The red juggernaut keeps ongoing. Much like they did in the Champions League, Jürgen Klopp’s side are channeling their disappointment from last season, when they came excruciatingly close to the title and using it to fuel their bid to go one better this time around. As they passed the acid test that was their game against Manchester City, the consistency and nature of their wins that have carried them to an 8-point lead at the top of the Premier League table has everyone questioning the source of their edge. Some say it’s luck, others point to the helping hand of VAR. The answer, however, as is becoming increasingly clear with each passing week, is simple – Liverpool’s strength lies in their world-class full-backs.
The Turning Point
Klopp’s time in Merseyside can be split into two distinct halves – before and after Philippe Coutinho. The mercurial Brazilian was the poster boy of Klopp’s revolution at Anfield, with Klopp earmarking him as the man to build his side around. But when the number 10’s move to Barcelona finally transpired, it opened up a world of possibilities for Klopp.
Not only did the £142million transfer go some way in bankrolling the deals for Virgil van Dijk, Alisson et al, it also allowed the ex-Dortmund man to look at his side from a completely different perspective, one free from Coutinho’s lens.
It was around the time of Coutinho’s departure that Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold made the step up, with injuries to Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne opening the door to the starting eleven for the pair. Klopp’s reluctance to scour the market for a like-for-like replacement for Coutinho since has put the burden to be the Reds’ creative force squarely on the duo’s shoulders, and boy have they taken to it.
By the start of the 2018/19 season, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson had developed their reputation as Liverpool’s not-so-secret weapon, underlined by Robertson putting it on a plate for Mohamed Salah for the first goal of the new season. Both partners in crime showcased their full box of tricks in the opening day drubbing of West Ham, giving a taste of what was to come.
Come back to me in May 😏 https://t.co/k816tXNuXf
— Trent Alexander-Arnold (@trentaa98) November 11, 2019
That game also marked the beginning of an unofficial assists competition between the two, another sign of Klopp’s reliance on them to provide the ammunition for Liverpool’s snipers upfront. The result? Alexander-Arnold recorded the highest number of assists for a defender in the Premier League era, with Robertson not too far behind. The providers-in-chief ended the season with a staggering 30 assists to their name across all competitions, the last of which will forever live on in Liverpool folklore, was a corner taken quickly.
An Extra Gear
As if carrying on at the astonishing levels of output from last season wasn’t going to be enough, Liverpool’s flying full-backs seem to have taken things up a notch this time around. What could previously be described as a solid understanding between the two is now straight up telepathic, showcased in Alexander-Arnold effortlessly pinging the ball to his Scottish counterpart on the other end of the pitch. In this regard, like many others, Liverpool’s full-backs are in a league of their own, having passed the ball to each other an eye-watering 64 times, well clear of Manchester City’s various full-back pairings with 38. It’s gotten to the point where Robertson could be stationed at Goodison Park and his opposite number would still find him without a second thought.
Switching the ball side-to-side in an almost hypnotic fashion, the finest example of this link-up came in the win against City – Trent to Robertson, Robertson to Salah, Salah into the back of the net. In one fell swoop, City found themselves facing an insurmountable deficit. Stretching the opposition backline to the breaking limit even without the ball at their feet, the full-backs create channels into which Salah and Mane run into with such devastating effect.
Going Against the Grain
Simply put, Liverpool’s weapons from wide excel in areas where others are failing – crossing. Both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson possess wands for feet, and along with Kevin de Bruyne, churn out lethal deliveries into the area with a relentlessness that not many can withstand.
In the late, late show that saw them snatch victory at the death against Aston Villa, it was cross number 37 that broke Tyrone Mings and co’s stubborn resistance. Ironically, Robertson stormed into the box to prod home Mane’s cross with time running out, a role reversal, but one that worked wonders nonetheless. Mane then headed home Alexander-Arnold’s corner with the last touch of the game. Crossing, character, comebacks – this Liverpool side are starting to sound like a broken record.
As the average number of crosses in Premier League games continues to plummet, it is no surprise that Manchester City and Liverpool are its greatest exponents, with no team having crossed more than the Lancashire rivals. A dying art, but one that is definitely worth keeping alive.
The excellence of the pair is further vindication for Klopp’s tactical genius, but it hasn’t come without sacrifices. Opting for industry over flair in Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum in the middle of the park, the tireless duo’s work allows the full-backs to fly forward in a bid to pick the lock. It may not always be pretty, but it gets the job done. It is as Jose Mourinho once said, “There are lots of poets in football, but poets don’t win titles”. But if Liverpool’s flying full-backs can be the wings that carry them to a first league title in 3 decades, it will be poetry in motion indeed.
Written by Kabir Ali
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