Two seasons ago Manchester United scored 89 goals, 56 more than they conceded, yet lost the title by a goal difference of eight to Manchester City. It seems the lesson has been learnt.
On Saturday the top three scored a staggering 17 goals between them, taking their combined total for the season to 220 in 89 matches. With the fixtures running out it is becoming increasingly apparent that goal difference could be decisive again and Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea are all doing their best to ensure they will not lose the title that way.
Chelsea (62 goals, GD +39) and City (76 goals, GD +49) ruthlessly punished Arsenal and Fulham after their opponents were reduced to 10 men. The attitude of Liverpool (82 goals, GD +44) was shown when, with Cardiff chasing an improbable revival having reduced the arrears to 3-5, Luis Suarez reached a long ball launched towards the corner in injury time. Not for him the time-wasting corner-flag routine. He cut inside and went for goal. It didn’t work out that time but a minute later he took advantage of another opportunity to score Liverpool’s 24th goal in six matches.
While this cumulative focus on scoring big is frightening for opponents, particularly Sunderland, who have to go to all three teams in the run-in (and Crystal Palace, who host them all), it is good news for spectators.
All three teams played some excellent attacking football on Saturday, but with four of City’s goals coming from dead-ball situations against a team who have now shipped 70 goals, and Chelsea’s coming either on the counter-attack or against 10 men defending abjectly, Liverpool’s 6-3 win in the Welsh capital was the most impressive.
Cardiff twice led, were in the game until the hour mark, and never gave up. But even when they were ahead and defending with five at the back and four in midfield they were no match for Liverpool’s attacking brio.
Brendan Rodgers deployed the same diamond midfield that embarrassed Manchester United at Old Trafford last week, but fielded the guile of Philippe Coutinho at its apex rather than the pace of Raheem Sterling. Coutinho helped knit Liverpool’s attacks together but the three sweetest passes of the day came from Jordan Henderson (a perfectly weighted inside pass for Glen Johnson to provide Suarez’s first), Daniel Sturridge (a smart backheel for Suarez’s second) and Johnson’s long forward pass for the Uruguayan’s hat-trick.
This abundance of providers in a team that also has the passing range of Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen’s precision, explains why it is so difficult to stop Liverpool when they are in full flow. Statistically, and aesthetically, it is the most entertaining Liverpool team since 1987-88, when Kenny Dalglish signed John Barnes and Peter Beardsley and regained the title.
“I think the variety and imagination in our game is at a real top level,” said Rodgers. “We showed our power in the offensive game. We can be better, there are areas defensively where we lapsed a little bit, but I know as a manager that, when you are stood on the touchline, the thing you fear in a game is the opponent and their offensive threat. [Playing us] you are playing against a team that you know can score from anywhere, any angle, and a team that can dominate the ball.
“That’s something that we have developed and cultivated here, it’s not something that was presented to us. It’s something that we’ve worked hard at developing.”
Liverpool scored 71 league goals last season, 47 the year before. With eight matches left and 82 goals already in the bag they look certain to surpass the 87 they scored in a 40-match season in 1987-88. Rodgers added: “After scoring more goals last year I said we wanted to find 20-plus more goals in the team. We’ve done that. But our idea is to make constant improvement.”
Liverpool, collectively and individually, have progressed more than any other team this season, which is a tribute to Rodgers’ emphasis on coaching his players – “some of these other teams have spent a hell of a lot of money,” he noted – and the players’ readiness to buy into this philosophy.
“What was great for me today is that you see the self-coaching going on. We spend a lot of time coaching on the training field but now the players are self-coaching each other in the game to operate, to have more numbers around the ball, making angles.”
The Liverpool manager added, ominously for opponents: “Whether we win 3-0 or 6-3 it doesn’t matter. For me it’s just about winning and winning in style. We’ve got games to go and we just want to keep scoring goals.”