As Chelsea look like they’re walking away with the Premier League title, Liverpool can at least claim to be favourites to top one table at the end of the season. Their disciplinary record shows 43 yellow cards so far this season; Southampton have five less, but their two reds make it more likely that Liverpool will ultimately finish at the summit of the fair-play table.
This is obviously no consolation for a group of fans who saw their team lying just six points behind Chelsea in the Premier League at the end of 2016. In fact, older supporters look back mournfully at a time when Liverpool were noted for tough, ruthless players and dominated English football.
Liverpool last won the league in 1990. Some regard it as less than coincidental that both their combative central midfielders — Steve McMahon and Ronnie Whelan — suffered bad injuries in early 1991, never quite recovering their old ferocity, and the title race was lost to Arsenal.
When Liverpool next had a good team, they were coached by Roy Evans. His team could play beautiful football but often wilted in the heat of battle. In the modern era, managers like Brendan Rodgers have been regarded as too nice to be winners. And it is strange that Rodgers almost won the league thanks to Luis Suarez — a player he inherited whose will to win occasionally overstepped the mark.
Last week, the Uruguayan was up to his old tricks with Barcelona to help them come back against PSG in the Champions League, making Liverpool fans rue the day he left Anfield. Far from frowning at the player’s behaviour, they revelled in the memory of someone in a red shirt whose fiery determination to win matched their own.
You needn’t visit the continent to find the dark arts prospering in football. The two biggest games in England recently saw Chelsea beat Manchester United in the FA Cup quarterfinal, while Leicester progressed to the Champions League quarterfinal by beating Sevilla. There were numerous examples of the rules being leaned on to help winning teams over the line.
Though it seemed like United were overly physical in their attention to Eden Hazard, the Belgian wasn’t averse to making each foul look worse. Ander Herrera was naive to fall for it, but after his sending off, Chelsea had an extra man for 60 minutes in a tight match. Meanwhile, Diego Costa’s continual tussles with Marcos Rojo up front saw a further search for yellow cards and penalties — though the Argentine was hardly innocent himself — but showcased his passion and desire to progress.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Jamie Vardy engineered a free kick which led to Leicester’s first goal, then overreacted to a slight brush of heads with Sevilla’s Samir Nasri. Leicester subsequently got to run down the clock against 10 men, and in their moment of triumph, they cared little about critics of Vardy’s behaviour. They’d won, and that’s all that mattered.
Jurgen Klopp supporters may cite Bob Paisley in a quest to find nice guys who finish first, casually ignoring the fact that Paisley’s teams featured the likes of Tommy Smith, Jimmy Case and Graeme Souness — players who often overstepped the physical mark.
Football may have changed in terms of what’s tolerated on the pitch, yet plenty of fans still enjoy any game that features bad behaviour.
Liverpool supporters often reminisce about Jerzy Dudek’s professionalism during the penalty shootout against Milan in the 2005 Champions League final, for example. Ask any neutral what they’d think of somebody like Suarez or Costa playing for their team, and they would be delighted. For the odd occasion when a ban has to be served, it’s considered a small price to pay.
Liverpool’s only recent example of pushing the legal boundaries was Emre Can’s ludicrous foul on Alexis Sanchez in the recent 3-1 win over Arsenal. It was followed by another tackle which ended a threatening Theo Walcott run. Even then, seven Arsenal players surrounded the referee. Their bid to get Can sent off failed, but it’s something Liverpool rarely do themselves.
Klopp’s team is great on its day but has similar lapses to the Evans team of the 1990s. Against Leicester recently, Vardy made a heavy challenge on Sadio Mane early on; the Liverpool forward barely surfaced for the rest of a match, which Leicester won comfortably 3-1. No Liverpool player sought retribution in any way.
So can Klopp’s nice guys triumph? He’s still early into his Anfield reign, but you sense he has little appetite for the game’s more dishonest traits. He certainly wouldn’t get his players to target the opposition’s best player, as has been seen recently in other matches.
However, it may be something he has to turn to in order to take Liverpool to the next level. The darker side of the game may not be popular, but that extra 1 percent can make all the difference at the top.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.