Four years ago, in the spring, Liverpool fans gathered five and 10 deep on Anfield Road to greet the coach carrying their players to the ground before matches. The swell began near the King Harry pub, where the road curves to the left and up a small hill and the numbers grew and grew as the bus rolled past the junctions of Tancred Road, Coningsby Road, Sybil Road and Alroy Road.
The supporters cheered and yelled and stood on walls and shinned up lamp-posts and found whatever vantage point they could. On the coach, the players watched and wondered at the fervour they had unleashed. Smoke from flares turned the world red. Brendan Rodgers, the manager at that time, filmed some of the scenes out of his window. He still has the footage on his mobile phone.
Those days are coming again. That fervour is building again. We all know how it ended in 2014, we all remember Steven Gerrard’s slip, but when Liverpool smashed five goals past Arsenal at Anfield on Saturday night, they moved nine points clear at the top of the Premier League and their new dreams of paradise rediscovered could be suppressed no longer.There is still a long, long way to go and Manchester City, who Liverpool play at the Etihad on Thursday night, are far too good for anyone to pretend that the title race is going to be anything other than a hell of a fight. Liverpool have fallen away before, as their detractors will continue to remind them in the weeks and months ahead.
But there is a curious feeling that the chips are falling Liverpool’s way. Before the game, the stadium announcer read out with relish the news of Tottenham’s defeat by Wolves at Wembley, and Liverpool and Arsenal fans alike filled Anfield with cheers. Liverpool have not played at their fluent best many times this season and yet they remain unbeaten.
Liverpool have momentum at their back and emotion filling their sails and Jurgen Klopp’s energy surging through them and history beckoning them towards their first title for 29 years: every team that has been six points clear at the top of the Premier League at the turn of the year has gone on to lift the trophy.
Everybody can feel it. Everyone knows how much it would mean to this team, which used to be the gold standard for clubs in England and Europe to measure themselves against, to be the champions again. That will be the greatest obstacle in their way: that it will mean too much. That the pressure of a goal so desired will crush them as it did in 2014.
Klopp is keenly aware of that. He is already weary of questions about the title and after the match, he made it obvious he considered them absurdly premature.
‘It’s a marathon we are running,’ he said, ‘and before the marathon, the weather is brilliant, new trainers, new shirt and people say “you could win today” but we have to run. And all the people around are buzzing and you have to run. That’s what we try to do.’
What Klopp cannot banish, even with his humour and his eloquence, is the fact Liverpool are closer now to the title than they have been for a long time. Their lead says that. The manager’s experience also says that a blip will come and that that will be when we find out if his side has the mental strength to stay the course.
Liverpool were irresistible against Unai Emery’s side. Some of their attacking play was breathtaking. A few highlights: Xherdan Shaqiri’s ball with the outside of his left foot that should have led to a goal for Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino’s body swerve in the mesmerising run that led to the second goal of his hat-trick, Salah’s delicate touch to set-up Sadio Mane’s strike.
If you want a measure of how completely Arsenal were outplayed, despite having the temerity to take an early lead, consider this: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who went into the game as the league’s leading scorer, only had seven touches in the first half and four of those were kick-offs.
Six minutes had gone when Liverpool demonstrated the confidence that is flowing through their team with a move that went from one end of the pitch to the other. First of all, they beat the Arsenal press effortlessly, showing complete command of the ball in their own penalty area and then advancing seamlessly up the pitch.
Dejan Lovren chipped one pass to Trent Alexander-Arnold from his own box that would have felt like a risk for any side that is not having the season Liverpool is having. Arsenal’s initial energy exhausted, Liverpool moved the ball forward to Mane, who turned beautifully past his marker and played the ball into Firmino. His goalbound shot was flicked wide by Salah but Liverpool’s intent was clear.After that beginning, though, Liverpool displayed their fallibility. First Fabinho played a dreadful square ball that was picked off by Alex Iwobi, who ran at the Liverpool defence and brought a decent save out of Alisson, diving low to his right.
Three minutes later, Van Dijk, who has been rightfully lauded as one of the best defenders in Europe, played a loose ball out of defence that was picked up, once more, by Iwobi.
Iwobi advanced down the left and curled a beautiful cross behind the Liverpool defence and into the path of Ainsley Maitland-Niles who slid in to tap it into an empty net.
Anfield was stunned. It was the first time Liverpool had been behind in a league game since their match with Leicester on December 30 last year.
They did not allow the shame to linger. Firmino played a ball in to Salah on the edge of the box and as Stephan Lichtsteiner tried to clear the ball, he kicked it against the backside of Shkodran Mustafi and the rebound ran to Firmino who lashed it in from close range.
Within two minutes, Liverpool were ahead. Lucas Torreira, Arsenal’s attack dog, lost the ball as tamely as a pussycat in the centre of midfield, and Firmino drove at the Arsenal defence.
When Sokratis and Mustafi came to meet him, Firmino slalomed past them both and placed the ball neatly past Bernd Leno. Anfield erupted.
Liverpool’s uncertainties were stilled now. After half an hour, they went further ahead. When Arsenal cleared a corner, Andy Robertson retrieved it and smashed a 40-yard crossfield ball to Salah on the edge of the box. Salah met it with a cushioned sidestep into the path of Mane, who rifled it into the roof of the net.
Arsenal tried to hit back and Maitland-Niles on the Arsenal right was a constant threat but as the clock ticked over into first-half injury time, Liverpool put the game out of reach.
Alisson volleyed a driven pass to Salah on the right wing that Michel Platini would have been proud of and the Egypt forward, criticised by some for going down too easily against Newcastle on Boxing Day, tumbled again under the clumsy challenge of Sokratis, who failed to get the ball but was still outraged when Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. Salah smashed the penalty down the middle.
Mane and Salah wasted chances to put Liverpool further ahead after the interval but 15 minutes into the second half, another penalty turned a drubbing into a rout. Sead Kolasinac was penalised for a shove on Dejan Lovren and Firmino completed his hat-trick by sending Leno the wrong way with his spot-kick.