At what point do we accept that Liverpool are genuine title contenders? Some say that to win the title you have to beat your closest challengers, in fact that is only half the battle. The true path to title glory is making sure you do not drop points against the teams that you should be beating.
With a 6-1 victory in this match at Anfield against Watford we saw a stretch of three wins against clubs in the lower reaches of the table. Crystal Palace and West Brom had also been dispatched relatively easily. Indeed the manner of the victories is perhaps more impressive than the results themselves as Liverpool are quickly building a reputation as one of the most attractive sides in Europe.
A concern is emerging amongst the Liverpool fanbase that the African Cup of Nations is looming and Senegalese winger Sadio Mane will leave the club to play a part. This concern is somewhat justified given the winger’s electrifying performances in tandem with Brazilians Coutinho and Roberto Firmino since the summer. Whether Jurgen Klopp does turn to the transfer market to cover the loss or looks within the club for a replacement remains to be seen but Liverpool fans will be hoping for a quick exit from the tournament for Senegal.
The three aforementioned victories have also coincided with the return to form and fitness of Emre Can, who at the moment is keeping Georgino Wijnaldum out of the team and the German has added an extra dimension to the midfield with his capacity to fulfil a number of different roles in the midfield area. The return of Can to the team has had the dual effect of providing defensive support and cover for Jordan Henderson in the ‘6’ and allowing Adam Lallana more flexibility to drift in to and out of spaces in the advanced areas.
I think that we can all now be certain that Jurgen Klopp is firmly behind Loris Karius as his first choice goalkeeper and that Simon Mignolet is very much a reserve. The German keeper has come in for some criticism for his ability to defend high crosses but his role in the build up play is key to Klopp’s preferred style of play.
In defence we saw 75% of the normal back line with Clyne, Matip and Milner all featuring. In the right sided centre-back role however was Lucas. Presumably Klopp expected Liverpool to have comfortable possession in their defensive third and as a midfielder in the first instance Lucas would be better placed to distribute the ball properly from the back.
The three man midfield consisted of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Adam Lallana whilst in attack we saw Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
Flexibility in the build up
The match saw Liverpool line up in their most common 4-3-3 system but this time they were facing Watford in a 3-5-2 shape.
The issue that Watford faced was that Deeney and Ighalo in the attack were left isolated by a deep midfield block. This meant that whenever Liverpool were in possession of the ball, the front two for Watford would have to try to press the man in possession with no secondary support. Liverpool were able to most often overload the press with Henderson and Can dropping in deep to offer passing options.
Here you can see that with Lucas in possession of the ball Liverpool were confident to split their central defenders horizontally leaving a large gap. As Lucas is pressed both Jordan Henderson and Emre Can drop from the midfield to offer passing lanes for Lucas to bypass the pressing attacker.
That Can has been willing to play almost as a double pivot at times on the same line as Jordan Henderson is testament to the German’s tactical versatility and his ability to cover large spaces in the field.
This time the build up was slightly more strained as Lucas had taken a chance and dribbled the ball for ten yards in front of his own penalty area. Before the decision to dribble horizontally was taken Lucas already had a vertical passing option in to Emre Can.
As Lucas moves across and is shadowed closely by the pressing player, Sadio Mane of all people is able to read the pattern of play and drop in to the space behind the three most advanced Watford players. As he does so Lucas played the brave pass bypassing three opposition players and finding Mane in space.
For all that this movement could have ended in disaster had Lucas been dispossessed it showed the benefit of having a midfield player taking part in the initial build up. It also shows the principles of play that Klopp has instilled in his squad as a whole with Mane recognising the need to move in to the space to provide a support to the build up.
For much of the initial period in his Liverpool career Lallana was thought to be a waste of the money invested in him. He struggled to impose himself on matches and his best role was still a mystery to most. Under Klopp however Lallana appears to be a player reborn with a new purpose and a clear role within the team.
In the initial stages of the season Lallana interacted and rotated extremely well with Sadio Mane on the right wing and he was often the most dynamic player when Liverpool lost possession and looked to press. In recent weeks however that role seems to have changed with Lallana now enjoying freedom to roam across the width of the pitch.
With Firmino having been involved with winning back possession in a deep area Liverpool looked to transition quickly on the counter attack. As the attack develops it is Lallana who takes the central striking position and looks to penetrate into the Watford penalty area.
As Lallana and Can both look to make vertical runs, it opened space for Coutinho to cut infield in to a central zone that is unoccupied and dangerous. The awareness from Lallana to take the advanced position and stretch the spaces by pushing back the Watford defensive line is excellent.
In this example Lallana once again shows his attacking instinct as he is the most advanced Liverpool player once again. It is the run from Lallana that stretches the Watford defence and forces them on to the back foot.
This freedom afforded to Lallana is made possible by the tactical play of Emre Can and Jordan Henderson beside him in midfield.
Shape and structure
The shape from Watford was interesting at least with the five midfielders being dropped further and further back as the match developed and Liverpool flooded forward.
This is an example of the midfield rotations that we saw most often from Liverpool as they moved through the right hand side of the field. As the player in possession advances Clyne would look to move high and wide opening up space for the ball to move forward.
As he moves high Jordan Henderson would move across in to the right half space nearest the ball to offer support and Sadio Mane would rotate from the wide position now being accessed by Clyne in to the central area of the field.
These movements are highly practised and mechanised and allow Liverpool to play through defensive structures.
This image shows that Watford gradually dropped their mid block back to operate in a full low defensive block. The central midfielders and central defenders are extremely closely positioned. This negates the space available between the lines for Liverpool players to occupy or play the ball in to.
So at what stage do we accept that Liverpool are title challengers? I believe that we do so now. After eleven matches Liverpool sit top of the table, they do not have the distraction of Europe and they are playing in a manner that would see them as fitting champions were they to be successful.
Whether this will actually come to pass remains to be seen and there are still significant questions to be answered about squad rotation and cover for key players in case of injury and suspension.
One thing is for sure though, Liverpool fans should be enjoying the ride.