Liverpool pulls in front, but EPL race has far to go

Liverpool pulls in front, but Premier League race has far to go

Klopp’s squad has been stripped by injury

Liverpool's Fabinho and teammates celebrate after the match. Credit: Reuters Photo

José Mourinho left one name off his list. The Tottenham manager had been busy using his final news conference before his team’s trip to Liverpool to indulge his taste — and his talent — for sophistry, trying to prove Jürgen Klopp’s squad was not quite as threadbare as has been advertised by reeling off all the players that would be available.

It is an act that has been polished to precision, but even Mourinho seemed to sense he was pushing his luck just a little. He got through the defense OK, and no manager blanks on Liverpool’s front line, but the midfield was more of a problem.

He could not think who might join Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson in Liverpool’s midfield. Nothing sparked — in the end, he could name only 10 players, which definitely proved a point, but not the one he was making — and so he moved on, not letting facts get in the way of a good argument.

Next time, he may not make the same mistake. Mohamed Salah might have given Liverpool the lead against Tottenham on Wednesday. Roberto Firmino might have scored the goal that deprived Spurs of a merited point and sent the reigning champion to a 2-1 victory and the top of the Premier League table. Henderson might have provided the moment that will boil Mourinho’s blood, his subtle nudge on Eric Dier clearing a path for Firmino to strike.

But much of Liverpool’s play ran through the midfielder Mourinho forgot. Curtis Jones signaled his promise, just short of a year ago, with considerable noise: a spectacular, curling shot to give a youthful Liverpool team a derby victory against Everton in an FA Cup tie at Anfield. The game — broadcast live on the BBC — attracted an audience of 7.2 million people, two or three times what most Premier League games command.

Jones’ rise since then, though, has been curiously quiet, particularly for a locally reared talent at one of England’s grandest clubs. He started just one Premier League game after soccer’s restart in June; he made just a couple of substitute appearances — offering flashes of his ability, no more — in the opening weeks of this season.

As more and more players have fallen by the wayside, though, as Klopp’s squad has been stripped by injury — eight senior players were missing against Spurs, with two more only available as substitutes — Jones has had to step up. He has started four of Liverpool’s last five league games, and four of its six Champions League appointments so far.

And yet he has become an established presence in Liverpool’s side almost unnoticed. That is, perhaps, because having one of the Premier League’s academies produce a gifted young player is not quite so rare as it once was. England — all of a sudden — has a glut of talent in its late teens and early twenties, capturing the imagination at even the most demanding clubs.

Manchester City has Phil Foden, Manchester United has Mason Greenwood, Chelsea has Mason Mount. The days when a young English player’s making the grade, of his being given a chance in the Premier League, was a rarity are long gone. It is no longer possible to celebrate each one individually, as it would have been even five years ago. There just is not the time.

Jones’ progress, too, is testament to the circumstances in which he has been given his chance. Liverpool’s early season has been defined by injuries: not just the season-ending damage sustained by Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez but the seemingly endless run of needling, niggling problems that have made Klopp such an ardent advocate for teams to be able to call on more substitutes. A hamstring here, a knee problem there, three weeks out, four weeks out, another game with Liverpool’s resources depleted.

It creates a phenomenon in which watching Liverpool is to note that which is absent more than what is present: How will Klopp’s team cope without Van Dijk? Does it have the same aura without any of its senior, specialist central defenders? Is it running out of energy? Has it lost its spark? It has been so powerful that it has been possible not to notice Liverpool’s presence close to, or now at, the summit of the Premier League.

But most of all, Jones’ transition into Liverpool’s team has been so smooth because of him. His teammates joke about his self-assurance, his lack of doubt, his iron self-belief. Klopp has found that he is not backward in coming forward, in asserting that he should, perhaps, be in the team ahead of some of the celebrated stars who have conquered both England and Europe with this team.

All of that manifests in his play. Jones demands the ball constantly, drifting into space, directing his teammates, dictating the game. He is not cowed by the standards he must meet or by the expectations he has been set. His colleagues have responded with the most significant judgment of all: their trust. It is possible not to notice Jones because he looks like he belongs.

None of that, though, should diminish what an achievement it is both for him — winning a place in one of Europe’s best teams at age 19 is, after all, no mean feat — and for Liverpool.

By the time Firmino scored his goal, the winning goal, Klopp’s players had been running on fumes for some time. The high-tempo, high-intensity style he demands is being pushed to its limits by the relentlessness of this season. Sadio Mané seemed diminished. Salah had drifted out onto the right flank, hoping something might happen, rather than believing that it would.

But when Firmino rose above Toby Alderweireld and planted his header past Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, he seemed to get a burst of adrenaline. He turned and sprinted along the field, across the halfway line, back toward the Kop, where the 2,000 fans permitted entry were punching the air in delight.

He — and they — knew this was a significant step on what remains a long and arduous road. The Premier League table is packed tight. Liverpool is only eight points ahead of Wolves, and Wolves is 10th. Spurs and Chelsea and Leicester, as well as both Manchester clubs, lie menacing.

In the circumstances — given Liverpool’s injury list, whether Mourinho regards it as valid or not — that Klopp has his team ahead of them all, even if only for now, is to his immense credit. But it is to the credit, too, of the players who have stepped into the breach, Jones prime among them. Mourinho, you suspect, will not be the last to learn his name.