It was win 1.0 for Liverpool 2.0. Jurgen Klopp’s term for his second team at Anfield could take on a greater significance if they win his second Premier League title. Triumph at Bournemouth on Sunday and they would have a five-point lead at the division’s summit. This season’s first victory came against Andoni Iraola’s team in August.
And in a campaign that has amounted to something of a voyage of discovery – not least for Klopp, who has admitted he does not yet know where Liverpool’s destination will be but is enjoying the journey – the themes of a season were revealed early.
Liverpool went behind but recovered to win, and have gone on to take 19 of their 45 points from losing positions. They lost a key player within the game, with Alexis Mac Allister receiving a red card that was later rescinded on appeal, but showed their adaptability and doggedness to prevail anyway. They got goals from three attackers, and Klopp’s five main forwards have contributed 30 of their 43 top-flight strikes. Liverpool, whose first defeat of the season could have come when a goal or a man down to Bournemouth, have still only been beaten once in domestic competitions since April. It has been a dramatic shift in fortunes. After the trauma and troubles of last year, they acquired a confidence and momentum that has continued, sometimes in familiar fashion: Liverpool won with 10 men after trailing at Newcastle the following week. Suddenly, they had a springboard.
“All these results are super important,” Klopp said. “All these things were super important. The turnaround in games, dealing with setbacks, red cards, 1-0 down: you cannot plan it when you are in it you have to get through it and you use the experience. I’m pretty sure if we look back on this season, in the future we will say ‘OK it was exactly how it should be’.
“When you make changes, not only new people come in, but new roles for the players who were already here, it is the team you build for them and it was really important that we came through all these difficult moments. It was a sunny day, first red card; in the first seven matchdays, we had more red cards than the seven years before. So I thought, ‘my God, if that carries on like that it will be really funny’, but somehow we found a way to finish games with 11 players.”
It was an early indication his midfield rebuild had sound foundations: Dominik Szoboszlai will miss Sunday’s rematch with the Cherries but was outstanding in August, first as a No 8 and then in a deeper role after Mac Allister’s expulsion. It came six days after Mohamed Salah’s petulant reaction to his substitution at Chelsea had drawn unwanted attention, a few weeks before Al-Ittihad made a £150m bid for the Egyptian. But the Egyptian scored his first goal of a campaign in which, looking utterly undistracted, he has been arguably the best player in the Premier League. Liverpool amassed 26 shots, despite losing Mac Allister before the hour: so far, they have had at least 20 in eight league matches. They have had 42 more shots than any other team.
If Liverpool can feel irresistible in attack, it can stem from greater solidity in defence, which in turn feels a consequence of the way a younger, more energetic midfield has connected the different departments. “Without stability, you shouldn’t even try,” said Klopp.
And if there is a contradiction that Liverpool often fall behind and yet have the division’s best defensive record, they can get better as games progress: if their season has been a case of problem-solving, so have matches. Liverpool have conceded as many goals as they have scored in the opening half hour of matches. They have a goal difference of plus 25 in the final hour.
“Our last line did really well,” said Klopp. His new captain is a reason. “Virgil [van Dijk] is having a great season,” he said. The Dutchman’s standards slipped last year; now he is back to his best. The new vice-captain Trent Alexander-Arnold has been reinvented as a roving playmaker and, at times, has been remarkable. Jarell Quansah has been the revelation – “he only showed his real face when he was close to the first team,” said Klopp of the defender loaned to League One Bristol Rovers last season – and a resurgent Joe Gomez has been excellent.
“At this moment we are top of the table so how can you get there if the boys are not performing?” said Klopp. Individually, plenty are having better campaigns than last year: not merely Van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold and Gomez, but Curtis Jones, whose injury-interrupted 2022-23 only took off in April, and Diogo Jota, whose first goal last season came after Easter but who opened his account this time against Bournemouth in August and already has nine.
The manager is faring better, too. That Liverpool’s substitutes have a combined total of 30 goals and assists in all competitions this season is a sign of Klopp’s impact. His new team have given him renewed energy whereas he was more drained last year. He scrabbled around for solutions, sometimes finding them for a week or two before another demoralising defeat, whereas now he has a team who find a way, sometimes after he summons his substitutes.
Go back to August and there were reasons to worry and wonder about what Liverpool’s season would contain. The unexpected departures of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho compounded the planned exits of Roberto Firmino and James Milner, while there was a case that Sadio Mane’s sale the previous summer had sent Liverpool spiralling into decline. Klopp’s first great team have broken up. There was no guarantee that Liverpool 2.0 were not doomed to unflattering comparisons with their predecessors. Klopp’s second team could have been second-best. For now, anyway, they are first in the standings, with the groundwork for that unexpected title tilt laid on the August day when his new-look side first played at Anfield.