The title race is well and truly on. By the time Manchester City next play Premier League football, they could be in second place if Liverpool defeat Watford in their first game back after the international break.
The 2-0 victory away to Arsenal was another statement from Liverpool. Mikel Arteta’s men looked to be riding the crest of a wave and in the first half were much the better side. But Liverpool, sent out early for the second period by Jurgen Klopp, took command and goals from Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino took them to within a point of City.
On January 2, a 2-2 draw away at Chelsea left Liverpool third in the table and 11 points behind City, albeit with a game in hand. How has Klopp turned it around? Sportsmail takes a closer look…
Liverpool are only a point behind Manchester City after their 2-0 win over Arsenal
VAN DIJK AND MATIP ARE ROCK-STRONG
Liverpool have kept 17 clean sheets in 29 games this season – two more than they managed the year they won the league. Since drawing with Chelsea, they’ve only conceded twice. Attacks win matches goal defenses win titles.
To focus on just Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip could perhaps suggest a snub for the efforts on the excellent Alisson Becker and Liverpool’s flying full-backs in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
But looking at those two now demonstrates exactly what Liverpool were missing last season in the days when Jordan Henderson and Ozan Kabak were lining up at centre-back.
Van Dijk himself has admitted that he questioned whether he would be able to recapture his prodigious best after last year’s season-ending ACL injury. If anything, the Holland international is as good as ever, if not better. He has played 42 times for both club and country already this season – testament to how fit he is and how strongly he’s returned.
The impressive form of Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip has been key to Liverpool’s upturn in form
But it’s perhaps February’s Premier League player of the month, Joel Matip, who has been a bigger revelation than Van Dijk. The Cameroonian’s quality has never been in doubt but he has been punctured by injuries across the course of his Liverpool career.
This season, as his player of the month gong shows, he has been exceptional. Rio Ferdinand even said some of his attributes eclipse Van Dijk.
‘Matip’s underrated,’ he said on his Vibe with Five podcast. ‘He’s better at passing through the lines than Virgil. He passes through to the strikers much cleaner. But Virgil has got that big switch (of play), it’s a bad weapon.’
And that, as Ferdinand underlines, is what makes them such a potent partnership both defensively and in Liverpool’s attacking play.
Luis Diaz has fitted in easily at Liverpool since joining from Porto in January
If Tottenham hadn’t made their move for Luis Diaz, he wouldn’t be at Liverpool now. One thing Klopp can never be accused of is acting with impatience in the transfer market and while Diaz had been identified as a solid target, Liverpool were prepared to wait until the summer.
But with Antonio Conte close to luring him to his Tottenham rebuild, Liverpool’s transfer committee kicked into gear and the Colombia international arrived at Anfield.
Some key players in this Liverpool side took time to adapt to Klopp’s demands – Fabinho was mainly a substitute in the first half of his first season while left-back Robertson couldn’t dislodge Alberto Moreno when he first joined from Hull.
Diaz has had no such problem. He already dovetails sublimely alongside his fellow attackers Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino and his tireless work-rate makes him look a custom-made Klopp player.
He already has two goals to his name as he settles into life at Liverpool and it cannot be understated just how key he could be between now and the end of the season, with the Reds competing for the FA Cup and Champions League as well as the Premier League title.
GOOD LUCK WITH INJURIES
It’s the opposite this season compared to last time around when it comes to Liverpool and injuries. Van Dijk, Matip and Joe Gomez were all ruled out with season ending injuries, prompting the likes of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to play in defense while the likes of Ozan Kabak, Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams were all drafted in.
This season, it has been a different story and that was perhaps epitomized at the other end of the pitch against Arsenal on Wednesday night. Mohamed Salah was fit to play despite being forced off with a foot injury against Brighton and came off the bench at the Emirates, along with Roberto Firmino.
The Brazil international himself is only just back from a groin injury but marked his comeback with Liverpool’s second against Arsenal. Despite the emergence of Jota and Diaz in recent months, Firmino’s importance to Klopp and Liverpool hasn’t dwindled. He’ll have plenty more key parts to play between now and the season’s end.
Liverpool have, so far, dodged the bad luck with injuries that derailed their campaign last year
BRUTAL OFFSIDE TRAP
After the Arsenal match on Wednesday, Liverpool have recorded a stunning total of 121 offsides against their opponents – the highest in the league by some distance.
Manchester City are second with 71 – 50 less than Klopp’s men. With Alisson able to play comfortably in a ‘sweeper-keeper’ role when Liverpool have possession, it allows Klopp’s men to push higher up the pitch.
Fabinho does a priceless job protecting the centre-backs and by sitting between them, provides the insurance that gives Alexander-Arnold and Robertson license to push further up the pitch.
Van Dijk has marshalled a Liverpool defense that has caught opponents offside 121 times so far
Talking of Andy Robertson, his form at present is sublime and he took the Man of the Match award against Arsenal. But it hasn’t been as high a standard all season.
He canvassed for his best form earlier this season and when Liverpool were beaten by West Ham back in November, there were suggestions Klopp would be better off selecting the vastly improved Kostas Tsimikas ahead of him.
‘Kostas is very close – he has a lot of quality – he can push Andy Robertson, but Robertson in my eyes is the best left-back in the world,’ Klopp said.
‘But it’s good we have the options to give Robbo a rest in moments – even when he doesn’t like it.’
The remarks raised eyebrows at the time but now, Robertson is showing exactly what Klopp meant. And perhaps those suggestions that Tsimikas should start ahead of Robertson were good for the Scotland international – sometimes competition for places brings out the best in players.
Andy Robertson has recaptured his finest form in recent months after a tricky start
SOLID SQUAD DEPTH
Harvey Elliott didn’t make the bench for the Arsenal game. Curtis Jones has missed out on a few matchday squads lately. Ibrahima Konate has hardly put a foot wrong since arriving at Anfield but can’t dislodge Matip or Van Dijk. And Joe Gomez can hardly get a game.
Caoimhin Kelleher, a cup final hero, is No 2 to Alisson but perhaps Naby Keita demonstrates the finest example of the strength in depth at Liverpool’s disposal this season.
When a tearful Thiago Alcantara pulled out of the Carabao Cup final after getting injured in the warm-up, Keita took his place at the 11th hour and helped Liverpool on their way to glory.
Keita’s appearance against Brighton was his 100th in Liverpool colors and he earned effusive praise from his manager.
‘When he looks back at how he played he is an exceptional footballer, that is why we brought him in the first place. Of those 100 games, I think 80 were really good,’ Klopp said.
Naby Keita is among the squad players who demonstrate Liverpool’s strength in depth
SALAH AND TRENT EVOLVE
According to The TimesKlopp and his coaching staff gathered in pre-season and devised a plan of how to evolve the partnership down the right flank between star men Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The full-back naturally overlaps Salah down the right but this season, he has been encouraged to come inside more regularly and almost take up a ‘No 8’ role in the setup.
Liverpool assistant manager Pepjin Linders was quoted as saying: ‘We wanted to become more unpredictable over our right side,.
‘We felt we could improve the outside and dynamic insides to attack with bigger variety than [in past] years. It’s not only about him (Alexander-Arnold), but also to find the best positions for the other players. We look to evolve, but also, the opposition pushes us towards new ideas.
‘Both (Alexander-Arnold and Salah) are really benefiting from each other’s positioning; their connection is just like twins and is still evolving. Mo has a lot of freedom in our system, so Trent adapts well with his positioning on the inside, playing passes to spots he couldn’t reach before.’
Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s partnership remains as key as ever to Liverpool