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Liverpool Need To Set The Pace For A True Title Challenge

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We have our noses out in front, time to get going.

Liverpool FC v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Liverpool are off to a flying start. Three wins in three, three clean sheets, and a plus-seven goal differential is enough to climb back on our perch (albeit, a precarious one). Now, Liverpool need to push that advantage, especially with difficult run of fixtures after the international break.

Last year, Manchester City won 19 of their first 20 matches. They didn’t claim top spot until week five, but never looked back after that. By earning 100 points, they averaged a breathtaking 2.63 points per game (ppg). For every set of four matches, they averaged more than 10.5 points.

Of course, we are not competing against last year’s City. In all likelihood, they will drop more points than last year, but they still would not be easy to catch, even with a significant drop off.

A win, or even a draw, against Leicester City would cap off a good start. Ten points from four winnable, but tricky, games (plus or minus one West Ham) is about as good as most teams can hope for in the Premier League. Averaging 10 points from every four matches, or 2.5 ppg would be good enough for 95 points. It would match the second best Premier League total ever. However, Liverpool are the only Top 6 side not to face their direct rivals yet, something that will change drastically next month.

Immediately following the international break, Liverpool travel to London twice in three weeks—first to play Spurs, then Chelsea. In between, they have Southampton at home, and after Chelsea they host Manchester City. Ten points would be stellar from that group of four, though seven or eight points is probably more of a realistic target. This is not to diminish our squad, but according to Five Thirty Eight we’re running even odds with both Tottenham and Chelsea, and only the slightest of favorites against City at home. With resumption of Champions League action and the League Cup, points will be even harder to come by.

Failing to take all three points against the Foxes not only sets us back immediately, but it makes keeping a title-winning pace all the more difficult in the weeks ahead. If we come through the opening fixtures with all 12 points, coming through the next four with 2 wins and 2 draws (eight points, not an unreasonable hope), keeps us on pace for 95 points, with some of our most difficult fixtures behind us. If we run the same scenario, only with the dropped points at Leicester, we’ll be on 17 or 18 points after eight matches, on pace for ~81 or ~85 points. Good, and a definite improvement, but likely not good enough. It would leave us chasing in the following weeks, something that does not bode well for the rest of the campaign.

Of course, winning the first four opens up the possibility of winning the first five. Then the first six. So on. And that’s called a winning streak, it has happened before.

It’s early days, but both City and Chelsea have shown how lengthy winning streaks in the first part of the season can effectively shut the door on the remaining competition. And as we saw all too painfully in both 2008/09 and 2013/14, leaving such a run until late often isn’t enough.

Simply, it is easier to lead than to chase. It’s easy to forget now, but Liverpool remained the closest to Chelsea throughout their winning streak in 2016/17. But constantly chasing, only to keep losing ground despite good results, is mentally draining. Most teams, either consciously or unconsciously, turn their focus to other competitions, ones which might not be decided just yet. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: teams becoming run-away league winners because everyone assumes they’re running away with the league.

And Jurgen Klopp has a history of this at Dortmund. In 2010, during his third year in charge, his side stormed the Bundesliga, winning 14 of the first 16 matches (after losing the opener, no less).

Liverpool are good enough to be that team that lays down an early marker and doesn’t let up until they are well and truly out of sight. Not only are the Reds on top of the league, but the underlying metrics support the idea that they are truly title challengers. According to expected goals, Liverpool have the best stats per game in both attack and defense.

Liverpool were lucky enough to avoid their fellow “Top 6” (margin of error: plus or minus United) in the opening salvo of matches. Now they need to fully take advantage, positioning themselves for a real and sustained title challenge. The best way forward is leaving the chasing to everyone else.