Title-race questions: How Liverpool respond to first setback will decide their destiny

Daniel Storey picks out the five biggest questions emerging after Liverpool's first loss of the season to champions Man City.

Title-race questions: How Liverpool respond to first setback will decide their destiny

Daniel Storey picks out the five biggest questions emerging after Liverpool's first loss of the season to champions Man City.

Can Liverpool move on quickly?

It was only three points. It was only one game. Our destiny is still in our hands.

These are the three mantras that Jurgen Klopp will be repeating to his players until they face Brighton in the Premier League next weekend. Defeat against Manchester City, Liverpool’s first league defeat of the season, was a setback. But it need not be devastating to their chances of winning the title.

Liverpool were never outclassed at the Etihad. This was a game of remarkably fine margins: red or yellow for Vincent Kompany, post and in for Sane vs post and out for Mane, the ball millimetres from seeing Liverpool score the crucial opening goal. If Liverpool can cope with City on their turf, they are good enough to beat 15 or 16 other Premier League teams. That will be enough. Their form had earned them the leeway to lose to City.

But confidence is made of tissue paper - it can dissolve in the rain and tear in the wind. There was nothing in Liverpool’s performance on Thursday which suggests that that their mindset should change, but defeats can do strange things to strong people. There will now be a scrutiny of Liverpool’s post-setback performances. It’s nothing three straight wins won’t solve.

Is Fernandinho the most important player?

Probably Manchester City’s most important player, and probably too the most important individual in deciding the destination of the title. Pep Guardiola’s team coped without Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. They struggle to cope without Fernandinho.

That’s partly because the Brazilian is brilliant, the perfect security blanket for a team that attacks in waves and surges forward on the counter. Fernandinho was the best player on the pitch against Liverpool. Nothing he does in isolation is technically difficult - running, pressing, passing, tackling, positioning - but in combination it is crucial. His excellence can be measured in the paucity of mistakes made.

But it’s also because there is nobody else at City who quite replicates Fernandinho’s role. Guardiola spent the summer trawling Europe for a new holding midfielder, and came close to signing Jorginho and Fred. He knew that a 33-year-old high-intensity central midfielder coming off the back of a World Cup summer could well pick up niggling soft tissue injuries.

Fernandinho has already missed two league games this season, and City lost them both. Wrap him up in cotton wool and cross your fingers.

Will Liverpool avoid costly injuries?

In previous seasons under Klopp, Liverpool have suffered in the spring. Their relentless high press is highly effective, but it takes plenty of energy out of the first-team regulars. Liverpool dropped 12 points in their last nine league games last season, and ran out of gas by the Champions League final.

The answer is to rotate. Klopp did so last season and has done the same in 2018/19 with an even bigger squad. In central midfield, he has seven fit options (Milner, Henderson, Fabinho, Keita, Wijnaldum, Shaqiri, Lallana) for three places in the starting XI. He can demand intense physical effort from midfield, safe in the knowledge that he can rest those who are starting to flag.

But Klopp will need to get fortunate with injuries in other areas of the pitch. Any extended absence for Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah or Alisson could easily derail their title challenge. City have already suffered knocks to key players - is it Liverpool’s turn now?

When does Champions League become the priority?

Liverpool did not win the Champions League in 2017/18, but they enjoyed a wonderful journey to the final. They also won the competition in 2005 and reached the final in 2007. But their lack of league title since 1990 hangs around the neck of this great club like Coleridge’s Albatross. Klopp will surely be happy to sacrifice all else for a shot at that glory. It would confirm his Anfield legacy. For City, the story may be slightly different. Having won three Premier League titles, Sheikh Mansour’s great wish is to add European glory to domestic dominance. Guardiola would never de-prioritise a league title for the sake of the Champions League, but it still presents itself as a potential domestic roadblock.

If Liverpool were to exit Europe in the last-16 and City reach the semi-finals, there’s no doubt City’s extra workload would help Liverpool.

Can Tottenham really avoid effects of fatigue?

We are so used to title races involving a maximum of two clubs that poor Tottenham have been almost entirely overlooked.

They are two points behind City and only six from the top and they have taken 18 points from their last seven league matches, as many as Liverpool and more than City. The top two may have superior squads, both in quality and quantity, but Tottenham merit inclusion in this discussion.

Player-for-player in their starting XI, you cannot doubt Tottenham’s aptitude. Harry Kane is the best centre forward in the world, Christian Eriksen one of the best pure creators, Dele Alli one of the best players aged 22 and under and Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld one of the best central defensive partnerships. If there are weaknesses at full-back and in central midfield, Mauricio Pochettino excels in making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

But we cannot ignore the likelihood of Tottenham fizzling out on the home straight. No club in the world had more representatives in the World Cup semi-finals, and no Premier League club spent less in the summer.

Against Wolves we saw evidence that Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko were struggling with playing two games in four days, but Oliver Skipp was the only option in reserve. Given the preseason predictions of regression, third place would be a significant achievement.

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