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24th Sep 2016

Whisper it but Liverpool are showing the form and focus of title challengers

A sign of things to come?

Tony Barrett

In the days when Liverpool were good, as in genuinely good, games at Anfield would invariably begin with them passing the ball across their own back four, into midfield and back again as if there was no rush to score a goal because they just knew that one would arrive. It wasn’t a lack of urgency, it was an absolute belief in both their methods and their superiority.

When you are the best team in the country, as Liverpool so often were in the 1970s and 1980s, such arrogance is neither unnatural nor misplaced. The problems come when you vacate your perch and the dynamic changes. All of a sudden, opponents are more willing to get in amongst you and are prepared to press in the knowledge that you are no longer as likely to hurt them and are also more likely to yield under pressure.

Reversing that trend, in doing so making Anfield a fortress once again and ensuring that some visiting teams are beaten before the game even begins, is the latest challenge that Jurgen Klopp has taken on. In the days leading up to the visit of Hull City, the Liverpool manager urged his team to be angry. It was all a ruse. Liverpool were not furious, they were forensic. Control was established at kick-off when the ball was played around as if they had all the time in the world because the goals would inevitably come and come they did.


As Klopp has admitted, it is one thing for their supporters to dare to dream of a title challenge but it is still far too early for the players to buy into that vision. There is no question, though, that the quality of football they have played from the start of this season, with the obvious exception of an increasingly perverse loss to Burnley, is of a standard that should make such ambitions realistic. When Liverpool turn it on, as they did in the first half here, they are capable of blowing teams away.

The one doubt major about them, though, was that they have developed a reputation for being a team that can’t be trusted. Beat Arsenal one weekend, lose to Burnley the next; eliminate Borussia Dortmund, capitulate against Watford, Newcastle United and Swansea City. From boom to bust from one week to the next, Liverpool might not like the fact that they are seen as a team which thrives in exalted company but drops its standards against the rest but they cannot complain that this is the case.

Which is why a home game Hull City was seen by many as an acid test of their chances of mounting a title challenge in a way that last weekend’s trip to Stamford Bridge was not. In order to become trusted, to be seen as a side that can become consistent enough to re-establish itself amongst the elite, Liverpool had to show that they could thrive on mundane days when inferior opposition set up to stop them from playing and the pressure is on them to find a way to win, any way to win.

Chelsea v Liverpool - Premier League

It turned out that, with confidence high and expectation rising, this was no test at all. Liverpool had the game won by half-time as the stranglehold they took on the game from the outset created a platform from which they scored three goals without reply with the strain of trying to hold them at bay seeing Hull go down to ten men when Ahmed Elmohamady was sent off for handling Philippe Coutinho’s goal-bound effort on his own line.

In hindsight, Elmohamady may wonder if he’d been better served allowing the shot to bypass him. Professional competitiveness prevented that but in his desperate attempts to help his team, he only made things worse. Not only did James Milner score the resultant penalty to add to Adam Lallana’s opener, Hull were left facing the remaining 61 minutes with a numerical disadvantage to go with their technical and tactical inferiority. On top of that, Elmohamady will also serve a suspension. Sometimes it is better to allow nature to take its course than to try to prevent the inevitable.

From that point on, Hull’s impotence continued to be highlighted. Mane scored a third before the interval and Liverpool’s only regret, if they had any from such a commanding display, was that they did not end the opening 45 minutes five or six goals to the good. Coutinho had one effort cleared off the line, Georgino Wijnaldum struck the crossbar and several other chances came and went without being taken. Klopp, looking to make an example of Hull in the belief that it would intimidate future opponents, demanded more.

Even when Hull pulled a goal back through David Meyler, the substitute, Liverpool took it as an affront and responded by immediately restoring their three goal advantage as Coutinho beat David Marshall from 25 yards. Only then did Liverpool begin to relent. The game had long since been won and control was coming all too easily. Klopp is not a manager who exists in the comfort zone so he injected more urgency by introducing Daniel Sturridge for the tireless Adam Lallana. Within 60 seconds of coming on, the substitute had drawn Andrew Roberston into a rash challenge and won a penalty. Again, Milner scored.

Liverpool v Hull City - Premier League

For the beleaguered Marshall there must have been a sense of deja vu. On his previous game against Liverpool with Cardiff City, the goalkeeper conceded six as Brendan Rodgers attempted to freewheel to the Premier League title. Klopp clearly wanted Marshall to suffer more. “Come on boys, ten minutes more,” he shouted from the touchline as he continued to seek the relentlessness that separates the very good from the good. Liverpool did not provide him with any more goals but they had already given their manager the result, performance and intensity that he had wanted.

The naysayers will point out that this was only Hull but that is exactly the point. This is exactly the kind of opposition against whom Liverpool need to win regularly and win well. By the end of the game thousands of seats had been left vacated as Liverpool’s fans took the opportunity to leave early in the knowledge that their team had long since done everything that was required of it. That was another nod to when Liverpool were genuinely good and while the current side still has a long way to go before it can match the standards set by Manchester City, the Premier League leaders, never mind their own illustrious predecessors, this was another positive step in the right direction.

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