It was all good just a month ago. In the run-up to Liverpool’s marquee match-up against Manchester City on January 4, the focus wasn’t on staving off its primary challenger, but rather on how much they could distance themselves from Pep Guardiola’s side. Even with a close away loss, Liverpool still had to be the favorites to claim its first English top division title since the 1989-1990 season: The Pool Boys were four points ahead even after the humbling at the Etihad, and by virtue of being knocked out of both domestic cups, they could reasonably be expected to not succumb to fatigue in the home stretch.
|Photo: Richard Heathcote (Getty Images)|
As recently as last week, Liverpool had a golden opportunity to sprint past Manchester City and the somehow-still alive Tottenham Hotspur; City had just lost 2-1 away to Newcastle in a game that they led after a minute, and Liverpool had a home match against Leicester; a tough task, but one that should have netted three points for a title contender.
After Manchester City dropped Arsenal with a classic Guardiola whooping over the weekend, the gap had closed to just two points between the top two places, with Spurs hanging around four points back after their “heroic” comeback against Watford. Sure, Liverpool had a game in hand, but a trip to West Ham’s new-ish home is no easy task. And it sure wasn’t on Monday: Liverpool didn’t just fail to pick up the three points they desperately needed to straighten the ship; they played poorly enough that a loss would have been a deserved outcome.
The Reds’ only goal on the night came from a clearly offside assist by James Milner, who was a good three yards ahead of the last West Ham defender before he centered it across to Sadio Mane:
Then, Liverpool’s defense fell asleep on a neat free-kick routine by the Hammers, allowing Michail Antonio a relatively easy far-post finish to equalize. Note, specifically, how Naby Keita gets easily baited into a (probably illegal) pick by West Ham captain Mark Noble:
In fact, let’s have the Naby Keita Conversation. Touted as a perfect fit for Jürgen Klopp’s system upon his summer move from RB Leipzig, Keita started the season looking every bit the player that demolished the Bundesliga last year. Then, he fell off. Hard.
On Monday, he was likely Liverpool’s worst player in the first half, letting Antonio run by him for the goal on one side, and looking lost on the ball on the other. He showed some flashes of his old brilliance in the second half; he had more successful take-on than anyone else on the field, and generally looked dangerous dribbling. When he had to make a pass, though, the problems crept up: Keita, whether by scheme or confidence, has been relegated to making safe sideways passes, and whenever he tried to get the ball into the box, he failed more often than not.
That is a lot of horizontal blue lines 50 yards away from the goal.
Klopp didn’t have much choice for his midfield on Monday: both Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson were out hurt, while James Milner had to put in a shift at right back to compensate for the absences of Joe Gomez and Trent-Alexander Arnold. But once the midfield gets back in order, Keita could (and maybe should) find himself on the bench for a couple of games to shake the cobwebs and re-find his killer instinct in the final third.
This is still Liverpool’s title to lose, though; not only do they still have a three-point lead after 25 games, but they also have a lighter workload than City. After playing six matches between New Year’s and Monday, Liverpool only has four games for the rest of February, although that includes the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich at Anfield on February 19. That’s immediately followed by an eminently-losable game at Old Trafford on February 24; Manchester United has rounded into form since the last time they played Liverpool, a 3-1 victory for the Merseyside outfit that finally put the nail in José Mourinho’s coffin.
On the other hand, City has a crap-ton of games coming this month: six of them, including an away leg against Schalke in the Champions League, and two matches against Chelsea (one of which is the League Cup final on February 24, coincidentally the same day as the Liverpool-United clash). And if City advances past the fifth round of the FA Cup this month, that’s another round of matches in the near future. English soccer congestion is real for teams that advance far in the cups, and that could be as much of a factor as any in determining who wins the Premier League this season.
But it shouldn’t come to that. Liverpool has dropped more league points in its last five matches (seven) than it did in its first 20 (six). Not only that, the Reds aren’t nearly as dangerous on the ball as they were early in the season. Roberto Firmino has looked out of rhythm since the turn of the calendar, Mo Salah is consistently getting marked out of games, as he did against West Ham, and the midfield has looked plodding, Fabinho aside. For Liverpool fans that are hoping to see their side lift its first trophy in a generation, the top of the table is too tight for comfort, and it will likely bring back memories of 2013-2014 when the team looked poised to end the drought before two back-to-back horror shows gave City the title.
The race for the Premier League is truly on now and, if Liverpool keeps playing as they have over the last week, it could see them finish as the hare to Manchester City’s billion-dollar tortoise.