimes it won games with a swagger, other times it showcased the capability to ground out a result.
The key to a team looking to lift the title is the strength of its defence and this summer Klopp has finally moulded Liverpool’s best in a decade.
Confidence between the sticks
Before Alisson Becker’s arrival, most viewed Reina as Liverpool’s best goalkeeper of the Premier League era. A much-maligned part of the Liverpool rear-guard today, goalkeepers have since struggled to replicate Reina’s efficiency with the ball at his feet and confidence to launch a quick break.
Everybody could recall Reina’s assist in a 5-0 drumming of Aston Villa back in 2009 for example – a well-measured and perfectly weighted kick up the field to Albert Riera from his own penalty area who clinically finished to make it 2-0.
Highlights from Alisson’s time at Roma suggest he has all the tools to replicate Reina’s ability with his feet. Against Crystal Palace, the Brazilian completed 21 out of 23 attempted passes and made a few outstanding saves to boot. Including a free-kick from Milivojevic in the second-half.
Everybody has recalled ‘that’ piece of skill by Alisson to skim Anthony Knockaeart on Saturday, but to only account for his audacious footwork is perhaps reductive – also remember ‘that’ save at the death to deny Pascal Groß and Brighton a point. This spreads confidence. This is why Klopp spent so many millions. This is why Liverpool left the field with three points instead of one. The difference a confident keeper has made to the defensive stability of the entire team has been plain for all to see.
It’s heartening to see Liverpool win games because of firm foundations. Throughout the season, you can guarantee the Reds could win games by three or four goals to nil because of the imperious front three but when the going gets tough, Klopp’s men also need to grind out results.
In 2008-2009, Liverpool only lost two games in the league all season, both away from home at Spurs and Middlesbrough. Anfield was a fortress: Manchester Utd, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal could only muster one point between them in their respective visits to Merseyside that season.
We had Jamie Carragher bellowing out orders louder than the Anfield tannoy, exuding a sense of authority and ascendancy. Playing in all thirty-eight fixtures, the former vice-captain was ever-present at the back.
Virgil van Dijk now takes on that mantle and must play a similar amount of games if the Reds are to have a successful season. Liverpool have kept 11 clean sheets in 18 league games since the Dutchman made his debut in January – reliability and consistency are key to these numbers.
The improvements are there for all to see: Liverpool haven’t conceded at Anfield since February, nor have they lost at Anfield since April 2017.
Van Dijk faces a different challenge to what Carragher had ten years ago. The former Southampton man is nurturing a young Joe Gomez alongside him, while Carragher was partnered by the steady heads of Sami Hyypiä or Daniel Agger.
How Gomez continues to perform remains to be seen but the early signs are good. In actual fact, It could be the perfect nucleus, an ideal synergy of experience and youth, leadership and guile.
It is a different season and it comes with its own unique challenges but Klopp knows he has two men at the core of his team he can confidently pen onto the team sheet without any quarrels.
Facts are facts. Nine points from three games, scored seven and conceded zero. A perfect start from a nowhere near vintage Liverpool. It’s an old cliché but an important one: attackers win games, defences win titles.
Up the reds.