Surprise as an element is often central to the way we talk about special moments. There’s something about the way an unexpected joy sticks with us. Perhaps its that we’re often so convinced of the worst that when things end up not merely avoiding that potentiality but work out to an approximation of its diametric opposite that the mix of relief and elation come together in that curiously elusive Voltron of all emotions: unbridled joy. A joy fully unleashed, I take it, because we’re not afraid of the other shoe dropping. Which, well, that’s not very Liverpool-y, is it?
It’s tough to argue, though, that this iteration of the team is taking anyone by surprise. Perhaps not the “two at each position” depth that allows Manchester City to absorb the loss of a player of Kevin De Bruyne’s ability, or the sheer magnitude of the net spend Manchester United have laid out to back Jose Mourinho’s project, but Liverpool Football Club have are no spending minnows.
And the squad list now boasts the makings of a world class spine with players like Virgil Van Dijk and Naby Keita looking to join the tier of “once-in-a-generation talent” that house the attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane. With further transfers that have allowed the club to absorb the absence of last year’s preferred partner to Van Dijk in the heart of defense, Dejan Lovren, as well as the long-term injury layoff of Alexander Oxlade-Chamberlain, this is a heavy Liverpool Team.
So, no, they aren’t laying ambush to any squads on their chase of glory. But thus far, for fans waiting for that proverbial other shoe, Jurgen Klopp’s charges have only turned in superb work. Their reward? Closing the book on last week with two more wins out of two, owners of a perfect record which included a mid-week Champions League triumph over Paris St. Germain and a comprehensive win over Southampton. They are now in sole possession of first place in this young season and the last remaining unbeaten team in the Premier League.
If there’s a surprise in anything that Liverpool’s doing, it’s the tactical flexibility and different looks they’ve shown on their way to this impressive haul of results. In the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen Liverpool play matches in which they’ve sacrificed possession for the ability to harry opponents in the press, force mistakes, and hit back with their stunning counter attacks. We’ve also seen a Liverpool not play at their best, but lean on grit and experience to win the day. We’ve seen them surrender a lead only to claw their wayback, never looking too fussed, to secure a win. And we’ve now just seen them, similarly to their opening match against West Ham, dominate a match in nearly every phase. The added wrinkle in the Soton game being that they played a different formation, with Xherdan Shaqiri manning the 10 in a 4-2-3-1.
The Paris St. Germain match stands out for me personally because it also featured the successful deployment of Daniel Sturridge 2.0. Sturridge was called in to lead the line in place of Roberto Firmino following an eye injury Bobby sustained in the match against Tottenham. Sturridge has always been a savvy forward whose vision and sense for movement have been underrated for a while. So while the fears around his ability to press in the way that Firmino typically does - a gift that is rare among attackers, making him quite the unicorn - are founded, there was never any doubt that Daniel would be able too create openings and opportunities with his movement.
What we saw last week, though, was a masterclass in that central forward role. He wasn’t perhaps the sharpest with his touch at times and certainly didn’t win the ball back as often as Bobby would have, but Daniel Sturridge showed once more why he is such a special player in his own right and represented a quite unique skillset among English forwards of his generation. Skillful in possession, uncanny with his movement, it all bore fruit with Sturridge notching his first Champions League goal.
That is really what’s taken me by surprise: the tactical flexibility and the willingness of the gaffer to rotate. Klopp came into this job with the reputation of overusing his players. And while he clearly has a preferred group in specific positions - the attacking trio, Virgil, Alisson Becker, Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander Arnold - it’s important to note that those are also the positions where there isn’t a clear bench option. Still, in this campaign, we’ve seen Klopp roll out different line ups, manage the minutes of Jordan Henderson and the ageless cyborg James Milner, deploy different formation, and generally managed the team to, well perfection.
It’s ok to still look over one’s shoulder from time to time or to remind one’s self that it’s unrealistic to expect an unbeaten campaign when that’s only happened once in the Premier League Era. But I’m no longer surprised when this team does something amazing. I’m pleased, elated, and overjoyed. But not surprised. And that’s because it’s clear we’re on hand and experiencing a rather special moment. What’s more: it’s apparent that every single one of the people involved in this undertaking from the manager right down to the last player is aware of it to.
It’s a sign of laying the firm foundation that when a team as vaunted as PSG nab a goal late in the game to tie it up, the lads didn’t drop their heads. It’s more telling, though, that when Firmino scored, The Kop might have exploded, but the guys in read celebrated like it was another goal. They know they’re building something special. What a time to be a Red.