‘Jurgener Believers’ no longer daydream variety: Michael Walker:
Gloriously mundane it was. Anfield, Wednesday, and the red scoreboard clock on the Kop showed Liverpool had just gone 4-0 up against Newcastle United. There were five minutes left of a game that was by no means enthralling.
In fact, until this moment the most impressive aspect of Liverpool’s afternoon was its ordinariness. Here was a routine win unfolding, the eighth in a row in the Premier League, the 16th in 19 matches. It was, as the Liverpool Echo reported, “economical”.
Then, close to where a banner with the words “Jurgener Believers” was held up before kick-off, a section of the Kop brought the noise.
Leicester City had just scored a second, late goal against Manchester City and the news had travelled 200km north in an instant. At Anfield, it was absorbed and understood just as quickly. It was embraced like a lost medal.
Word spread. It flowed around the stadium, happy gossip, congratulations, and the volume rose and rose. It was one of those occasions when the crowd becomes the action. These are always brilliant scenes, it’s just that they normally occur on the season’s final afternoons, not in December. It was news from elsewhere, big news from elsewhere.
Liverpool’s latest victory and Man City’s latest defeat meant seven points separated the clubs. There has been a sudden shift. City remain champions, but Liverpool look like champions-elect.
Jürgen Klopp would spit out his tea at such premature acclamation, no doubt, but the table says it is legitimate.
That does not make it a certainty, of course it doesn’t, and from losing at Arsenal at the start of the month, Tottenham have entered the title race. Chelsea may be a different force in a few weeks. Sometimes Liverpool can look unexceptional in midfield.
But, as their supporters dissolved into the Anfield streets, their hubbub heightened by the Tannoy’s confirmation of the 2-1 result from Leicester, the reality settling on everyone was that, if Liverpool maintain their form, 2019 will see the league title return after 29 years away spent mainly, painfully in Manchester.
On 51 points at the halfway stage, Klopp’s team have given themselves a platform from which they can see the end. It is unlikely to be as low as 79 points, which Kenny Dalglish’s side claimed in 1989-90, but it might not be 89 points either.
Although City soared to the title on 100 points last season, they actually needed only 82 to win it. And over the past five seasons, 81-82 points is the average total required to finish first. Liverpool, repeat, have 51 already.
Just as “game management” has become a term we hear often, Liverpool evangelists – and there are a few of them around – may soon be heard discussing the merits of season management.
This has the ring of people getting ahead of themselves, and Klopp would prefer the one-game-at-a-time mantra. But it could be helpful if there is a stumble.
It may protect Klopp and his squad from the potentially destabilising angst a couple of defeats could induce in a fanbase so desperate to sing “champions” again. For once, there could be a benefit to looking longer term, of considering that 27 or 28 victories plus a few draws may be enough – and that Liverpool have 16 wins already.
That view could be useful, even necessary, at a club that carries on the front of the match-day programme: “We Are Liverpool. This Means More.”
Tottenham Hotspur fans, who have not seen their club win the league since 1961 and who are moving into a redeveloped White Hart Lane shortly, would dispute that. But the sheer wait, the sheer weight, of Liverpool’s 29 years means the title will matter more to them than to City or Chelsea or Manchester United simply because those clubs have won it recently.
The emotional investment was evident on the Kop as news of Leicester’s winner arrived.
Klopp joked afterwards that he was “naive” because he had thought the response was for the unflustered effectiveness of his side’s play. He repeated his assertion that Liverpool require “tunnel vision”, no distractions. He called the news from the midlands “just information” and asked why Tottenham’s 5-0 scoreline against Bournemouth had not been passed around in quite the same way. After all, Spurs are now closer to Liverpool than City.
He wears that image of bemusement well. But, although Klopp can seem new and novel, he is a manager of 18 years’ experience. He has known promotion and relegation with Mainz, he has won the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund. He has taken teams to Champions League finals. And he knows about crowds roaring. In Raphael Honigstein’s retelling of Dortmund’s breakthrough title in 2011 in Klopp: Bring the Noise, he begins with Dortmund’s stadium announcer relaying news of a Bayer Leverkusen defeat. Only Leverkusen could catch Dortmund, so the title was won. This noise was brought to the players on the pitch 20 minutes from time.
Klopp would make us pause, say it was in April, not December. It was the culmination of the season, not its halfway point.
That is responsible caution, it shows he has been here and done it. Even if his Liverpool players have not had this collective experience, the manager has dealt with the pressure, the constant questions about tables and titles.
When allied to the mathematics, the fact Klopp has done it before is a real plus for Liverpool. Then there is the “hunger” Mats Hummels spoke of at Dortmund, players coming together as a unit, spurring each other on. There is the sense – visible on Wednesday – of a team playing within itself, able to raise the level, understanding its potential. A team on the cusp of more, not less.
“We stopped asking questions,” Hummels said of the Dortmund players. “We knew exactly what the coach wanted us to do ... His classic phrase was: ‘Run like there is no tomorrow.’ ”
For Liverpool, it is all about tomorrow. It begins today against Arsenal and then next Thursday at Manchester City, two matches to test depth. We shall see if Liverpool have been playing within their capabilities.
Unlike Newcastle on Wednesday, neither Arsenal nor City will turn up to a gunfight with a water pistol. Arsenal have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whom Klopp signed for Dortmund. City have their own fleet.
Goalkeeper Alisson Becker kept another clean sheet on Wednesday, his 12th in the Premier League, confirming it by blocking a Newcastle shot in the 90th minute. There is no reason to suspect a sudden subsidence in that form.Alisson’s save was in front of the Kop. It was met with a roar, another one, on a day when Anfield realised what could be.
The volume rose and rose. It was one of those occasions when the crowd becomes the action. These are always brilliant scenes, it’s just they normally occur on the season’s final afternoons, not in December
Liverpool fans on the Kop at Anfield: the emotional investment was evident as news of Leicester’s winner against Manchester City spread.