About an hour into Liverpool vs Manchester City at Anfield, the ball bounced in the direction of Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s grizzled, industrious captain. Whereupon something quite unexpected occurred. With a City opponent charging towards him, Henderson pirouetted his body through 360 degrees, and then, without looking, flicked the ball with his right heel perfectly into the path of a teammate.
The crowd roared. It’s probably fair to say there were two noises: an initial cheer for the trick, and then a sort of strangled collective gasp as everyone realised who had executed it. Was that… Jordan Henderson? The dependable, self-effacing midfield distributor? Pulling off a spinning backheel flick against the Premier League champions? For all the orchestral splendour and ear-splitting euphoria of Liverpool’s 3-1 win on 10 November, this moment of sparkling incongruity – the equivalent of seeing your parents breakdancing – was probably the moment we all realised something special was happening.
Modern football likes to give the impression that it is an ordered, empirical place. Everything is monitored and recorded; everything can be measured and explained. The idea that elite athletes – winnowed from a talent pool of millions and nurtured to perfection – could be spooked by something as rudimentary as a bellowing crowd feels somehow quaint.
And yet here were City, one of the greatest teams ever seen in English football, skimming haphazardly across the turf like victims of some terrible trauma. Raheem Sterling, the golden boy of English football, squared up furiously to his international teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold after being casually shoved into the advertising hoardings. City’s refined central midfielder Rodri was booked for dissent. Even the officials were addled: City were denied a clear penalty for handball early on, and in a game marked by petty tactical fouls, the home side escaped without a single card.
Anfield and its weathered red bricks tend to have that effect on people, whether or not they would like to admit it. Sergio Agüero, one of the most lethal strikers in the history of the Premier League, still hasn’t scored at Anfield in 13 attempts (and here was hauled off after 70 ineffectual minutes). City haven’t won at Anfield since 2003. In fact, it’s been two-and-a-half years since anybody but Liverpool won at Anfield, the longest unbeaten home record in Europe’s top five leagues.
There are Liverpool’s famous European comebacks, too: from St Etienne 1977 to Olympiakos 2004 to Barcelona 2019, nights when the old ground seemed to be gripped by a strange and supernatural fever. “It’s the hardest place in Europe,” cooed former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who was commentating on the game for Qatari television. “Today we build sophisticated stadiums, but this is a stadium with soul, with pressure really on the opponent.”
A third of the way into the season, a howling gale at Liverpool’s back has blown them into a staggering eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League table. No club has ever built a gap that great this early in the season and failed to win. Bookmakers and statistical modellers are roughly aligned in giving Liverpool around a 70 per cent chance of coming out on top in May. For many pundits, meanwhile, the race is already over: for the first time since 1990, the league title is coming back to Anfield.
With six months of the campaign remaining, this puts Jürgen Klopp’s side in a curiously novel position. For much of the club’s recent history, Liverpool’s narrative has been built on operatic resistance: against the collapse of their 1970s and 1980s dominance; against the new money sweeping through the European game; against the police and government over Hillsborough; occasionally even against their own hated owners.
It’s a powerful origin story, one that has fuelled some of the most memorable nights in Liverpool’s history, and also sustained its longest ever era of failure. Here’s the thing, though. When your entire identity is founded on the trope of triumph against the odds, of harnessing the power of the paranormal to bend the rules of sport and lay your enemies to miraculous waste, what happens when no more miracles are required? What happens when the odds are skewed dramatically in your favour? When you’re eight points clear after 12 games, what is there left to resist?
Perhaps this attachment to resistance is why Liverpool’s least convincing performances have often been in games they were overwhelmingly expected to win. June’s Champions League triumph over Tottenham was one of the worst games of any season: a horribly taut game where the 2-0 result ultimately justified the means. Already this season they have come from behind to beat the likes of Newcastle and Aston Villa, and tiptoed to narrow home wins against Red Bull Salzburg and Genk. And while Anfield can be a terrific tonic when things are going well, it can also turn extremely jittery: Liverpool’s nine home games this season have already produced 43 goals and enough nervous moments to suggest that the next six months might not go quite as smoothly as they would like.
Perhaps, too, it’s why Liverpool’s players and staff have been almost allergically opposed to any premature talk of the title, cleaving furiously to old platitudes such as “having a long way to go” and “taking it one game at a time”. It’s almost as if, having reached the summit, they’re afraid to open their eyes and take in the view. As if deep down, they suspect what everyone else already knows: that the only team left to beat Liverpool is themselves.
This article appears in the 13 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold