When Liverpool missed out on the title by a single point last season it was being said with a mixture of amusement and admiration around Anfield that Manchester City had raised the bar so high it was going to take a century of points to be sure of winning the Premier League.
It seemed somehow ludicrous that a side could reach 97 points and still miss out on the league championship, when totals as low as 75 and 78 had sufficed in the past and no previous runner-up had gone beyond 90. Pep Guardiola, finding himself having to defend his record recently as a result of his side stumbling all the way down to fourth in the table, pointed out that his City side had posted 198 points in the previous two seasons, set a Premier League record with 100 points in the first and had gone on to establish a far from shabby average of 99 points per season.
Back in May Jürgen Klopp took the disappointment on the chin in the way that he does, perhaps helped a little by the knowledge that his side are better at reaching Champions League finals than their rivals, and promised to do his best to reach 100 points the following season. He smiled as he said it, knowing such a target might be the equivalent of tilting at windmills when there are only 114 points to play for, yet with a fraction more than a third of the season completed a glance at the table will confirm that Liverpool are on course.
Should Klopp’s players beat Brighton at home on Saturday they will have harvested 40 points before the end of November, a feat previously achieved only by City in their record-breaking season. Without wishing to put too much of a hex on Liverpool’s weekend fixture, should that milestone be reached after 14 games Guardiola would know, just in case he doesn’t already, that Liverpool mean business this time.
The City manager is aware how difficult it is to keep a winning momentum going for weeks running into months, and he is also aware that the Gabriel Jesus goal that beat Southampton to reach the points century came with seconds to spare. Jesus scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time in the last game of the season.
Klopp said his side could not keep relying on late winners after Liverpool’s most recent feat of escapology at Crystal Palace, though that is exactly what champions often do and the record books do not take account of frayed nerves and frantic finishes. Just about everyone on the Liverpool side can chip in with a goal or a vital assist when the pressure is on, and as previous champions such as City, Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester United have shown, that knowledge can undermine opponents’ confidence when games go to the wire.
Think of Vincent Kompany’s goal against Leicester last season, or Steve Bruce’s header against Sheffield Wednesday when Manchester United were still waiting for their first title under Alex Ferguson. While it remains true that champion teams will usually find a way to win from somewhere, it is often the case that defences overstretch themselves picking up the expected goal threats and have little to offer in response when danger comes from an unusual direction.
By any measure Liverpool have made one of the best ever starts to a Premier League season. Arsenal’s Invincibles had drawn four times by the end of November in the 2003-04 season, so though still unbeaten could only boast 34 points after 14 games. A year later in José Mourinho’s first season Chelsea had 36 points from 15 games at the same stage, and when they made another barnstorming start in 2005-06 they entered December with 37 points from 14 matches. While City were on 35 points at the end of November last season, at that point they had only played 13 matches. By the time they beat Bournemouth on 1 December they were up to 38 from 14.
Other notable starts include Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle in 95-96 (38 points by the end of November) and Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea (36 points). Leicester in 2015-16, to give a more normal example of an eventual title winner, had drawn five and lost one of their first 14 games. By the end of November they were doing better under Claudio Ranieri than anyone expected, though with a relatively modest haul of 29 points they were only just beginning to be regarded as potential champions.
It remains to be seen whether 40 points from 14 games means you are champions in waiting; with so few teams ever having reached that plateau it is difficult to draw any statistical conclusions, though it is certainly title-winning form. What could go wrong? Well, Brighton have beaten Spurs and Everton this season, there is a Merseyside derby next week, the Champions League could take a toll and mid-December brings a somewhat superfluous Fifa diversion in Qatar along with the rearranged and logistically complicated Carabao Cup quarter-final against Aston Villa. Probably nothing Liverpool cannot take in their stride, even if the traditional fixture pile-up next month is even more insane than usual.
As ever in English football, the league table only starts to take on a more permanent look after the mayhem of the festive period, and though Liverpool face only one top-four opponent in their slew of December games their supporters might have wished for an easier return to Premier League action than a trip to high-flying Leicester immediately after taking time out in Qatar. Both Klopp and Brendan Rodgers, one imagines, will already have worked out that Boxing Day at the King Power could be quite an occasion.