Liverpool have entered a period where games at Anfield are tailored to the characteristics, tactics, and mentality of the squad that Klopp has assembled. Chelsea arrived, took a lead against the run of play, but could not beat Merseyside’s finest. Jürgen Klopp’s unbeaten record against the top six this season is impressive, and with both North London clubs—direct rivals for a place in the top four—visiting Anfield soon, dropping points against struggling Premier League sides would lessen the impact of any potential big results at Anfield.
The visit of Tottenham Hotspur is preceded by tomorrow’s trip to Hull City, while Liverpool travel to the King Power Stadium to face Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City before welcoming Arsenal to Anfield. What remains are 11 league games with the end of the season in sight in what has traditionally been a run of games with clear identifiable objectives for many teams in the division. A future, one so remote in the haze of a long season that simply contemplating it could give birth to complacency, becomes far more immediate. Calculations, margins, and projections all become stronger and far more difficult to contend with.
The fixture against Hull sits between a dispiriting January that ended with further proof of Liverpool’s appetite for the grand occasion and games where both perceived strengths as well as weaknesses will be tested. Leicester are reigning champions, but as it stands, they are relegation battlers that currently sit only two points above the bottom with the fourth worst goal difference in the division. As the seasoned experts like to remind everybody, a season really is a long time in football.
Hull’s situation is one of even greater peril. Their improved form of four points from three games under new manager Marco Silva will need to continue to prevent returning to the Championship. Just as Liverpool had little in the way of excuses to lose at home to Swansea City in front of a shocked Anfield crowd, failing to beat a side with that is checking all the boxes for the bottom three in goal difference, goals conceded, and goals scored would be similarly disastrous.
Drawing to Sunderland less than 48 hours after beating Manchester City would be nowhere near as damaging given Liverpool’s four-game winless run. Beyond picking up a win and securing three points for the first time in 2017, the stage will be set for Spurs. Liverpool, of course, cannot win every game. Yet this is a period where Liverpool’s players can help themselves to shine in the big games and truly capitalise on any returns that are seized by force.
Even if Liverpool were to draw against direct rivals, no real damage to the club’s ambitions for the season would be taken if all three points were collected in games where winning is the only reasonable and acceptable expectation. It is dangerous for Liverpool, or any rival for that matter, to enter games where victory is required to keep up with the rest. Only a point separates four teams from second to fifth, but interestingly, Arsenal stand alone this weekend with an opponent outside the bottom six. Manchester United, a little off the pace in sixth place, face a team in that group attempting to escape demotion.
Tomorrow’s game against Hull City may not be definitive, but it will be indicative of whether Klopp’s players can perform the needful before attempting to accomplish the exceptional. The return of Sadio Mané, the return of one game a week for a squad incapable of handling two games a week, the availability of the manager’s first-choice team, European distractions for rivals, and the presence of Jürgen Klopp should probably combine to see Liverpool through to Champions League qualification. It is, however, expected returns against weaker opponents that will strengthen loftier ambitions.
Such greatness is unlikely to be challenging Chelsea for the Premier League title—something that is beyond the rest of the top six that are either nine, ten, or fourteen points behind Antonio Conte’s consistent league leaders. It may not be surpassing the record Premier League points totals of 86 points in 2008/09 under Rafa Benítez or 84 points in 2013/14 under Brendan Rodgers. It could just be qualifying for the land of milk and honey for just the second time this decade when 2013/14 has been the exception to an existence of an average position of seventh after 38 games.
Whatever Liverpool end up doing successfully over the rest of the season lies in games like these.