Retaining the title is hard, proverbially harder than winning it the first time – although that clearly to an extent depends on what you’re up against. But if Liverpool do become the 27th side in English league history successfully to defend their crown, they will have done so in conditions more different to the initial success than any of their predecessors. Quarter of the way through the season, their record unbeaten home run extended to 64 games, they are level on points with the leaders and, despite all their injuries, look by far the most likely winners.
Liverpool’s last game against Leicester was their signature performance of last season, a 4-0 win at the King Power Stadium on December 26 that was not just an emphatic dismissal of the team who, mathematically at least, were their closest title rivals at the time, but a distillation of everything that is best about the Jürgen Klopp style.
Then, they were quick and aggressive, pressed hard without losing defensive shape, attacked with elegance and verve, and were inspired in the end by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s dominance of the flank from full-back.
Liverpool had returned the previous week from winning the Club World Cup and, although they would win their following nine league games in a row, Boxing Day was a peak to which they would never quite return.
Five days after that win, the Chinese government raised the alarm over Covid-19 and two months later the league was entering a 100-day shutdown.
That has changed the dynamic of this season profoundly. The absence of fans is the most obvious difference and, perhaps when chasing a winner or defending a narrow lead at Anfield, Liverpool will miss that added impetus. It was of little relevance on Sunday, though.
Of more consequence is the truncated pre-season and the compressed calendar. There is no respite, anywhere. Those coaches who prepare detailed instructions for individual games have limited time to convey those plans to their players. Those who demand constant intensity find their players weary, unable to meet the demands they once did. And everybody is struggling with injuries: Liverpool were without three of their first-choice back four, their captain and their right-sided forward, then lost Naby Keïta to a hamstring problem early in the second half; Leicester with one of their first-choice centre-backs, both their first choice wing-backs and their best defensive midfielder.
The parameters have changed. Football has taken a step back into a more attritional age, in which games are won less by thrilling rapid charges than by the grim plod of trench warfare. This is less about a fresh masterplan for each game and using the press to lure opponents into bespoke ambushes than about more old-fashioned virtues. Nobody could pretend Liverpool were anywhere near the standard here that they were last December, but that is not what this season is about. This season is about finding a way, any way, and Liverpool did that – and more. In its own way this was almost as impressive a win as the game 11 months ago. It would be absurd to suggest Liverpool are somehow better without Virgil van Dijk but it’s a measure of how well they have adapted that in the seven games since he was injured, they’ve conceded only three goals.
Getting results when not quite at their best was a strength at times last season, notably in the autumn and the spring, which is why Liverpool won the title far more convincingly than their xG suggested they should have done. But the suspicion is this season that is all there will be – and last season, they were never without half their side, nor playing teams missing half of theirs.
Although they scored three times and hit the woodwork three times, this was a victory based less in attacking flair but in the way Liverpool shut Leicester down. Brendan Rodgers’s side lost at Anfield last season only because of a debatable last-gasp penalty, had won four out of four away from home this season, scoring five at Manchester City and four at Leeds, and with, in Jamie Vardy, exactly the sort of cunning striker attuned to divining any weakness in a patched-up back four, and yet they barely had a chance.
It’s true that Liverpool’s first came from a barely explicable own-goal and that Jonny Evans compounded that error by getting sucked out of the middle by a cross-field ball, creating space for the Diogo Jota run that brought the second, but they were mistakes that resulted from pressure, as a second Evans own goal would have been when he bundled the ball against his own post just before the hour.
Roberto Firmino did finally get his goal and, in the end, Liverpool could easily have won by more. The world may have changed, and the way they play may have had to adapt but Liverpool’s capacity to win remains undiminished.