Whoever is left to line up for Liverpool on Sunday, they will have the chance to set a new club record against Leicester City.
The Reds have not lost at home in the Premier League since April 23, 2017. Back then, Donald Trump was settling into life as the 45th president of the United States, Brexit negotiations were still weeks away from formally opening and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were running away in the title race.
While much has changed since then, Liverpool being unbeaten at home in top-flight action has remained a constant. The current stretch of 63 games without defeat matches a club record, set between February 1978 and December 1980. Now they want to take the record outright.
A Crystal Palace team inspired by ex-Reds striker Christian Benteke were the last visitors to prevail at Anfield in the league. Joel Matip played that day, while Trent Alexander-Arnold came on as a late substitute and Joe Gomez was unused off the bench.
This weekend, though, Matip is set to be the only one of that defensive trio in action; Alexander-Arnold was injured in the 1-1 draw at Manchester City, while Gomez has joined fellow centre-back Virgil van Dijk as a long-term absentee.
With Mohamed Salah testing positive for COVID-19 while on duty with Egypt, the depleted champions appear more vulnerable than ever. Leicester – the club who ended Liverpool’s long unbeaten run 40 years ago – have every reason to fancy their chances.
A familiar face returns to Anfield
To add a little extra narrative, Brendan Rodgers has the chance to scupper his former club’s quest to set a record.
Leicester spent the November international break sitting pretty at the Premier League summit, their total of 18 points after eight games three more than they managed at the same stage of a 2015-16 campaign that ended with Claudio Ranieri’s squad defying pre-season odds of 5,000-1 to be crowned champions. Could history be repeated in this craziest of crazy seasons?
Rodgers has admittedly struggled against the ‘big six’ since taking charge, winning just five of 17 games. However, two of those successes have come on the road in recent months, as his Foxes spectacularly dismantled Manchester City 5-2 before sucker-punching Arsenal in a 1-0 triumph in north London.
The scorelines were vastly different, yet the Leicester blueprint was similar – defend deep, press at the appropriate moments and, when a turnover comes, capitalise on the open spaces to strike. Playing possum is paying off spectacularly.
Against City, they had just 28.3 per cent possession but scored five goals from seven attempts, allowing Pep Guardiola’s side to keep the ball yet still posing the greater threat as they waited to counter. The same happened at Leeds United too, Marcelo Bielsa’s side dominating the ball but falling into well-set pressing traps, like bugs simply unable to resist the oncoming car lights.
“It’s the evolution. You need to have more than one way to play in the modern game,” Rodgers told Sky Sports after the 4-1 triumph at Elland Road. “My teams will always look to dominate and control where we can, but you can also control the game without the ball, especially against teams who have big, big quality.”
Rodgers now has the chance to steer Leicester to victory in their first five away fixtures in a league season for the first time. All he has to do is plot the downfall of Liverpool, where he came so close to winning the league in 2014.
To borrow a phrase from opposite number Jurgen Klopp, a few more should turn from doubters to believers if the early pacesetters prevail on Merseyside.
Vardy to have a party against depleted defence?
With Jamie Vardy in your side, there is always a chance of grabbing a goal – no matter how little possession you have.
The striker – a pivotal part of Ranieri’s title-winning group – keeps on churning out the goals. He has eight already this term, including five successful penalties. He has won four of those spot-kicks while Leicester have had nine overall, the highest number in the top five leagues in Europe.
Stretching back into the previous campaign, nine of Vardy’s previous 10 league goals have come in away outings. He seemingly relishes upsetting the perceived hierarchy; since his debut top-flight season in 2014-15, the 33-year-old has scored more goals (38) against the ‘big six’ sides than any other player in the division.
Liverpool have suffered against him previously – only Andy Cole (11) and Thierry Henry (8) have managed more than Vardy’s total seven against the Reds in the competition – while Vardy should be well-rested now his England career is in the rearview mirror.
Leicester’s threat will be a constant throughout proceedings, no matter how much control Liverpool exert. Vardy has a 50 per cent conversion rate through eight games and averages a goal every 70 minutes.
His total for the campaign could easily be higher too, had he not been substituted by the time his team were awarded late penalties against City and Leeds. They have developed a nice habit of scoring late, leading the way in the Premier League with seven goals between 76-90 minutes.
High lines and taking chances
It is quite possible that Rhys Williams, on loan at National League North side Kidderminster Harriers this time last year, or Nathaniel Phillips, seemingly heading for the Anfield exit not too long ago, could be tasked with playing alongside Matip and making sure Vardy does not add to his tally.
The cracks in the Liverpool back-line that anchored the championship-winning campaign had appeared before the spate of injuries, most notably in a 7-2 loss away to Aston Villa, but Liverpool have not started a Premier League game without one of Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk or Gomez since May 21, 2017.
Worryingly for Klopp, they have kept just one clean sheet in their previous 13 Premier League games, with the propensity to play a high line picked out as a potential reason for the sudden issues.
That tactic was utilised in home wins over Leeds and Arsenal, as well as a 2-0 triumph at Chelsea, according to the Opta numbers for average starting distance from goal. However, they have dropped deeper in more recent outings, including home fixtures against Sheffield United (41.7 metres) and West Ham (43.9m).
Whether this is through necessity or choice is unknown. Still, Liverpool’s average starting position for this season sits at 45.7m, a number only topped by Guardiola’s City.
Leicester do not rely heavily on high turnovers, as demonstrated by their total of 28 so far, which positions them well inside the bottom half of the table in the statistic. However, they have been clinical when chances do come along. In their four away fixtures, they have hit the target with 24 of 36 attempted shots, boasting a conversion rate of 36 per cent.
On the brink of club history, Liverpool must avoid becoming the latest opponent to be caught out by Rodgers’ road warriors if they are to keep the impressive home streak alive.