Last season Liverpool conceded five at Manchester City, then four at Tottenham Hotspur, then three at Arsenal, then two at Manchester United, then one at Chelsea. Gradual improvement over the season, but they still came away from those five crunch away games with just one point.
Jurgen Klopp knew that this year had to be different. “Last year our away record against the top five was not really good, because we did not defend as a team as well as we could,” he said. “At Manchester United, and here against Tottenham.”
When Liverpool came to Wembley last October, they were cut to pieces on the break and lost 4-1. “We didn’t play that badly, but the whole game wasn’t our game,” Klopp reflected. “People said Tottenham were brilliant that day, but I didn’t have that in my mind. We lost decisive challenges and, that way, you cannot win a football game. It’s all about learning.”
This Saturday was different. The way that Liverpool did defend as a team, did win the decisive challenges, explains why they beat Spurs 2-1. And it points to a stronger, sharper, better organised side than the one that reached last season’s Champions League final. They already have more away points against the big sides than they managed in all of last season.
“Without being ahead of ourselves, we do believe going into every game that we can win,” Andy Robertson said afterwards. “Yes, at times last season, we didn’t manage to do that, and our away form especially to the top five wasn’t so pleasing. So our first task this season was to put that right. And Tottenham were the first ones we’ve played. Luckily, we’ve already got three points. I think that might be already more points than we picked up last season on the road against these big teams.”
From their five Premier League games so far, Liverpool have conceded two goals: one freak mistake by Allison against Leicester, one added-time consolation by Erik Lamela on Saturday. The old reputation of this team as a defensive shambles is over. Klopp is a far better defensive coach than he is given credit for. Liverpool have a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old in their back four, in front of their brand new keeper, but they have the best defensive record in the country so far.
The next test is Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday evening, Southampton at home and then Stamford Bridge, when their new-found defensive solidity will be examined again. Come through that and this season’s improvement will start to look more permanent, and more threatening to Manchester City.
“Consistency is key,” Robertson said. “That’s how Manchester City won [the title] last season. Consistently they were so good, and that’s why they ran away with it. The start that we’ve had is very good, we’ve won every game that’s been put in front of us. We just need to keep continuing. The first five games don’t win you a league. But they can set you in a nice way to really compete.”
After coming so close to the biggest trophy of all last year, the “hunger and desire” to win something is stronger than ever. But how do Liverpool balance their priorities between the Champions League and the Premier League? “It’s easy: we’re going for trophies,” Robertson said. “When you’re in every trophy, you go to win them. As simple as that. We’ve got the League Cup next week, and it will be the exact same when the FA Cup starts. As long as you’re in tournaments, you’ve got to go and try to win them, especially at a big club like this.”