Liverpool’s return to the highest echelon of English Football seems all but inevitable. Their comeback arrived not with a bang as many expected, but with a whimper. After winning the Champions League last year, and having stood quite literally at the precipice of domestic success several times, it seems like only a matter of time before the Reds will pull it off and celebrate their first domestic title in 30 years—and their first of the Premier League era. Memories of heartbreak, untimely slips, and stars leaving for Barcelona will all be worth it soon enough.
But few could have imagined the circumstances in which it would finally become possible. After Tottenham’s surprise 2-0 win over Manchester City last weekend, Liverpool now stand 22 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, with three months left of the season and 13 games to be played. Liverpool have achieved the highest point tally ever this far into the season, and their commanding lead happens to be the biggest point lead in Premier League history.
But how did we get here? How did Liverpool effectively end the title race before the new year, and become the most dominant side in the history of English soccer?
Fresh off of the heels of an epic title race last season—which saw Liverpool and Manchester City contend for the title until the last day of the season, in which City won by one point—many pundits and fans anticipated a race of comparable exhilaration. Yet, the tenor changed considerably from the get-go. Liverpool jumped to an early lead and haven’t looked back. The only team who has managed to take points off of the leaders this season are the rarely consistent Manchester United, who managed to finagle a draw at home. This outing later proved to be an aberration, as Liverpool convincingly thumped United 2-0 at Anfield.
Liverpool’s closest rival in the standings, the perennial powerhouse and two-time defending champions Manchester City, have languished in the shadow of the Reds. City have already lost more this season than during their entire title campaign last year, suffering losses to the likes of Norwich City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and fading cross-town rivals Manchester United. As it stands today, Manchester City are closer to 14th place Crystal Palace than to the league leaders.
Other teams have only experienced spurts of success, never amounting to a serious challenge to the throne. Perhaps the surprise team of the season is the resurgent Leicester City under Brendan Rodgers, the manager who preceded Jürgen Klopp at the helm of Liverpool. With the scoring prowess of veteran Jamie Vardy and the rising star of forward James Maddison, the team seemed poised to replicate some of the success from their 2015 title campaign and supplant City as the main challenger in the league. However, hopes were quickly dashed as Leicester was downed by City and subsequently crushed by Liverpool in successive weeks, now firmly sitting in third.
Chelsea, under new management of club legend Frank Lampard, saw some initial success with the youthful vigor of their new crop of stars, including homegrown talents Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount. But Chelsea’s success proved to falter behind the poor play of their backline, and the exceedingly poor play from their record-signing goalkeeper, Spaniard Kepa Arrizabalaga. Tottenham, a team that have firmly established themselves as an enduring force in English soccer, shockingly fired their longtime manager Mauricio Potechinno after a poor run of games, and replaced him with Jose Mourinho.
In other words, it seems as though the rest of the league have all performed poorly, as the race for the last Champions League spot—reserved for the fourth-place finisher—remains the last conciliation that many good teams can salvage from this season. But this ought not to diminish the achievements of Liverpool, who are in prime position to break every record imaginable before the league wraps up in May, as Liverpool looks to join 2003-04 Arsenal as the only team in Premier League history to go a season undefeated.
This is largely thanks to the positional strength of Liverpool’s starting XI, with four team members appearing on FIFA’s Team of Year. Liverpool’s lively front three, comprised of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firminho and Mohamed Salah, have been an effective goal-scoring unit, with all three players scoring and assisting each other at unprecedented levels. Although they’re viewed as the weakest of Liverpool’s positional units, the midfield has also stepped-up. Once overlooked as an average player, captain Jordan Henderson is now the odds-on-favorite to win the coveted PFA Player of the Year award. Feeding the front line is the magnificent fullback pair of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, with Alexander-Arnold currently holding the second highest assist tally in the league. Ballon d’Or Runner-up Virgil Van Dijk and Yashin Award winner (the new prize awarded to soccer’s best goalkeeper) Alisson Becker command a backline that has allowed only 15 goals this season. Though not as star-studded as Manchester City, Liverpool’s bench has also successfully filled in for their starters; for example, goalkeeper Adrián rose from relative obscurity to admirably take the reins for 10 games during the season.
Beyond its players, Liverpool’s success seemingly lies in stability and pragmatic transfer policy. Whereas most of Europe’s great teams have had recent transfer flops, all of Liverpool’s signings now seem like robberies, as most players have appreciated significantly in signing value during the course of their time at the club. Furthermore, while many of Liverpool’s contemporaries spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past year, Liverpool have remained oddly quiet, devoting attention to younger stars and rounding out roster holes with inexpensive talent. The recent winter signing of Japanese attacker Takumi Minamino for a measly $9.35 million was widely praised, and indicative of the club’s shrewd transfer policy.
And of course, the lynchpin of all of this is Klopp, Liverpool’s German coach, who has been widely praised for his tactics and management of the squad. Whereas Liverpool fans finally seem willing to look past the heartbreak of yesteryears and start celebrating, Klopp appears to be the last person on earth to accept that Liverpool will win. And who can blame him? No one, including Klopp and Liverpool’s upper brass could have expected Liverpool to do this well, or for the rest of the league to be falling so far behind. With an assured Premier League title awaiting them as early as March, perhaps Liverpool’s long anticipated championship will not come down to the wire with a last minute goal—that is, with a bang.
But, after such a long and heartbreaking wait, surely a whimper will do.
Tobias Wertime can be reached at email@example.com.