In his weekly Liverpool blog, Dave Tindall reflects on the first half of the season and assesses the likelihood of the Reds making the top four.
Six points, two winners from Christian Benteke and a pair of clean sheets. Yep, it’s been a good Christmas for Liverpool FC.
In many ways, the 1-0 win at struggling Sunderland was just as satisfying as the 1-0 win over then table-toppers Leicester City on Boxing Day. We’ve fluffed our lines against the weaker teams plenty of times this season and it would have been criminal to throw away more points at, let’s be honest, a desperately poor Sunderland outfit.
So, with exactly half the season gone, Liverpool go into 2016 fascinatingly poised in seventh place – nine points off top spot, five points adrift of fourth and level on 30 points with fierce rivals Manchester United.
Or, if you want to look it another way, one point clear of Watford.
All in all, it’s been a rollercoaster opening 19 games with some glorious highs (4-1 at Man City, 3-1 at Chelsea) mixed in with some miserable lows (the losses to Man Utd, Newcastle and Watford).
But, more importantly, we go into the second half of the season with Jurgen Klopp as our manager. We love him and, although he isn’t getting everything right, the inspirational German is learning fast and has everyone at the club buying into his philosophies.
Van Gaal good news for Liverpool fans
The same cannot be said of Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford. From topping the table in September, United are now in a horrid run of form (no wins, three defeats and three draws in their last six games).
I’d say it’s definitely in our interests that he doesn’t get sacked if we want to make the top four, although a combination of LVG and Ryan Giggs in charge until the end of the season would do nicely from a Liverpool fan’s perspective.
Thankfully, ‘Agent Rafa’ is proving vastly unpopular at Real Madrid, thus turning Jose Mourinho’s head back and forth between the Bernabeu and Old Trafford. Quite simply, the Portuguese taking over at Man Utd would give their Champions League chances an obvious boost and hurt ours.
Okay, in a Premier League season where drawing firm conclusions keeps making you look an ass, it’s probably ill-advised to make predictions about who will make the Champions League. But, hey, we’re football supporters. Speculating is in our DNA.
So, with 19 of the 38 games gone, I’ve decided that Arsenal, Man City and Spurs (not necessarily in that order) will all make the top four. Tottenham are further on in their development than us and just seem a more reliable beast.
That leaves the final spot between Liverpool, Man Utd and Leicester.
Maths to fourth spot
It’s easy just to idly speculate on finishing positions without getting involved in the nitty gritty of going through the numbers so let’s do that and add an element of science.
70, 79, 73, 69, 68, 70, 72, 76, 68, 67 = 71.2. These numbers refer to the points tallies of the fourth-placed club in each of the last 10 seasons and, to be honest, make me a little uneasy.
Liverpool have 30 points now, so to reach that average of 71 we’d have to bank 41 points in the second half of the season. To give that context, that would be two MORE than league leaders Arsenal have managed in the first half! At least the same applies to Man Utd.
Given the unusual distribution of points this season, perhaps 67 is a more likely target. But, even then, that’s a considerable haul from 19 games. Break it down and it would be 11 wins, four draws and four defeats. Or how about 10 wins, seven draws and two defeats. Are we happy that’s within range?
And, even if we hold off Man Utd, will it really be that easy to reel in Leicester? If LFC get to 67, Vardy, Mahrez and co would need another 29 points to reach 68. Eight wins, five draws and six defeats would get them there.
What’s evident is that Liverpool cannot afford to throw away cheap points now. No wonder Klopp looked so stressed and agitated during most of the game at Sunderland. Normally at this time of year, he’d be putting up his feet, enjoying a beer and watching the Benny Hill Christmas special on German TV.
It must be a culture shock for Klopp, all this winter football. The Bundesliga are in the early stages of a six-week break which, of course, must do wonders for Germany’s hopes of winning Euro 2016, and that, incidentally, is where my money will be going this summer even though they’re only 10/3.
Talking of odds, the bookies agree with my assessment of the Champions League race. Spurs have been slashed to 1/2 to make the top four, while Leicester (Evens) are fancied to edge out both us and Man Utd (both 6/4).
The obvious key dates come around fairly quickly. We’re at home to Man Utd on January 17 and away to Leicester on February 2. Just as important, though, are the final five fixtures – away to Bournemouth, home to Newcastle, away to Swansea, home to Watford and, finally, away to West Brom. I won’t be the only Liverpool fan to look at those and be thinking 13 points.
By that stage of the season, I’m hoping some of our potential stars are flourishing and nearly up to full speed.
Klopp right to stay patient with Firmino
It’s often forgotten that Robert Pires took a while to get going at Arsenal so why can’t Robert Firmino do the same for us? I’m happy Klopp keeps picking him as it’ll only speed up his adaptation to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League.
His twist, turn and shot which smashed the post when there seemed no apparent danger was all very Brazilian and classy, and there were some other lovely touches too. In particular, the late chance he created which Benteke made a meal of. First, from a difficult-to-control ball out of the sky, Firmino pokes a lovely pass to the Belgian before getting it back and playing a sublimely weighted pass which puts Benteke through on goal. We all know what happened next.
Jordan Ibe and Divock Origi have done the groundwork to come really, really good in the second half of the season and who knows what the transfer window might bring.
Just as important is the defence. No goalkeeper in the calendar year of 2015 kept more clean sheets than Simon Mignolet (16) so he and his defenders must be doing something right even though my heart-rate quickens considerably every time we concede a corner.
And, finally, after many had given up on him, Dejan Lovren looks a proper player. He’s reading the game well, winning towering headers and, most important, picking his moments when just doing the basics and taking no risks comes first.
The Lovren-Sakho central defensive pairing is hopefully here to stay and it’s no coincidence that we’ve kept back-to-back clean sheets since the merry-go-round of injuries in that part of the pitch has finally stopped in a place where they’ve been fit and Martin Skrtel hasn’t.
Cup or League the priority for Liverpool?
After the relatively sedate run of games so far over the Christmas period, the fixture list goes a bit mad now with matches on January 2 (away to West Ham), January 5 (away to Stoke) and January 8 (away to Exeter).
Three successive away games in rapid succession is a tough schedule and Klopp will surely have to rotate his players.
There will surely be changes for the trip to Exeter but should he play his strongest XI at West Ham or Stoke. What is the priority?
When the final four names came out of the hat for the Capital One Cup, Stoke looked the plumb draw, but that opinion has changed considerably since. They’ve rolled over Man City and Man Utd at the Britannia, hit four at Everton, and in terms of build, power, name, attitude, goalscoring prowess and even the little ponytail, Arnautovic increasingly reminds me of Ibrahimovic. Keeping him and Shaqiri quiet will be a tall order.
Liverpool in 2015: Hardly a vintage year
When I reflect back on 2015, it was hardly a vintage year in the life of a Liverpool fan. For most of it there was the feeling that we were going in the wrong direction after the dramatic title challenge of the year before. Daniel Sturridge’s recurring injury problems and Luis Suarez’s trophy-laden brilliance at Barcelona only made it harder to stomach.
But Klopp’s arrival changed the dynamic completely. Now, I’m looking at 2016 with a sense of excitement and expectation even though realism is a voice trying to be heard too.
It might take a couple of transfer windows to start thinking really big but, for now, I’m confident that we’re on the right path and that the future is a bright one.
Happy New Year!