Liverpool couldn’t face much harder opponents than Crystal Palace this Saturday, in their first home game of the season. Ordinarily that would sound preposterous but the South Londoners will fight for their fourth straight win at Anfield. That’s something even Manchester United or Chelsea at their peak haven’t been able to do.
It presents a hard task for Jurgen Klopp and his team to end this disconcerting run. They’ve shown to be more adept against quality sides and faced down greater challenges under the German’s reign.
This is beginning to feel like a jinx, against a club that often used to hate playing at Anfield. When something like this plays on the mind, any small turn in the team’s fortunes during the match can have greater consequences than usual.
Behind against Watford in their first game, Liverpool suffered no collapse in morale. They just kept going — twice — and probably should have won.
In last season’s 2-1 defeat to Palace, Liverpool took the lead but once former player Christian Benteke equalised in front of the Kop, the home side deflated right before everyone’s eyes and Benteke’s winner was no surprise.
Bear in mind this came right in the middle of an impressively stubborn Liverpool run in a race with Arsenal for fourth spot. It was their only defeat between the start of March and late May.
If the Palace hoodoo wasn’t enough, the Reds also face their nemesis Benteke. Apart from the year he wore a Liverpool shirt, he’s always treated Anfield like his private hunting ground.
With Aston Villa he won twice and drew once, the latter when Villa had raced into a two goal lead. His season with the Reds was not productive, but that was bound to end badly.
When you’re being schooled by Tim Sherwood about how poor a move is, you know it must be wrong. Sherwood obviously knew Villa would struggle without the Belgian and his own job was in peril, but he was proven right — Liverpool don’t play the sort of football Benteke thrives upon.
Sherwood and Villa subsequently left the Premier League as predicted, but Benteke also struggled badly. He joined Palace and has done well since, especially that day at Anfield.
Benteke is the one major deal Liverpool have got wrong in the last couple of years. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum have come and done well, while Mohammed Salah already looks a significant signing.
What bothers Liverpool fans is the infrequency of such deals, with not one major defender joining either. It’s starting to look like a major oversight.
It’s possible the Reds have enough midfield and attacking options to even withstand the loss of Philippe Coutinho, were he to join Barcelona.
Defence is a different matter. They have been shambolic in both matches played so far this season. One major transfer that hasn’t really worked out is Dejan Lovren, and it seems patience is finally running out.
Simon Mignolet has a vague point about Liverpool’s style being very positive and therefore not conducive to good defence, but there are two basic periods of play; ones where you have the ball, ones where you don’t.
What Liverpool do — often brilliantly — when they are in possession should not really impact on the time they aren’t in possession. If it’s all boils down to managerial focus, then the Reds can’t really hope to reach the top. Their defending will always let the other half of the team down.
Mane and Salah are such important members of the team already that they can’t ever be rested, even for 15 minutes at the end of a match, as they may still be needed to rescue the team after a late concession, just as Watford and Hoffenheim have already done this season.
Game management isn’t just about securing victory; it’s about preserving energy during a long hard season, which this one threatens to be.
Liverpool had reasonable home form last season but it paled into insignificance compared to front runners Chelsea and Tottenham, so it must improve further if the team is to challenge.
Sides may prefer an easy start, but being presented with a strong challenge from Hoffenheim in the Champions League and starting with tricky home league matches against Palace and then Arsenal forces Liverpool to focus on the kind of challenge they’ve often thrived upon.
As the transfer window starts to close, fans can judge Liverpool’s business once everything is settled, their European destination is known and their early form can be judged.
Late August has not been a good time for Liverpool in the transfer market. The last thing they want is to darken the mood further with a fourth straight home defeat against a side that could end up fighting a relegation battle again.