Three games in, and Liverpool’s start to the Premier League campaign has been impressive, if not necessarily electrifying. The Reds started explosively against West Ham, but in the following two games, against Palace away and Brighton at home, Liverpool have relied more on a strong and stable defensive base than their typical vibrant attacking play.
What’s interesting is that Liverpool’s early success has been based not necessarily on the traditional names that you might expect to be the big players. Whilst everyone is used to Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané being the headline stealers – and to an extent, they still have been – it’s some of the players fighting for their place who have been forced to step up who have been the bedrock of Liverpool’s impressive start.
The best place to start is with those big names. Mo and Sadio have scored five of Liverpool’s seven Premier League goals – the others from substitute Daniel Sturridge and a James Milner penalty. And yet despite having five goals and one assist plus a penalty win between them, neither player has yet hit top form. Likewise, only Benjamin Mendy has more assists than Bobby Firmino’s two so far this season, but the consensus is that Firmino has been nowhere near his best yet.
In the midfield, everyone expected Naby Keita to hit the ground running. And again, to an extent he has – the point of this article is not to say that anyone in the team is playing badly as we’re three wins and three clean sheets out of three. But nevertheless, nobody would have expected a central midfielder to be named MOTM in two of LFC’s three games, and neither time be Keita.
Likewise, Liverpool’s other new signings have been forced into low key starts to their Liverpool campaigns. Fabinho, who everyone expected to slot into the defensive midfield position, has been an unused sub once and left off the bench entirely twice, with Xherdan Shaqiri only making one substitute appearance, clocking less than ten minutes so far in his Liverpool career.
Alisson has been of course the other big name signing, but he has been largely untested so far, making one top save against Palace and one decent if expected save against Brighton – and mostly getting plaudits for his passing game rather than his goalkeeping abilities. That in itself is a testament to how well Liverpool have defended, that Alisson has been able to rack up three clean sheets without breaking sweat.
The one big name player in this Liverpool team who has unquestionably been excellent so far this season is £75m centre-back Virgil Van Dijk, who has been an absolute colossus so far this season and is well on his way to making every penny of his transfer fee worthwhile. My man of the match against Palace, he is one of the main reasons Liverpool are 3/3 in terms of preventing the opposition scoring.
But moving away from those who are expected to be as good as they are, to those who maybe have had question marks over them, which is the premise of this article after all. Because there were certainly worries whether young Joe Gomez, who has partnered Van Dijk in Liverpool’s opening three games, was capable of dealing with the likes of Wilf Zaha, Marko Arnautovic and most recently Glenn Murray. But if Gomez has been considered a weak link amongst LFC fans, or been targeted by the opposition, then he’s proved everyone who doubted him – including me – wrong.
Gomez was damned close to Liverpool’s best player against Brighton, following up impressive starts against West Ham and Palace with an imperious display against Glenn Murray, who six days previously had been running Eric Bailly – supposedly one of the best centre-backs in the country – absolutely ragged.
And with Gomez already staking his claim to be Liverpool’s first choice centre-back this season with Dejan Lovren on the sidelines and facing an uphill battle once he’s fit to fight his way back into the side, two of the men ahead of him have been doing a similar job.
Both Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner are players that are facing a battle to keep their places in what is a congested area of the pitch for depth. The aforementioned Fabinho was expected to start week in week out for the club ahead of Wijnaldum, but so far hasn’t been given a sniff. Likewise, club captain Jordan Henderson has been forced to impact the game from the bench but is not a player who will be happy with a bit part role.
Nevertheless, up until this point, both Wijnaldum and Milner have made themselves very hard to drop by turning in tireless, repeatedly impressive performances. Wijnaldum’s passing game and impact on the game has substantially improved in his deeper role, whilst his positional play and defensive side of the game have come on leaps and bounds in a short amount of time.
Milner meanwhile, has been playing like a man possessed and has been widely gaining plaudits, having been named the man of the match against both West Ham and Brighton, whilst also scoring from the spot against Palace.
The point is that three games in, and three of Liverpool’s star performers have been Gomez, Wijnaldum and Milner, three players that two weeks ago, weren’t necessarily considered guaranteed starters, and still aren’t for many. Moreover, they were players who weren’t even considered to be in the best XI, but in these opening weeks have all been excellent.
With Liverpool’s attack largely unable to fire over the last two games, it has been their defence and midfield that have been forced to keep the opposition at bay and assert control over games that even as recently as last season would potentially have slipped away from the Reds. And barring a couple of sticky moments late on against Brighton, Liverpool’s central midfield and central defence have been the bedrock of Liverpool’s early promising start.
I want to briefly mention the two other members of the side that I’ve not yet because as I’ve made clear above, I think that the entire starting XI has been very strong so far. And Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have played vital roles in the team’s start. Trent has been repeatedly targeted alongside Gomez by the likes of Zaha, Felipe Anderson and most recently Solly March and has dealt with all of them relatively comfortably. He’s played a slightly more defensive role than Robbo on the other side, but his passing game has remained strong and he’s been important to the side’s build-up.
But it’s Robbo who is cementing his position as possibly the best all-round left-back in the league. Only Mo Salah has created more chances than Robertson’s nine in the entire division, with only Ryan Fraser having a higher expected assist than his 1.58, with Robertson having created two big chances and notched one assist.
On top of that, Robbo has been dribbled just twice in the opening three games, with only Gini and VVD of the outfield starters dribbled past less (once and not at all respectively) has conceded just one free-kick, less than any outfield starter, and all of that despite making the second most tackles (eight) behind only Keita.
Whilst Liverpool fans recognise the prowess of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, it’s also fair to note that they aren’t necessarily considered the best full-back pairing in the league, and certainly aren’t considered in the same conversation as Keita, VVD, Salah etc, when maybe they (Robbo especially) should be.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is this. Liverpool are three games into their league campaign with three league wins and three clean sheets under their belt. And not only are the likes of Wijnaldum, Milner and Gomez contributing to that, but they are amongst the main reasons for Liverpool’s positive start. And right now, the way into the first team for the likes of Lovren and Fabinho, two nailed on starters a few weeks ago, is looking increasingly difficult.
Of course, when the Champions League kicks in and rotation is required, especially in midfield, we will see the likes of Henderson and Milner rotated in and out to protect their legs, allowing Fabinho and Shaqiri to start showing their worth. But for now, there’s no doubt of what Liverpool’s best starting team is, which is why Klopp has named them for three games in a row.
It’s shaping up to be an exciting campaign, but the most exciting thing is that it’s not Liverpool’s big names who are firing yet, but those supplementing them. If we can get the front three and Keita firing on all cylinders regularly, coupled with the likes of Gini, Gomez and more dropping great games time after time, then this really might be Liverpool’s year after all.