The chances of winning the Premier League title this season may have long gone for Liverpool, but they are still very much in the fight to finish in the top four.
Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal all are breathing down their necks and the Reds cannot afford any slip-ups, but there is a certain doggedness about the way the team are playing at the moment that should encourage the fans. The Anfield faithful should be confident.
At this stage of the season, performances do not matter as much as results. Liverpool have played an attractive brand of high-pressing football throughout the campaign, but now all they should be concerned about are points. Jurgen Klopp has an admirable philosophy, but the German manager should be pragmatic in the final weeks of the season.
Liverpool’s recent results suggest that Klopp is now focused more on winning than on playing his style of football rigidly. The wins against West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City away from home in April were dogged and uninspiring, but the players got the job done.
Liverpool actually had to come from behind to win against Stoke 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium. The Premier League game between West Brom and Liverpool at The Hawthorns lacked real quality and entertainment value, but as predicted on oddschecker, the Merseyside outfit scored, and that was enough.
Rare clean sheet
What was interesting about Liverpool’s win against West Brom was that they managed to keep a clean sheet. Given that Tony Pulis likes to line up his side in a defensive set-up against the big teams, the 1-0 win for the Reds may not have come as a surprise, but it was admirable that Klopp’s team did not concede. Earlier in the month, Liverpool shipped in two goals against Bournemouth at Anfield, including an 87th-minute equaliser. A 1-0 victory at The Hawthorns is certainly progress.
It was also the first time Liverpool had kept a clean sheet in the Premier League since their 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on February 11. In fact, it was only the eighth game in the league this season in which an opposition team had to failed to score against the Reds. With games against Southampton and West Ham United to come, Liverpool should be confident of keeping more clean sheets between now and the end of the season.
One of the reasons why Liverpool managed not to concede against West Brom is that the home team do not play attacking football. The Baggies may be pushing for a top-10 finish in the Premier League this season, but they have scored just 39 league goals so far; relegation candidates Bournemouth and Crystal Palace have scored more. Against Liverpool, the Baggies had only two of their seven shots on target.
Of course, it cannot be only because of West Brom’s shortcomings that Liverpool did not concede. The Reds played better defensively than they have done in recent weeks, with the centre-back pairing of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren working brilliantly. Matip was dominant in the air and strong at the back; the former Schalke star also joined in on the attack on many occasions and had a pass accuracy of 89%.
Lovren has improved in recent weeks, and although he was sloppy at times, he did not commit a single foul over the course of the 90 minutes against the Baggies.
Simon Mignolet’s improvement between the posts was also hard to miss. The Belgium international goalkeeper made a match-winning save and was comfortable with the shots aimed at him.
Then there was Emre Can. Fast establishing himself as an indispensable player for Liverpool, the 23-year-old Germany international, who can also operate as a defender, was involved in 20 duels against West Brom - more than anyone else on the pitch.
Confidence and consistency
With just a handful of matches remaining this season, the key question for Liverpool is whether they can hold their nerve and get the points. Winning against Crystal Palace (home), Watford (away), Southampton (home), West Ham United (away) and Middlesbrough (home) should not be tough on paper, but questions will be asked of their defence. The Reds may have scored more than Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal this season, but they have also conceded more than relegation-threatened Middlesbrough.
Liverpool have struggled against the lesser teams time and time again this campaign. Just days after winning 4-3 against Arsenal away from home at the Emirates Stadium in the league in August, Klopp’s team went down 2-0 to Burnley at Turf Moor. Then there was the 3-2 shock defeat to Swansea City at Anfield and further losses at Hull City and Leicester City.
Perhaps the most disconcerting defeat for Liverpool in the Premier League this season came at the Vitality Stadium in December. The Reds went 2-0 up against Bournemouth after just 22 minutes, and they ended up on the wrong end of a 4-3 thriller.
Results in April, though, suggest that Liverpool have finally learned their lesson. Winning at Stoke is never easy especially after conceding first, but they managed to stage a successful comeback. The performance against West Brom was far from memorable, but the Reds eked out a win.
Next up for Liverpool is a home match against Palace. Sam Allardyce’s side are playing with confidence, but Klopp’s players have home advantage and they should make that count.
What Liverpool need to do in their final games of the season is play like they did against West Brom. They need to be defensively strong, control the play in midfield and take the chances when they get them. Can has to be on top of his game and break the opposition’s rhythm, and Lovren, Matip and Mignolet need to play consistently well. Liverpool’s chances of finishing in the Champions League places are in their hands; they should do everything possible under the sun not to squander them away and end the season on a disappointing note.