Liverpool: 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, apologised 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 were 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 Jurgen Klopp’s team would have a nine-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 build-up to the host’s first and fourth goals. Mohammad 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.
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 their showmanship, none of this should be confused for a lack of seriousness: Klopp’s team were in such a sufficiently competitive mood that as the players left the field for half-time, 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 establish over their competitors — and particularly, in truth, Manchester City, their next opponents — 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 their 29-year wait to be called champions 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 have been here before, in the long, barren years since 1990, when they last claimed the championship. In 1996-97, Roy Evans’ team were on top, too; a decade ago, so was Rafa Benitez’s; in the 2013-14 season, Brendan Rodgers’ side acted as the pacesetter. All of them surrendered their leads. None of them won the title.
There are no guarantees yet, of course, that Klopp’s team will be different. 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. In the end, every time, Liverpool bent and crumpled and wilted under the pressure. The team, or the club, were 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.
This Liverpool are 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 are 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.
Klopp, his players, their fans: They are all enjoying themselves for now.
As his players left the field on 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.