Admittedly, I’ve only been on this good Earth for 24 years. I’m sure there’s plenty out there who have more compelling tales from the history of English Football than me. Nonetheless, I consider the 2015/16 season to have been nothing short of an absolute joy to behold, whoever you are and however much football you’ve seen – my favourite League season so far by a country mile.
It wasn’t just Leicester winning the title that no one gave them a faint hope of taking. A young Tottenham squad’s strong push for the title was, for me, as unlikely. Man City winning the first 5 games without conceding a goal (boring), and going on to scrape fourth place (more like it). West Ham almost tasting Champions League football for once. The battle for survival between the old rivals of the North East. Goals, surprises, upsets, backstories to everything that went on – it was a breath of fresh air and a reminder of what makes football such an enthralling, spectacular and deeply lovable game for fans like me.
Alas, these seasons only happen once in a while. Weirdly, the last league winners with such long odds were Blackburn 20 years before, while Nottingham Forest represented underdogs and fantasists everywhere another 17 prior to that immediately after promotion to the top flight. Not a huge amount to go by, but there’s loosely a bit of a pattern there. And so, by the cruel hands of the football gods, we’ll be punished for our sins with up to another 20 years of predictable, one-sided domination of the likes of bygone Liverpool and Man United sides, sprinkled with a plucky challenge here and there from one or two old rivals in the guise of past Evertons, Leeds Uniteds, Arsenals or Chelseas.
Though this year’s Liverpool side have the potential to defy this funny little game of the powers that be.
The easy thing would be for Manchester City – with their infinite riches and pioneering Pep Guardiola – to cruise to the title. With José at the helm and the money they’ve spent on already excellent acquisitions, town rivals United should have been the sharpest thorn in their noisy neighbours’ side. New blood in the Stamford Bridge hot-seat and Arsene’s eventual reach into his club’s purse give us, surely, the proprietors of the final tickets for the elite-only party that dances to the tune of the Champions League. As expected, early evidence backs Man City to be the last team on the dancefloor come May, and after six games you’d be forgiven for thinking the crown might already be theirs. Yet youthful Spurs refuse to let last season’s disappointment deny them entry to this Euro shindig, and Liverpool seem intent on crashing through the club doors in a haze of grit, goals and Gegenpressing.
The sheer fact that Liverpool occupy the second-favourite’s slot for league glory this year is enough of a surprise already, and makes for a more interesting battle at the top. They’re the ones giving you your dollop of ‘hang on, that’s not supposed to happen’ we all love. But the football backs it up so far – while Leicester repeatedly stung the money-spinners at the top with their joyful, passionate counter-attacking style in 2015/16, Liverpool are soaking up the admirers this year for their lightning-fast, turbo-powered, energetic displays this time around.
Leicester aren’t the animal they were last season and their dose of realism this year is sad for all. Liverpool might not match the Foxes’ romantic achievements, but to just sit and watch them at the moment is giving us the entertainment factor we all crave.
The football is looking brilliant up top. Liverpool have put together more passes than any other side this season, and yet have managed to connect 84.6% (fourth highest and climbing) of those they’ve attempted, up from last season’s 80.2%. Only Arsenal have been more successful (85%) than the three teams above Liverpool in the table this season, and no-one can deny that passing is their thang.
To make this all the more fun to watch, the way their attacking players move around each other is amazing. There doesn’t seem to be anything concrete about the players’ positions this season, which makes them outrageously hard to mark and creates more space for themselves and others around them, making passing easier to do. Even Milner and Clyne, from full back, are getting into the box or cutting in from the sidelines regularly and behaving rather more like wingers.
Look at Liverpool’s first goal against Leicester. Front-line spearhead Daniel Sturridge, rather than bursting through the centre, peeled off delicately to the left wing, pulling Wes Morgan with him. That allowed Roberto Firmino to fill the monumental that left in the defence, collect the ball beautifully from James Milner and open the scoring with ease.
What makes The Reds both exciting to watch and a massive threat to everyone else is the goals come from everywhere. You can’t predict from one game to the next who’s going to score, with 7 different league goalscorers already (only Arsenal have more). Of Liverpool’s seven goalscorers, five have scored 3 goals or more – that’s something no team can match. Sturridge, Origi, Ings, Wijnaldum and others are all yet to get on the scoresheet as well. It took them up until December last season to get that many different scorers. It’s making an absolute mockery of my fantasy team, but I (almost) don’t care.
So far, they average 7 shots on target per game, compared to 5.3 last season. Shot accuracy is up from 47.8% to 57.6%. Goals per game up from 1.7 to 2.6. Fans want attacking football. Fans want goals, and Liverpool are giving them. There’s some good ones in there too – Henderson, Coutinho and Mané have hit a couple of belters, while some of the interplay allows for the kind of blistering team goals that we’ve seen Lallana score against Arsenal or Firmino to score against Leicester.
The attack is full of energy, improving in quality and drawing both envious and fearful glances from teams around the country.
And even better for neutrals everywhere – the defence is at times as shaky and unsure of itself as the attack is the opposite. Where would be the fun in total domination? Who wants to watch the opposition give up from the word go every weekend? The Reds’ backline gives the opposition hope that an upset is always on the cards. They too don’t rest.
They continue to fight, they attack, they play, and it makes it all the more exciting to watch. Not one team has failed to score against Liverpool yet in the league, they’ve conceded 1.43 goals per game (1.3 last season) and tackle percentage is down from 77.7% to 70.8%. Unless they do something about it the Anfield club are going to carry on giving football fans everywhere something joyous to relish at both ends of the green. It’s likely to ruin their surprise ‘challenge’ for the title, but so what? I’m on the edge of my seat every week watching them because of it.
Unlike Leicester last season, though, they will have a much harder task of winning the Premier League. Not because they’re not as good as Leicester last season – far from it – but the opposition this season has taken a serious step up in quality from last.
No other league can now boast the wealth of immensely successful managers the Premier League has to offer. Between Pep, Jose, Arsene, Klopp, Conte, Koeman and Ranieri you’ll find 27 top flight League Titles from 6 countries, 23 National Cups from 7 countries, 4 Champions Leagues and one UEFA Cup, among many others. Liverpool’s opposition could not be more well led.
The famous multi-billion TV-rights over these next three seasons has fuelled a monster transfer influx, with the 2016 summer signings total eclipsing £1bn for the first time. Many consider some of them to be silly money, but where other clubs in Europe can’t afford to match it, English clubs are happy splashing the cash to bring the biggest names in the game to England.
This, however, should rightly give a final flourish to Liverpool’s ability to endear the neutral this season. Man City’s net spend: £162.48m. Man Utd: £151.7m. Chelsea: £85.26m. Arsenal: £84.24m. And Liverpool? 17th in the Premier League list of money-burning on a net spend of -£9m. That’s right, a £9m profit.
The Reds are defying the trend of English clubs to chuck money at clubs who know we’ve got billions lying around for players whose fame – and, perhaps in some cases, egos – go before them and their actual achievements. Despite this, in a world where money rules all and the gap between rich clubs and poor ones seems despairingly greater than ever, Liverpool are flying the flag for football fans all over. This is not the best, most talented and most expensive set of individuals in the league, but they’re proving the most entertaining – a menacingly powerful collective unit that, in the eyes of many, are in with a genuine shout of their first Premier League title. This is what football, in England of all places, needs now more than ever.