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The Premier League Title Race Is Just Getting Started

Photo: Alex Livesey (Getty)

Coming off a season where both the eventual Premier League champions and the runners up were very nearly perfect, you could be forgiven for assuming the eight-point lead Liverpool enjoyed over Manchester City coming into this past weekend to have been almost insurmountable. When the margins separating the league’s only true title contenders are so narrow, and the opportunities to make up ground so infrequent, Man City’s early stumbles could conceivably have been seen as fatal. But by dropping points for the first time all year this weekend away at Manchester United, Liverpool slipped off their own perfect pace. In doing so, the Pool Boys demonstrated that this season’s race is bound to be less perfect and more forgiving than the last one, which should set us up for yet another photo-finish ending.

That Manchester United were the ones to finally knock Liverpool off balance was something of a surprise. United have been their typical good-but-not-good-enough post-Fergie selves this season, in stark contrast to Liverpool, who had won all eight of their EPL matches and sat on that huge lead in the table. Even at home against their biggest rivals, it was easy to pencil the Red Devils in for an embarrassing thumping at the hands of the Reds to really underline the seesawing fortunes of these two detested adversaries. But United had other plans.

“Plans” really was the operative word there in United’s creditable 1–1 upset draw. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær isn’t exactly thought of as a tactical genius of the caliber of his counterpart, Jürgen Klopp, but Solskjær’s plan to frustrate the high-flying Reds’ attack and pester their stalwart defense was masterful and effective.

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If Liverpool have a weakness, it’s in midfield. Of Liverpool’s array of central midfielders, only Fabinho is legitimately one of the world’s best players in his position. The rest, almost to a man, are all physically imposing, tireless, competent, but fundamentally limited role players who are fantastic at executing the specific tasks Klopp assigns to them, but who don’t excel at the more creative, passing-minded elements of midfield play.

Ask any combination of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or James Milner to run around pressing the opponent like madmen for 90 minutes, to quickly drive forward with the ball at their feet, to rake accurate long passes up and out to the forwards and full backs, and to make late runs into the box to offer a scoring option, and any of them could perform their duties with title-winning efficacy. Ask those same players to constantly show for the ball in possession, slink in between the lines and receive the ball in tight spaces, patiently survey the defense while waiting for the right moment to strike, and execute quick and incisive passes to break down deep and compact defenses, and all of them will likely struggle.

Liverpool’s full backs—Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson—are the ones who compensate for this lack of central creativity. With their stunning physical abilities, passing touch, pinpoint crossing, and smart decision making, the full back duo feeds the Reds’ star-studded forwards the chances they need to put the ball in the back of the net as often as they do. It’s no accident that Alexander-Arnold (12) and Robertson (11) assisted more goals than anyone else on the team last EPL season. Together with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, the two full backs form the core of Liverpool’s creative engine.

The brilliance of Solskjær’s gameplan on Sunday is in how he was able to gum up this well-oiled machine. There were two keys to United’s 3-4-1-2 formation that accomplished this: 1) United’s wing backs constantly pressing up on Liverpool’s full backs, and 2) the wide positions of forwards Marcus Rashford and Daniel James. The wing backs’ positioning made sure Liverpool couldn’t build through their usually heavily involved full backs as comfortably as normal. The speedy forwards’ insistence on challenging Liverpool’s defense out wide made it so the full backs couldn’t venture as far up the pitch as they’d prefer, or else they’d risk leaving their central defenders too exposed in the other direction. The tactic, plus the home team’s accompanying strategy of hitting the ball up to the forwards as quickly as possible to minimize the chances of the opponent stealing the ball and creating a dangerous counter, prevented Liverpool from creating much danger the entire match while also setting up United with enough chances to do some damage on the other end. United’s 1–0 lead for most of the game was a fair reflection of the match, and absent some blockheaded defending on Adam Lallana’s equalizer, United would’ve come away with a well-deserved victory.

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Failing to beat Manchester United in Old Trafford—without an injured Salah, no less—and dropping your first points of the season there isn’t itself cause for concern. But that draw, the tactical blueprint found therein that other teams would be wise to attempt to copy, and the less-than-commanding performances against Leicester City (where a stoppage time winner saved the Reds’ blushes) and Sheffield United (a 1–0 win thanks to another late goal) and Napoli (a resounding 2–0 loss) and RB Salzburg (a sloppy 4–3 win) would all seem to imply that Liverpool’s record is a little deceptive and unsustainable.

It would be crazy to expect Liverpool or Manchester City to be capable of maintaining last season’s blistering pace and staggering consistency, if only because soccer is a flukey game conditioned almost as much by lucky bounces and fixture timing and unfortunate injuries as it is by player skill and managerial savvy. Liverpool have probably won one or two more games than they should have this season, and the opposite is probably true of City. (Understat’s expected goals model supports this notion, giving City an expected points total of 21.33 and putting Liverpool’s at 18.22, six fewer than their actual number.) Even more to the point, it’s highly unlikely that Liverpool or City will replicate the high-90s points totals they compiled last season and as City did the season prior. And because City still appear to be better at the kind of deep, defense–cracking creativity that is crucial to win league titles, no one should doubt the Citizens’ ability to shrink the bulk of that six-point gap in the table in no time at all.

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The race for the Premier League title is incredibly intense, and Liverpool are indeed out to a big lead already. But what might have been an overwhelming advantage last season probably isn’t one this time around. If anyone thought the Prem title was already decided eight games in, this weekend did them the helpful reminder that things are just getting started.

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