A bit of an in-joke between sections of Liverpool fans over recent seasons has been to loosely refer to themselves with a word which others have complained about or called them across the campaign: Penaltypool, the tricky Reds, and so on. So for 2023/24, perhaps we’ll refer to them as the late rewrite Reds. After all, they seem increasingly fond of turning defeat into victory at the latest possible moment.
Two goals in the final 12 minutes - plus a lot of stoppage time - gave them a comeback victory at Crystal Palace on Saturday afternoon, sending them top of the Premier League in the process ahead of Arsenal and the rest being in action across the weekend.
But this wasn’t the first time Jurgen Klopp has seen his side find the back of the net late on, nor the first time those late goals have also meant a late redistribution of where the points were headed.
In the past month alone, they’ve taken a point at Luton with Luis Diaz’s injury-time equaliser, took a point off Man City with Trent Alexander-Arnold netting with ten to play, scored after 87 and 88 minutes against Fulham to turn defeat into victory, wrapped up the win at Sheffield United in the 94th minute and now, at Selhurst Park, managed another stoppage-time victory through Harvey Elliott. They even would have snared an ultimately-irrelevant draw against Toulouse in stoppage time, had a debatable VAR call not ruled out Jarell Quansah’s late strike.
But for all those late goals, the mentality of the team allowing them to keep going and forcing a way through, it’s not scintillating attacking play which is beating teams. It’s not the elite goalscorers they have - Mohamed Salah’s equaliser saw him hit his 200th goal for the club - which is keeping them in touch at the top, and for now putting them there. Instead, this has been a team below their best of late despite dominating games, with a platform to be in the hunt created by imperious showings at the back. That’s not just where their early-season strength has been though: it’s what they’ll need to stay at the top across the next five months.
90 - Liverpool have scored more winning goals in the 90th minute or later than any other team in Premier League history, with 40% of them coming under Jürgen Klopp (17/43).
43 - Liverpool
32 - Arsenal
31 - Spurs
29 - Man Utd
26 - Chelsea
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 9, 2023
Not for the first time this season, or indeed this week, Virgil van Dijk stood tallest and most impressive among Liverpool players to deliver a performance few could match at Selhurst Park.
Sometimes that suggests he was of inimitable quality; on this occasion, while he was genuinely excellent, it’s more that very few of his teammates had that kind of level in their locker on the day - at least until the late substitutions. Liverpool were slow, sloppy and perhaps fortunate to be in a position to still go for the win, albeit Palace were not exactly a force of nature themselves.
Regardless, Van Dijk was near-impeccable throughout, once again playing very much at the peak of his powers this season and, given this result leaves Liverpool top, he’s probably at this point worth considering as a real player of the year candidate, too.
If there was one mis-step from the Dutchman during this 100-minutes-plus, it was soon rendered irrelevant. He stepped across to foul Odsonne Edouard, conceding a penalty, but a VAR check revealed Wataru Endo had first been similarly halted and Van Dijk’s transgression was ruled out. The rest of the match, he was dominant.
And when he wasn’t, the man behind him was close to unbeatable.
Alisson Becker’s recall was a surprise - he wasn’t intially due back from injury until perhaps the home match against Manchester United, another week from now - but it was very much a welcome one.
Twice the Brazilian goalkeeper was called upon to intervene; twice he made saves which arguably only a handful of No1s around the league would have been able to match. First a point-blank save tipped Jefferson Lerma’s fierce hit up and onto the post, Alexander-Arnold helping out with the eventual clearance. And then, well past 99 minutes and preserving the 2-1 lead for his team, Alisson got low to his left to tip a goalbound header around the post and wide.
Between them, Van Dijk and Alisson have been the league’s best more than once over the last few years; four seasons ago they were integral parts of a Liverpool team playing well and en route to winning the league title.
The rest of Klopp’s team haven’t quite matched their levels just yet this term, but if they do find that cohesion, chemistry and consistency in the second half of the campaign, Van Dijk’s magnificence in particular could yet lead to the Reds winning it once again - this time with him lifting the trophy as captain.