What Pressure? Liverpool Allows Itself to Smile and Its Fans to Believe

LIVERPOOL, England — Jordan Henderson had just sent a shot, wild and high and a little comical, soaring into orbit above Arsenal’s crossbar. The ball landed somewhere in the upper rows of the Kop, its arrival greeted with a teasing cheer. Henderson turned, apologized to his teammates and jogged back into position.

As he did so, Liverpool’s fans serenaded the ball back down to earth, asking — in less than gentle terms — what, exactly, their captain had been intending to do. Henderson paused, turned toward them and lifted his arms in the air, as if in triumph. He beamed a wide smile. The crowd laughed at him, with him.

The situation allowed for a little levity. Liverpool was leading, 5-1, with just a few minutes left to play; everyone involved had, for some time, been going through the motions, conserving energy, watching the clock.

A ninth successive Premier League win was secure. Liverpool’s unbeaten start to the season would go on. Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat at home to Wolves a few hours previously meant that Jürgen Klopp’s team would have a 9-point lead at the top of the table, for 24 hours, at least; by that stage, Anfield was feeling lighthearted, lightheaded.

It was not an isolated moment, though. Little flourishes of exuberance embellished Liverpool’s performance. Roberto Firmino played no-look passes in the buildup to the host’s first and fourth goals. Mohamed Salah gave Firmino what Klopp described as “a Christmas present, one of the nicest things I have ever seen,” in allowing him to take the penalty that brought Liverpool’s fifth goal of the game, and the Brazilian’s third, the first hat trick of his career.

Liverpool Manager Jürgen Klopp, left, celebrated with Xherdan Shaqiri after beating Arsenal at Anfield on Saturday in the English Premier League.CreditPeter Byrne/Press Association, via Associated Press
IMAGE: Liverpool Manager Jürgen Klopp, left, celebrated with Xherdan Shaqiri after beating Arsenal at Anfield on Saturday in the English Premier League.CreditPeter Byrne/Press Association, via Associated Press

Adam Lallana’s first touch, after he appeared as a second-half substitute, was to pull off a Cruyff turn, under pressure, not far from his own penalty area. Nathaniel Clyne, a defender hardly known for his exemplary technique, contributed a lavish drag-back move late on.

Whether Liverpool overindulged its showmanship or not, none of this should be confused for a lack of seriousness: Klopp’s team was in such a sufficiently competitive mood that as the players left the field for halftime, there was some sort of contretemps in the tunnel.

They knew what this game and this win meant; they know what each game and each win means. For all Klopp insists that it does not matter how much of a lead Liverpool establishes over its competitors — and particularly, in truth, Manchester City, its next opponent — and for all his avowals that nobody in Liverpool’s changing room so much as smiled at the news that second-place Tottenham had lost, neither manager nor players exist in a bubble.

They know that the destiny of the Premier League title — for now — rests in their hands. They know how much this club yearns to end its 29-year wait to be called champion of England. They know that the fans long for a 19th championship, and they know that a season that started with hope that this might finally be the time has now become one infused with something that feels a lot more like belief.

They know all that, and yet watching them against a team theoretically regarded as among their peers, they seemed not to know any of it at all. They did not look like a team rather unexpectedly leading a title race. They did not look like a team aware that City might seize upon the slightest slip, that the pace all three contenders have set this season is so fierce that a draw counts as a defeat, a defeat equates to disaster. They did not look like a team with the dreams of millions resting on their shoulders. Instead, they looked, frankly, as if they were enjoying themselves.

Liverpool has been here before, in the long, barren years since 1990, when it last claimed the championship. In 1996-97, Roy Evans’s team was on top, too; a decade ago, so was Rafa Benítez’s; in the 2013-14 season, Brendan Rodgers’s side acted as the pacesetter. All of them surrendered their leads. None of them won the title.

The referee Michael Oliver, left, was pursued by Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi, center, and Sokratis Papastathopoulos after Oliver awarded a penalty to Liverpool.CreditRui Vieira/Associated Press
There are no guarantees yet, of course, that Klopp’s team will be different. He described the challenge facing Liverpool as a “marathon” after the game, though it is, perhaps, really more of a steeplechase. There are still 18 obstacles, hazards and traps Liverpool must navigate, all of them at breakneck speed.

That this feels different, though, is undeniable. All of those Liverpool teams that have been close before seemed to exist on the edge. Evans assembled a side that was wonderful in attack but fragile on defense. Benítez mounted a title challenge while, behind the scenes, the club collapsed into internecine warfare; he did so, largely, because of the ability of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to transcend the chaos.

Rodgers, then, took a little from Column A and a little from Column B. In Luis Suárez, he had the most loathed player in England and probably, that year, the best striker in the world. It was also a team that could — to borrow a phrase from Domènec Torrent, formerly an assistant to Pep Guardiola and now coach of New York City F.C. — “kill you in 15 minutes, or itself in 10.”

In the end, every time, Liverpool bent and crumpled and wilted under the pressure. The team, or the club, was too flawed to cope with the exigencies of a title challenge. They needed everything to go right for them to succeed. They were not equipped to handle adversity.

Plenty has gone right for Liverpool so far this season: most significantly, of course, the freak, 96th-minute goal from the otherwise forgotten Divock Origi that won the Merseyside derby on Dec. 2, the strike that kept City within touching distance just as Guardiola’s team threatened to streak away.

IMAGE: Mohamed Salah scored Liverpool’s fourth goal on a penalty kick.CreditPhil Noble/Reuters

There is no sense, though, that Liverpool needs those bursts of good fortune. Klopp has the meanest defense in the country — with just eight goals conceded in 20 games — and a variety in attack that all of his predecessors would envy.

If Salah struggles, Firmino steps in. If he fails, Sadio Mane can pick up the slack. If none of that works, Xherdan Shaqiri, who was picked up for 13 million pounds, or about $16.5 million, from relegated Stoke City last summer, is thrown in.

This Liverpool is not reliant on one player, or one partnership. There is a unity of purpose on the field, behind the scenes, and an exultant mood among the fans. Liverpool is regularly accused by opponents’ supporters of hubris, of habitually leaping to conclusions too early, too eagerly. Perhaps in years gone by, that has been the case.

As Klopp pointed out, though, it would be crazy if the fans were not reveling in the season their club is having. It is easily forgotten, amid all the hyperbole and artifice and tailored tension that surround the Premier League, but the whole purpose of the enterprise is for people to have fun. If it is in some way unbecoming to enjoy being on top of the table, it is hard to know what the point is.

The one question — the one that will define how long that jubilation lasts, and what it all leads to — is whether that can be maintained. Klopp, his players, their fans: They are all enjoying themselves for now.

But things buckle under pressure, and melt in heat. Liverpool will face an abundance of both. The history, the longing, dictates that they must deal with more than City, more than Tottenham — in the months to come. For all the strengths Klopp has assembled, for Liverpool, this is now a test of nerve as much as talent.

As his players left the field Saturday, the Liverpool manager, usually the fire-starter, the hype man, motioned to them to keep their calm, not to get carried away. There is a time to lift your arms in triumph, to smile, to laugh. It is in May.


An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of the most recent Merseyside derby. It was in December, not November.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page SP9 of the New York edition with the headline: Liverpool, Extending Its Lead, Gives Itself a Reason to Believe. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
IMAGE: Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino after scoring his third goal and the team’s fifth on a penalty kick Saturday. Mohamed Salah had drawn the penalty but yielded to his teammate.CreditCreditPhil Noble/Reuters

By Rory Smith, Dec. 29, 2018, NEW YORK TIMES

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