Two tweets sum up the mood at Anfield. Andy Robertson posted a clip of himself at the end of the 3-1 defeat of Manchester City. The left back is smiling, basking in the afterglow of a superb performance. “Realising you have more assists that @trentaa98,” he wrote.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was quick to reply. “Come back to me in May,” he responded.
These are players having fun. And no wonder. Liverpool are eight points clear at the top of the Premier League and, even better, City are a further point adrift. Pep Guardiola’s side were ruthlessly despatched on Sunday and for all the Catalan’s gripes about decisions that went Liverpool’s way, Jurgen Klopp’s team were superior. When the euphoria dies down, Alexander-Arnold’s mantra will be repeated endlessly. Come back in May. Titles are not won in November. There is a huge amount of hard work to be completed over the winter.
There are lessons from history. In 1985 Manchester United won the first 10 league games and went unbeaten for 15. At this stage of the campaign United – who were desperate to win the league for the first time in 19 years – appeared even more impressive than Klopp’s side. They were 10 points clear, had scored 30 goals and conceded just four. Liverpool have notched 28 and leaked 10. The hysteria surrounding Ron Atkinson’s team was at least as frenzied as in today’s digital age. On the morning of United’s 16th game, a tabloid newspaper’s back page carried the headline: “Give it to them now.” Later that day they lost for the first time. A depressing winter beckoned and injuries piled up. United finished fourth.
Liverpool’s title drought is even longer. It will be 30 years by the time May rolls around and the pressure is huge. Klopp can deal with that. What the 52-year-old fears most is injuries.
If the starting XI against City could play every game, the Premier League would be a foregone conclusion. The German has created a beautifully balanced team that is as mentally robust as it is relentless. They display the belief that you would expect from European champions.
Long layoffs for any of the front three would be a problem. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are close to being irreplaceable, as is Virgil van Dijk. It is also becoming clear that Alexander-Arnold has emerged as the creative hub of the side. Robertson is the perfect foil on the other side of the pitch. How many teams have dreaded an injury to their full-backs? Not many.
Salah’s goal against City illustrated the impact of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. The 21-year-old’s crossfield ball was magnificent. The Scouser’s passing range is the equal of any midfielder’s. Robertson’s run and cross were almost as sublime. It would be trite to say it was easy for Salah but any striker would love this sort of service.
The emphasis of the full-back position has changed over the past two decades. It has increasingly become an attacking role. That is not new. Getting defenders forward has long been a core tactic for the best teams. Guardiola has spent more than £200 million on full-backs in his time at the Etihad but what Liverpool do is different.
City’s full-backs look like defenders ranging upfield. Alexander-Arnold has vision. He sees passes in the way midfielders see them. Robertson has the appetite and attitude of a robust winger. Both have escaped the full-back pigeonhole to become something more than a defender. If Klopp loses either of them for a sustained spell it would have a huge impact on the team.
The fear is that Liverpool are such a finely turned piece of machinery that there are half a dozen components that have to be in place to make the engine fire properly. Remove any one of those pieces and the team stalls. Alexander-Arnold has grown into the lynchpin for this side.
The fixture list is the enemy. The squad is not built to play so often – 12 matches in 37 days between the end of the international break and 2 January. But that is only half the equation.
Every team in the Premier League will be working on plans to nullify Liverpool’s full-backs. If their rivals succeed, then Klopp will have to change the point of attack and revamp his system. There has long been talk of moving Alexander-Arnold into midfield but it would make no sense while the youngster is having such an impact out wide. The rest of the division are still playing catch-up tactically and, until they do, Liverpool will continue to impose their shape and pace on matches.
Yet there are enough questions hanging over Anfield to ensure there is no complacency. City clawed back a seven-point deficit last year and are likely to put in another charge.
The end of the season is a long way distant. Liverpool are enjoying themselves but they know that the time to have real fun is in May.