Ken Early: Liverpool’s fun is just hard work in disguise
Should Anfield club sustain current scoring rate, they will win the Premier League title
Roberto Firmino celebrates scoring Liverpool’s fourth goal against Watford at Anfield. Photograph: Dave Howarth/PA Wire.
It’s only 13 months since Brendan Rodgers was the manager of Liverpool, but already it seems so long ago. When the now-Celtic manager was sacked after winning only three of the first 11 matches last season, Liverpool seemed trapped once again in the chronic cycle of failure in which they had spent most of the previous 25 years – as far from winning the league as they had been at any point since 1990.
Of course, Rodgers made sure everyone was well aware it wasn’t all his fault: before Klopp came, the major subject of discussion at Liverpool was the transfer committee that supposedly kept buying players the manager didn’t really want.
The small print of who really had the final say on transfers mattered less than the writing looming on the wall: Liverpool was no longer the kind of club that great players wanted to play for.
Then, a miracle. A great manager decided that Liverpool was the kind of club he wanted to manage. Little more than a year later, Liverpool score six against Watford and the crowd at Anfield sings “If we still had Suárez, he’d be on the bench.”
They lead the Premier League for the first time since Suárez left, and they no longer look like they’re missing him.
Klopp’s team are the top scorers in the league, averaging 19 attempts on goal per game, one more than the next-best team, Manchester City. That is more attempts per game than any Premier League winner has managed since Manchester City in 2012.
Happily for Liverpool, a lot of those shots are hitting the target. They are averaging 7.8 shots on target per game, which is more than any Premier League team has managed over the course of a season since whoscored.com began measuring these statistics in 2009-10.
The only team in the seven-season sample that came close to these figures was the 2009-10 Chelsea side, with 7.6 shots on target per game. Carlo Ancelotti’s team won the title that year, scoring a Premier League-record 103 goals.
The next-closest was the Suárez- inspired Liverpool team of 2013-14, who became the first team to score 100 goals and not win the league.
The statistics suggest a couple of things. First, it will be difficult for Liverpool to sustain these sort of numbers for the rest of the season. Second, if they do, they will score more than 100 goals and win the league.
Alan Shearer recently compared Liverpool to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team that almost won the league in 1995-96. His reasoning was that Liverpool look like they are having fun; that they play like a team whose manager has told them to go out there and enjoy the game.
Actually, that description would have fit the 2014 team much better. That team really was playing on instinct, winning games with a kind of off-the-cuff brilliance that surprised even themselves. In the end, their title challenge came to the same bitter end as Newcastle’s.
This team is rather different. Liverpool are not playing the kind of football that you get when a manager gathers his players together and tells them to go out and express themselves. That’s what Kenny Dalglish used to tell them to do, and the players usually responded by hitting panicked pot-shots from all over the place as the crowd grew increasingly angry.
Instead, Klopp’s team are playing a highly organised, carefully choreographed game of perpetual off-the-ball movement that testifies to hours of intelligent work on the training ground.
Of course, motivation is part of it. Liverpool are running more than any other team in the league, and one of the reasons for that is that when the ball goes wide, they flood the box with four or five players. They don’t keep players hanging back, worrying about getting caught on the counter. To run that much, and to take those risks, you need to be fired up.
But you also need to keep your head, and this is where Klopp has made real progress. The change is particularly evident when it comes to crosses. The culture of English football is to hit crosses with lots of pace, to drive or “whip” them in towards the target – which would often not even be a player, but an area – the fabled “corridor of uncertainty”. Dalglish bought players like Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam who whipped those pacey balls into the box all day for Andy Carroll to agonisingly fail to get on the end of. It didn’t work.
The German national team – and now Liverpool – take a different approach. Their crosses are passed, rather than driven. Most of them are aimed to feet rather than at head height. The idea is not to “give the defenders a problem” or “ask them a question” – but to pick out a team-mate with a precise ball, one that ideally leaves the defenders wrong-footed. It helps when you have four options in the box to choose from, but what helps even more is when you spend all week working on it with a manager who never lets up.
Playing like you’re having fun, like most other good things in football, comes down in the end to hard work.