Is Liverpool the next man up in the Premier League?

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Roberto Firmino combined for two goals and Liverpool barely held on to defeat Manchester City on Sunday, moving them up to a tie for third in the table (ahead of Chelsea on goal differential).

I wrote about Manchester United’s rise on Friday, but after defeating Manchester City, Liverpool, not title-defenders Chelsea, could be their biggest opponent. The Reds have won five matches since drawing at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium on December 22, including victories at Burnley, vs. Leicester, vs. Everton, and now vs. Man City in the top half.

Liverpool showed some of their old problems in allowing 84th and 91st-minute goals and played with the nerves of their fans in the final minutes. Even so, this is the Premier League’s best and previously only undefeated team through 22 matches.

This all comes after what many called an inconsistent Fall in which Liverpool’s defense allowed a number of late goals in matches, such as their opening 3-3 draw at Watford or their 3-3 Champions League draw at Sevilla. Both games exposed quintessential problems Liverpool had had since the early Brendan Rodgers days. Great attacking, a big 3-0 halftime lead at Sevilla, and late, mind-blowing, frustrating goals.

But now the defense is somewhat surer with the record transfer of Virgil Van Dijk. Even as he’s only played one of those five wins, the team had allowed one goal or less in four straight games leading to the Man City visit. Liverpool has surprisingly allowed less than one goal in 21 of 31 matches this season.

The offense is attacking on all cylinders despite the loss of Coutinho and Sadio Mane is yet to catch fire the way he did last season. Manager Jurgen Klopp has turned Ox into the winger of Kop dreams after he was marginalized and eventually sold at Arsenal. Lallana is returning from injury, meaning Klopp has endless options at the midfielder and forward positions.

Klopp is now in his second full season at Anfield and many have argued that Liverpool is always a player or two away or has focused too much on attack. However, their current form looks as if they are ready to challenge for second place, make Champions League and FA Cup runs, and maybe even go for the 2018-19 Premier League title.

This progression is even faster than Klopp’s at Dortmund who went from 13th the year before Klopp came to 6th, and then 5th before back to back Bundesliga titles in his third and fourth seasons there. Compare that again with his first team, Mainz, who won Bundesliga promotion in Klopp’s second full season as their manager, and Liverpool are right on if not ahead of the Klopp schedule. Yes, his success at those teams petered out. Liverpool may have to check to make sure the German manager does not overstay his welcome, but for now, the team is definitely trending up.

Liverpool under Fenway Sports Group will probably never be the Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho or even Antonio Conte teams that have allowed 17, 16, and 16 goals this season, respectively. As evidenced by the hirings of attacking-minded Brendan Rodgers and then Klopp, that’s just not their identity or style. They are American, and will likely continue to go for goals and excitement over the gutsy 1-0 wins that have won Premier League and La Liga titles in recent years.

But Klopp’s strategy has proven to work in the Bundesliga and even Rodgers came oh so close to a title in 2013-14. Jurgen’s gegenpressing 4-4-3, the most money he’s ever had at his disposal, and his expert scouting are all starting to come together. Liverpool may soon be among the top teams in Europe once again.

At the same time, he is developing the Liverpool players to fit into his system rather than Rodgers’ or the ones they grew up in. And he’s finding their competitors elsewhere that he can mold in the team’s academy.

What’s more, he has one of the club’s all-time greats, Steven Gerrard, coaching the U19s and teaching them “the Liverpool way.” Gerrard’s team won all but one of their UEFA Youth League matches, advancing to the knockout stage for the U19 Champions League. They also sit at the top of the U18 Premier League table.

Despite finishing 4th last season and their still questionable back line, Liverpool could be as close to winning a championship in May as they have been since that magical 1989-90 season.

The road ahead includes trips to Swansea and Huddersfield straddling an FA Cup home game vs. West Brom. Their next big test will be a home match vs. Tottenham and possible revenge from their 4-1 loss at Wembley.

Manchester United are a formidable opponent and still my personal pick to finish second. Still, Liverpool are right on their heels and will certainly be part of next season’s wide open title race.

Photo Credit: By PAUL ROBINSON (Klopp) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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