A foolproof guide to actually beating Liverpool this season
Enough is enough. Liverpool's cakewalk to the title must be stopped at all costs
I don't know about you personally, but there was a time when I had the utmost faith in the competitive balance of the Premier League. Sure, the same six teams have finished in the top six places for the last three seasons and sure, it wasn't too long ago that Manchester City won the league with 100 points, a 19-point cushion ahead of Manchester United in second place and only two defeats to their name. But that was different. You still always felt that a team like Burnley or Bournemouth or Brighton could turn up at any of the semi-heaving mega-stadia sponsored by a UAE airline and stand a chance. You still always felt that a Chris Wood or a Joshua King or - audible gasp - a Glenn Murray nonsense was coming against the league's big hitters.
This, for the most part, is still the case. On Wednesday night Burnley rocked up at Old Trafford in their usual two banks of four and pulverised Manchester United into a gooey, shapeless pulp. Wood produced the most Chris Wood finish of all time - a double miskick that somehow flew in - and Jay Rodriguez did the rest.
Unfortunately, this kind of extreme vulnerability to the mediocre hasn't been the case for Liverpool. We haven't even seen a team even draw at Anfield for over a year, and that was back when Harry Maguire still played for Leicester City and nobody knew Prince Andrew couldn't sweat.
Then there's their away form, which is, yeah, every bit as frightening. They have drawn one (1) (uno) (un) (ein) of their last 15 away games in the Premier League, a run stretching back to the beginning of March last year. Again, I don't know about you, but I thought W̶o̶l̶v̶e̶s̶ Adama Traore might actually do it. I thought t̶h̶e̶y̶ he might beat them. But then again I had the same feeling about Spurs. And Palace. And Villa. When they were playing the actual Liverpool team, that is.
But none of them did. They looked like they might, at points, but none of them did. Apparently it is now impossible to beat Liverpool. Apparently it is now just not a thing.
With that in mind, with the fact that even the singularly destructive talents of Adama Traore, more an untethered, greased up wrecking ball than a football player, are now rendered useless: let's figure out how to stop Liverpool. Let's figure out how to stop Liverpool, together. Because this can't continue. This simply cannot go on.
Step 1: Incapacitate Virgil van Dijk
No, I don't mean hurt him. I don't mean attack his legs with a crowbar a la Moe to Mr Burns, or Shane Stant to Nancy Kerrigan. I mean hide his car keys. I mean delete all the alarms on his phone. I mean if you see him walking down the high street aggressively sneeze in his direction - that sort of thing. At this stage, it's quite evident that having Virgil van Dijk in your team is a cheat code, Liverpool's own circle, circle, L1, circle, circle, circle, L1, L2, R1, triangle, circle, triangle. Except instead of spawning a rhino tank you get something far more destructive, far more physically imposing: a 6 foot 4 Dutch bloke with a ponytail who plays Premier League football like he's jogging around some dizzy little children at a garden birthday party, just nutmegging them over and over, lethargically Cruyff-turning them into oblivion.
It's not nice to wish injury on a footballer, any footballer, even Troy Deeney, but if you had to pick one Liverpool player to take a short-term knock which removes them from first team action for a few weeks, nothing nasty, just a mild thigh strain (can Virgil van Dijk even get thigh strain? Is that possible? With those thighs? Who actually knows), it'd be Big Virgil.
Mane, Firmino, Alisson, Trent are all, in their own way, absolutely crucial to the way this high-functioning team has arrived at such needlessly consistent excellence, and the loss of any of the four would hurt the team in different ways. But none as much as van Dijk. Take van Dijk out of that back-four and Liverpool suddenly lose that arrogance they possess. That air of invincibility they've been keeping. Suddenly there is doubt. Suddenly there is a chance. Opposition forwards might actually get a sniff now that the Colossus of Rhodes isn't inhaling the football every time it is kicked within half a mile of him.
The Gomez-Matip centre-back partnership is still very good, of course. It would still be one of the best in the league. But it's nowhere near as good as van Dijk with either of them; or van Dijk with Lovren; or van Dijk with an upside-down mop bucket balancing on a stick. Stop Virgil and you are well on your way to stopping Liverpool. Like I said: EVERYONE COUGH ON HIM. GIVE HIM YOUR GERMS.
Step 2: Tell Mo Salah that Sadio Mane has been talking about him behind his back, and vice versa
It might seem like a distant memory now, but there were reports that something of a rift was developing between Liverpool's two star inside forwards. Rumour has it that Mane was furious with Salah after the latter failed to play him in for an easy chance during a routine 3-0 away win over Burnley in October. Although the beef was quickly squashed and Liverpool's season saved, almost entirely thanks to a Norwegian man named Kristian, you can't help but feel that those wounds haven't entirely healed.
