The absurdity of Premier nitpicking

 

 

How different might Liverpool’s weekend date with Burnley have turned out had Chris Wood applied a finish that was more fitting of his early break? Let through on goal by an unusually rushed Virgil van Dijk, the New Zealander’s cut-in shot was too tame to beat Adrián — a stopper desperate for a clean sheet.

Thirty minutes later Wood attempted to block a hopeful inswinger from Trent Alexander-Arnold only to score the freakiest of own goals. That’s football: cruel and unforgiving. As it turned out Jürgen Klopp would watch his side cruise to a comfortable 3-0 scoreline, securing a 100% start to the season and a club-record 13th straight win.

Most impressive streaks have an element of fortune to them and this was no different. The happy Burnley bounces aside, Danny Ings will still be kicking himself for conspiring to miss his chance to draw Southampton level three weeks ago. That game perhaps would worry Klopp most so far as we enter the first international break — the overly sluggish running was clear evidence of how stretched this squad can get when asked to play multiple high-intensity games in a week.

A perfect start it may be but that one loss in the entirety of last season, to Manchester City, will still haunt the German tactician. That sole blemish was enough to bump the Reds down to second place and it already feels like we may become accustomed to those tight margins once more. How incapacitating must the pressure feel to know that one slip will leave your chances tumbling to their doom?

After the Burnley game, Klopp downplayed Sadio Mané’s headline-grabbing outburst and apparent frustration with Mohamed Salah’s refusal to pass him the ball. Perhaps he’s right and there’s little to see here except a squabble between two supremely hungry players desperate to find the net no matter the score. Another speculative interpretation is that all is not dandy on Merseyside.

Liverpool built their Champions League win on the immovable bond between the first-choice XI. If that in any way begins to erode, it’s hard to envision a similar high-quality outcome. Say what you will about Divock Origi or Roberto Firmino, there are two legitimate goalscorers in this team and Klopp can ill-afford to watch them fall out. The midfield certainly can’t be relied on to chip in regularly — arguably only Fabinho has distinguished himself as much more than a relentless runner and he’s certainly not going to get into double figures.

Of course these tight margins rest on a double-edged sword. Manchester City themselves have some annoying doubts that are hard to swat away.

If we’re being cynical, Sergio Agüero is due a stint on the injury table based on past evidence. If that takes up a chunk of the season, can Gabriel Jesus lead the line adequately for an extended period?

More concerning is the potentially long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte. Pep Guardiola has long resigned himself to the reality that his benefactors refused to source a replacement for Vincent Kompany. Youngsters aside, the situation leaves the Catalan with no choice but to play Nicolás Otamendi alongside the returning John Stones. Kyle Walker could jump to the centre but that hardly inspires more confidence.

Guardiola teams thrive on strict discipline and co-ordination through every member of the 11. One awkward piece in the Jenga puzzle will send the whole tower crashing down.

Much of this piece probably sounds like an extreme game of devil’s advocate. Both City and Liverpool are so ahead of the pack, it’s not even worth mentioning anymore. But that’s the point we’ve got to — one misstep on the tightrope and it’s over. This is the ridiculous world we now live in.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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