Arrogance has the potential to become the worst enemy of the two most exciting pretenders to the Premier League throne. It stalks them, patiently waiting for complacency to provide cover for its attack.
Liverpool’s trip to North London this weekend represents the biggest match of the season so far. It’s up to you decide whether to celebrate that perspective or bemoan it as an indictment of Manchester United and Arsenal.
We’re far from the stage when we can believe Arsenal coach Unai Emery can help the latter have any telling effect on the title race or, indeed, on any other matter of significance. The Red Devils, meanwhile, have proved their road to redemption is still in its infancy.
No one has worked as hard as Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino and Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp to close the chasm at the top in recent years. Both have taken their sides to genuine throne contender status through their respective coherent visions and superb management. Tottenham Hotspur and the Reds, along with City, are the big boys now — that was indisputable going into the season.
What is in dispute is whether they can retain that status or build on it.
The reason you hear English commentators regularly salivate over Tottenham is they represent the old-fashioned work ethic they revere so much. Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dele Alli are sufficiently technical in their own right but it’s their willingness to run, their eagerness in the 50-50s and their overall zeal that make them special.
It has been Klopp’s willingness to gamble that has seen Liverpool run parallel to that progress. He took previous manager Brendan Rodgers’ shambles and turned it into a stealth bomber perpetually aimed at the enemy. Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané have no right to inflict as much havoc as they do, while Mohamed Salah has had his name thrown around as a Ballon d’Or contender, thanks to the influence of his manager.
Both approaches represent a tenacity that United, Chelsea and Arsenal have been unwilling to match.
Now that they have surpassed them, a different struggle awaits. Being an underdog doesn’t afford you the luxury of an ego, but once you become good, there’s nothing stopping it from engorging itself with your triumphs. Like the pigs in Animal Farm, the beds and milk become awfully tempting once you make your way into the house.
After perfect starts, there were slivers of evidence that hubris was beginning to assume control before the international break kicked off.
Spurs have already tripped up. After taking the lead in the second half against Watford, it seemed as inevitable as rain in London that they would go on to see out the win. Perhaps they thought so too, which would go a long way to explaining why the entire team stood static as José Holebas whipped in an in swinger for Troy Deeney to head home. They did exactly the same thing as the left back delivered an outswinger for the second goal that would prove to be the winner.
Moments before the equaliser, Deeney had powered past Davinson Sánchez with the irreverence of a school bully. It was the type of domination that shouldn’t happen to an elite defender on his game — only to one not entirely dedicated to planting his feet on the ground.
The relatively easy Reds fixtures have helped them retain their 100% record. Performances, though, have hardly been vintage. Bar the opening thrashing of West Ham United, none of the three points gained have a commanding ring to them. Last time out, again we saw individual sloppiness that was not becoming of the standard they have set themselves.
In the aftermath, Klopp said he was happy that Alisson Becker got his major error out of his system, but that was no routine fumble. Foolishly trying to turn the attacker in that position can only be driven by the chutzpah that comes from soaking up your own hype. Ahead of him, Salah hastily skewed wide the type of opportunity he would have viciously devoured last season.
With two goals in four games, the Egyptian is hardly suffering a drought but the emphasis still remains on him to prove he has last season’s ruthlessness available on tap. Maiming the constantly improving Kieran Trippier on Saturday would be a good place to start.
Battles between Liverpool and Spurs certainly haven’t failed to entertain of late. In the past year, they have been the clashes of players desperate to claw their way up. Now, whoever proves that hunger still tears at their insides will find themselves exiting Wembley with the full rewards, and perhaps even the genuine belief that they’re now title contenders.