Here's what you do: tell Sadio Mane that Mo Salah thinks he deserved African Player of the Year and tell Mo Salah that Sadio Mane thinks his ab game is 'weak bro'. That should do it. That should be enough for them to stop passing to each other in the final third, leaving poor Divock Origi to come on and pick up the pieces.
Step 3: Convince Jürgen Klopp that Trent Alexander-Arnold really does belong in central midfield
Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. Just ask Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian physician who attempted to achieve immortality via blood transfusion and only succeeded in contracting malaria and dying. Or Roberto Martinez, who signed Oumar Niasse for 13.5 million pounds. Both are good examples. Anyway, the clamour for Trent Alexander-Arnold - the best right-back in the world - to move into central midfield is ridiculous. Part of the reason he is so good is the space he is afforded from that position, allowing him to switch the play to Robertson or swing in a typically devastating cross. Don't waste all that by moving him into the most crowded area on the pitch. And please, whatever you do, do not cite Kevin De Bruyne as an example of how it could work when part of the reason the Belgian is so effective is that he is afforded the licence to drift into the wide positions Kyle Walker should be occupying in Pep's system, whilst Walker himself moves inside.
Despite this, I have nagging feeling that Klopp will try it, at least once. Possibly out of boredom. Alexander-Arnold and Henderson will swap positions for a game because, on the surface at least, it makes sense given their respective attributes. But do you know what? It will only fuck things up. Don't come crying to me when Jordan Henderson is smashing crosses ten feet over the head of Roberto Firmino and especially don't come crying when Trent is having the living daylights pressed out of him by James McArthur and James McCarthy simultaneously and can't wriggle out of it because he simply refuses to play a high-percentage sidefoot backpass to his goalkeeper, aka the Hendo special. (For the record I like that he does this. I think it is good that he does this).
Step 4: Trust in the uniquely chaotic tendencies of VAR
If there is one thing you need when playing Liverpool, it's VAR to be on your side. No they're not LiVARpool. Stop that immediately. Grow up. They get goals (rightly) chalked off all the time. (I am not a Liverpool supporter. Although I did send the picture of Lucas Leiva creeping around the door and saying 'unlackee' to someone once.)
The point is, you'll need VAR to be all on its bullshit to beat them. You'll need a Gini Wijnaldum strike ruled out because his right eyebrow is off. You'll need a penalty given for a flukey handball, and Andy Robertson retroactively sent off for a strong challenge, the kind that makes boomers and Lee Dixon say "football is a CONTACT. SPORT." whilst a blood vessel pops out of their forehead.
Basically you'll need the stars, or at least the weird don't-really-look-very-straight-do-they computerised lines, to align over Stockley Park if you have any hope at all of getting three points. Fortunately, though, we have seen it happen. We have seen VAR turn into the refereeing equivalent of the "If you don't love me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best" Marilyn Monroe quote. Anything is possible.
Step 5: Recruit Fernando Llorente and believe in Fernando Llorente
Aside from Jonathan Kodjia, now plying his trade for Qatari giants Al-Gharafa SC, Fernando Llorente is the only striker to properly sink Liverpool this season. And Jonathan Kodjia doesn't count because he did it against 12-year-olds. And is Jonathan Kodjia.
Dries Mertens scored a (fairly unconvincing) penalty to set up Napoli's 2-0 win over Liverpool in September but it was Llorente who finished the job, reading an almost improbable error from van Dijk, pouncing on it, the floppy wet tissue of a backpass, and then firing past Adrian with aplomb. I can't say this for certain, but I'm going to say it anyway: Fernando Llorente is Liverpool's kryptonite.
Unless you're a Swansea fan, or weirdly obsessed with Wayne Routledge, or both, you probably won't remember the brace Llorente scored at Anfield in 2017 during a miraculous 3-2 Swans win. Yeah, the centre half pairing that day was Dejan Lovren and - gulp - Ragnar Klavan, but still. It means something. Look into the big Spaniard's beautiful cerulean eyes, tell him you believe in him and bring him off the bench on the 82nd minute exactly. Pump balls vaguely in his direction. Watch, in slow motion, as Joe Gomez misjudges a hopeless long pass, van Dijk slips, and Llorente trundles through one on one. Watch, in even slower motion, as he smashes a shot straight at Alisson only to see it ricochet back at him, hit his knee and then bounce up and in off his glorious, Basque face.
This is it. This is the only way. This is how you beat Liverpool. Now make it happen, you cowards.