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Liverpool FC: The Smile Is Returning

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There’s a smile on the face of Liverpool FC right now as wide as the Mersey Tunnel. A world class manager, a shiny new stand, a great start to the new season and genuine hope in our hearts.

Consider the recent displays (bar Burnley), the goals scored in 2016 (the most of any Premier League club) and Anfield slowly regaining the ‘fortress’ tag (we’re unbeaten there for 14 games now and haven’t lost at home since January.)

Consider the horribly difficult start to the season we were presented with. Three of the first four league games against last season’s top 3; three of them away at Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea. Yet we’ve already hit last year’s top two for 4. My admittedly cautious thinking before a ball was kicked, was that if we could be within 5 points of the top four after these first 5 games, we wouldn’t be too badly placed for the remainder of the season.

But Klopp and co had other ideas, and here we are in joint fourth, only 5 points off top spot and 3 off second. City are the only other team who have very much hit the ground running, but let’s not forget, they haven’t played any of the top teams yet.

Even having already played last year’s top three, we have amassed 10 points, scored 11 and conceded 8 for a goal difference of +3.

Comparing this to last season, pre-Klopp: After 5 games, we had amassed 7 points and played only one (Arsenal) of the eventual top 4. We had scored a total of 3 (yes, three) goals in those 5 games and conceded 6 for a goal difference of -3. After 10 games, we had scored a mere 9 goals and conceded 12 for a points total of 13.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, September 20, 2015: Liverpool's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can looking dejected after Norwich City scored a goal during the Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

So, in order to equal last year’s total points after 10 games, we need a single victory in the next five games – against Hull, Man Utd and West Brom at home, and Swansea and Palace away. Without tempting fate, any top team worth their salt has to be optimistic of grabbing a victory or two from that lot.

I highlighted these stats merely to put into perspective just how far we have come compared to exactly one year ago. We have scored two more goals in 5 games than in the first 10 last season; we have one more victory after 5 games than in 10 last season – and this against far superior opposition as well as played just one home game. (City, Everton, Spurs and Chelsea have each played three.)

But it’s the way we’ve gained these results that is so exciting. We thoroughly outplayed Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs for large parts of those games, and absolutely thumped Leicester. The movement and pressing from the entire team is consistently exceptional.

The interplay between Mane, Firmino, Lallana and Coutinho has been mouthwatering. The number of chances created and goals scored makes the disappointing days of early last season, when goals were as rare as a Mourinho smile, a joy to behold.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 10, 2016: Liverpool's Sadio Mane celebrates scoring the second goal against Leicester City during the FA Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I honestly can’t remember a Liverpool team in the last two decades playing at this high a tempo with such an incredible amount of skill and technique. The opposition are not just chasing shadows, they’re trying to figure out where the shadows are.

And this, let’s not forget, with a number of new recruits still settling in, and a number of established players in unfamiliar roles. If Matip, Mane and Wijnaldum are still finding their feet, how good are they gonna be when they’ve located them?

The new lads have helped forge a brand new, highly impressive spine to the team. Matip looks like the central defender we’ve desperately needed for years now, and at a cost of nothing.

Wijnaldum wasn’t exactly free, but what a difference he is making. He was almost perfect against Chelsea – again in an unfamiliar role – but you can see what Klopp saw in him. Technically and positionally excellent, he’s already getting in to dangerous positions and bagging himself assists. Goals are the inevitable next step for him. Emre Can has a battle on his hands.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 10, 2016: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum in action against Leicester City during the FA Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Wijnaldum’s presence, in league with the Matip/Lovren partnership, has also allowed Jordan Henderson to excel in a deeper position, but with licence to break forward. I was formulating this article in my head before the Chelsea game and was thinking of a line… “if Lucas can’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo, then Jordan can’t hit an elephant’s arse with a double bass.”

Thankfully, I held off until after the Chelsea game. What a hit, son, what a hit! I doff my cap to that one, Captain! Now, do it more often please!

Sadio Mane’s addition to the front line has been revelatory! If defenders thought they had problems with Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana’s pace, trickery and movement, how on earth are they going to cope with the addition of Mane? Fact is, so far they haven’t been able to.

We’re 3rd highest scorers in the league to date, even having played so many top teams. It’s interesting that Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea all sit above us in the table, even though we’ve taken seven points from them. It’s a barometer of just how impressive those three results have been, when these three currently occupy 3rd to 5th in the league.

When it comes to the players Klopp has either let go or brought in, it seems he has a blueprint. To make it as a Klopp player you must a) give everything for the cause, b) have speed of mind as well as speed of body, and c) be technically excellent in their position.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 10, 2016: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp jokes with captain Jordan Henderson after the 4-1 victory over Leicester City during the FA Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Jordan Ibe, for example, failed on the technical side and is now at Bournemouth. Joe Allen didn’t offer goals or assists and is now offering the same for Stoke. Alberto Moreno’s ill-discipline as a left-back has seen him relegated behind the ever-reliable, technically and tactically disciplined James Milner. Benteke lacked tactical awareness and a footballing brain.

But another vital Klopp trait is his perfect handling of players. When Moreno had a shocker, he sung his praises in public. He knew, like the rest of us, that Alberto was struggling, but he never threw him under the bus when the inevitable post-match questions were posed.

Compare that to the treatment already dished out by the not-so-special one to Lingard, Mkhitaryan and Shaw after recent poor displays. Look at his embarrassing and unprofessional treatment of Schweinsteiger and Mata. The same public humiliations that helped get him the boot in South London are, thankfully, alive and well in Salford. Mourinho embraces his ego, Klopp embraces his players.

There are one or two question marks still… is Sturridge really cut out for this kind of intense, high-octane, team-centric kind of football? Will Mignolet still be in possession of the gloves once Karius regains the use of both hands? Where do Origi and Ings (and even Sturridge) feature in the manager’s future plans with the LFC + M team wreaking havoc on some of the division’s best defences? How does Emre Can regain a foothold?

LONDON, ENGLAND - Friday, September 16, 2016: Liverpool's Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring the first goal against Chelsea during the FA Premier League match at Stamford Bridge. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But these are wonderful problems to have, aren’t they? Every player knowing that to get in, and stay in the team, you must be performing to the absolute peak of your powers. And if those powers aren’t good enough, you’ll soon know it.

From 5th favourites for the title 3 games ago (and 50/1 after the Burnley game) we’re now 2nd favourites. While, in real terms, that means nothing, what it does tell you is that it’s not just die-hard, red-tinted Liverpool fans like myself who are taking notice of what Klopp is building. The club has been on an upward trajectory ever since he walked in the door, and the energy and buzz around the club is that of genuine excitement and expectation.

As a long standing Liverpool fan, I’ve seen some great days; incredible days.

If Klopp continues to take the club forward at the pace of the last 12 months, maybe, just maybe, there are even more great days ahead.

An earlier version of this article contained inappropriate language, we apologise for any distress caused.

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