There are two more Premier League games before Christmas, and Liverpool find themselves at the top of the pile.
That fact is thanks, in part, to an excellent week from Unai Emery’s Aston Villa who beat both Arsenal and Manchester City. While Liverpool weren’t at their convincing best last time out against Crystal Palace, they found a way to win – again.
It’s been a common theme this season. Against Fulham, Jürgen Klopp’s side found themselves a goal down with ten minutes to go, but found a way to win through two excellent finishes from somewhat unlikely sources in Wataru Endo and (the increasingly more likely threat) Trent Alexander-Arnold. Against Crystal Palace they faced defeat again, conceding a lengthy VAR-checked penalty in the 57th minute.
This time, it was left to some more likely sources to create the comeback. There’s no doubt there was some luck involved, with Jordan Ayew’s two bookings on the softer side of things, even if they both could be considered yellow cards. Yet, Liverpool took advantage instantly, through the ever-present superstar that is Mohamed Salah, the second through Harvey Elliott, who made his impact off the bench.
More often than not, Liverpool have found a way this season. At the time of writing Liverpool have scored 53 goals in 23 games – averaging 2.3 goals a game. They have lost just two games all season, one in the league against Tottenham, in which they conceded a last-minute own goal and had ten men, and in the Europa League away to Toulouse. They have won more points from losing positions, 18, than any other side in the league. Then there was this…
In their last eight league games alone, Liverpool have scored goals in the 74th, 75th, 76th, 77th, 80th, 87th, 88th, 91st, 94th, 95th and 97th minutes.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) December 10, 2023
You can point to a number of factors for why Liverpool keep scoring late. There are the intangibles, the things like that it’s just something that the club – whether it’s the 80’s to the mid 2000’s – has always been good at. There is also the more obvious stuff, like that Liverpool dominate most football games, and teams get pushed further and further back, and with the increase in added time this becomes harder to deal with defensively.
Yet there is a major factor that I believe is making the difference. The sheer depth of attacking quality in the squad means that if Klopp’s side can stay in a game, they have enough difference makers in the five-substitute age to swing games.
To fully assess this, let’s go back to the Champions League and Premier League winning sides of 2018/19 and 2019/20.
Those teams had a very set front three, and one of the best attacks football has ever seen – Sadio Mané on the left, Roberto Firmino as the false nine, and the one that remains, Salah, on the right. The three of them were not only an incredible attacking unit, they were also extremely durable, rarely ever getting injured. That meant Klopp had little to no attacking depth on his bench, turning to Divock Origi to make the difference, alongside Xherdan Shaqiri’s fun spell at the club.
The two mentioned – Origi and Shaqiri – have some iconic moments for the club. The Switzerland international scored the two goals in a 3-1 win against Manchester United that saw Jose Mourinho sacked at Old Trafford and provided the cross for Gini Wijnaldum’s header that night at Anfield against Barcelona. The Belgian has many more, from scoring the goal that secured number six in Madrid to reacting first to the ball bouncing off the bar against Everton.
Yet, these weren’t consistent players. They weren’t players that Klopp felt he could rely on to start games regularly. Which was fine, because the starting three were, as mentioned, both incredible and durable.
'Liverpool 2.0' is different. There appears to be a preferred front three of Luis Díaz, Darwin Núñez and Salah – but that’s not as clear as it has been.
The only real signed and sealed starter in the attack is the Egyptian, who has played 79.8% of minutes this season. The next highest is Díaz (57.6%) and Núñez (57.1%) – a considerable drop off. We then have Cody Gakpo (47.4%), Diogo Jota (44.6%) and Ben Doak (8.8%).
If we compare this to the title winning season of 2019/20, Salah (81.1%), Firmino (79.6%) and Mané (76.8%) had considerably more game time than Origi (27.1%).
While it’s hard to find fault in a side that was so incredible, there is some luck to their success. If one of that magnificent front three went down, the club didn’t have the depth to deal with it (apart from Origi and Shaqiri coming alive that night at Anfield against Barcelona).
Things are different now.
Liverpool have options off the bench, and it’s been incredibly beneficial this season in a number of ways. The first – and the most important – is that it has been a difference maker in the league. Klopp’s side aren’t without their flaws, and with more points won from losing positions this season than any other side in the league, they have been able to make changes to swing games.
In a sport that is as low scoring as football is, it makes all the difference.
Liverpool looked stale and, quite frankly, like they were going nowhere against Luton. Tahith Chong had scored in the 81st minute, two minutes later Luis Díaz replaced Ryan Gravenberch. It was he who put the equaliser in the 95th minute, getting on the end of Elliott’s cross (another substitute).
The Reds then found themselves behind with ten minutes to go again, this time at home to Fulham. Earlier in the tie, at the scores all even at 2-2, Klopp was able to bring Gakpo on for Dominik Szoboszlai, adding an extra player to an attack that already had Salah, Núñez and Díaz on the pitch.
It was the Dutchman's drive forward and shot outside the box that was parried by Leno, which fell to Núñez who hooked it back across, eventually falling to Alexander-Arnold who put it in.
Which brings us to Saturday’s table topping win against Crystal Palace.
Again, Liverpool were facing defeat. Again, they were able to bring on Gakpo and Elliott, and this time it was the young Englishman that made the difference with an excellent strike from distance.
It’s not just that the club have a plethora of talent in attack, they also have midfielders who know how to make a difference in the final third – something that Liverpool sides of recent years have really lacked. The already mentioned Elliott has a crucial goal and assist, Szoboszlai has sacrificed some of his attacking game but has three goals and two assists, Gravenberch has two goals and two assists and Alexis Mac Allister, the sides alternative number six, scored the team's goal of the season so far.
Liverpool have goals coming from so many different sources, and the depth of talent is hard for teams to contain. While the team may have its flaws, they are extremely good at staying in games, tiring their opponents and then being ruthless when it counts.
They lead the league in expected goals (32.1) and are second in goals scored (36, two behind Manchester City). They are simply too hard to contain – and that’s evidenced by them scoring in every single game this season.
Liverpool 2.0 might not be as consistently fluid and easy on the eye as its predecessor, but it’s just as ruthless, and with as many options as they have, it’s hard to contain them for too long.