Liver­pool flaws mean this ti­tle race is likely to go down to the wire

Klopp may de­cide he has to strengthen mid­field to main­tain ad­van­tage over cham­pi­ons City

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League - JEREMY WIL­SON

The first po­ten­tially sig­nif­i­cant wob­ble has been cor­rected, and the sea­son has al­ready reached a point at which re­sults take a very clear prece­dence over per­for­mances, but there was still plenty here to en­cour­age Manch­ester City.

Yes, the cham­pi­ons are again star­ing up at an seven-point deficit to Liver­pool ahead of their match to­mor­row night against Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers and, yes, it can be con­vinc­ingly ar­gued that this was just the sort of for­get­table but very timely 1-0 win on which league cham­pi­onships are his­tor­i­cally won. But the jar­ring im­pact of City’s 2-1 win 10 days ago was still very ev­i­dent and the swag­ger that Liver­pool dis­played in scor­ing 14 goals in four De­cem­ber matches against Manch­ester United, Arse­nal, Wolves and New­cas­tle has been checked.

So flam­boy­ant and so con­fi­dent in win­ning eight straight games be­fore their de­feat at the Eti­had Sta­dium, this was Liver­pool back to their earl­y­sea­son form. Solid. Ef­fi­cient. Job done. Ul­ti­mately they were good where it most mat­tered, at ei­ther end of the pitch, but lack­ing the au­thor­ity and rhythm you might rea­son­ably ex­pect of fu­ture cham­pi­ons.

Vir­gil van Dijk was a typ­i­cally tow­er­ing de­fen­sive pres­ence, and in both win­ning the penalty and so em­phat­i­cally con­vert­ing the chance, Mo­hamed Salah con­tin­ued his out­stand­ing form. He made the dif­fer­ence in what Brighton man­ager Chris Hughton rightly an­a­lysed as a 90-minute match that hinged on a few mo­ments.

Else­where, and even al­low­ing for some ten­sion af­ter also los­ing against Wolves in the FA Cup on Mon­day, this was a work­man­like Liver­pool.

Pos­ses­sion was dom­i­nated but clear chances were rare and a nag­ging ques­tion per­sists even about this hugely im­pres­sive ti­tle chal­lenge.

It is whether Liver­pool have suf­fi­cient mid­field pres­ence and flu­ency to main­tain their ad­van­tage over City. They were well beaten in that area of the pitch by Pep Guardi­ola’s side this month and, while Xher­dan Shaqiri, Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum and Jor­dan Hen­der­son are very good Premier League play­ers, would they get in any

City mid­field con­tain­ing Fer­nand­inho, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne or Bernardo Silva? It is a depth in qual­ity which al­lows City to ef­fort­lessly dom­i­nate matches even while well be­low their best. Liver­pool do not have that same lux­ury and there was an ar­gu­ment here that they were for­tu­nate that Brighton did so pri­ori­tise their own de­fen­sive struc­ture. Liver­pool were hes­i­tant early in the game and, while they cer­tainly did be­gin the sec­ond half with more ur­gency, Brighton might just have been re­warded for tak­ing greater risks. That they ended the match with­out so much as a shot on goal was a con­se­quence of their cau­tion as much as Liver­pool’s on­go­ing de­fen­sive ex­cel­lence.

The wider ques­tion with the trans­fer win­dow open is whether Liver­pool might seek to im­prove their mid­field. It ap­pears un­likely, even if their metic­u­lously ex­e­cuted trans­fer plan­ning over re­cent years has still con­tained the oc­ca­sional sur­prise. An added re­cent fac­tor has been the need to start Fabinho in de­fence even if the big­gest weak­ness was not so much the mid­field shield of­fered by Hen­der­son and Wi­j­nal­dum but the ab­sence of any con­sis­tently co­her­ent link to their at­tack.

Shaqiri was dis­ap­point­ingly quiet, and came off af­ter Salah’s goal in pref­er­ence for James Mil­ner, while Naby Keita was brought on af­ter 90 min­utes when the sole pri­or­ity was to see the game out. It was en­tirely sen­si­ble in the spe­cific cir­cum­stances – and forth­com­ing fix­tures against Crys­tal Palace, Le­ices­ter City, West Ham United and Bournemouth rep­re­sent a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity to re­store at­tack­ing con­fi­dence – but how Klopp would surely love the op­tion of a fully fit Alex OxladeCham­ber­lain.

Klopp ap­peared mildly af­fronted ear­lier this sea­son when he was asked about the qual­ity of his mid­field and pre­dicted that both Fabinho and Keita could emerge as a ma­jor in­flu­ence in the sec­ond half of the cam­paign.

Liver­pool’s great strength in re­cent years has been the way they have pa­tiently and strate­gi­cally tar­geted par­tic­u­lar ar­eas of the team with spe­cific play­ers. That plan­ning paid off spec­tac­u­larly in re­spect of Van Dijk. Alis­son was the sig­nif­i­cant new piece last sum­mer and to­gether they have fun­da­men­tally changed the char­ac­ter of the team. This was the sort of match that Liver­pool would have stum­bled over be­fore their ar­rivals and a fifth 1-0 win of the sea­son is in it­self a state­ment about their im­prove­ment. There is a so­lid­ity and street­wise qual­ity hith­erto lack­ing. Add in two of the best play­ers on the planet at ei­ther end of the pitch in Salah and Van Dijk, and you have a team who can win. It has put Liver­pool in a won­der­ful po­si­tion but they are not with­out weak­ness, and while that makes them vul­ner­a­ble to City in a ti­tle race that still looks likely to go down to the wire, the scope for fur­ther im­prove­ment next sea­son is clear.

Stuck in the mid­dle: Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum is part of a Liver­pool mid­field strug­gling to sup­ply their for­wards ad­e­quately

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