A few minutes from the end of this game, with Liverpool chasing an equaliser, James Milner fell over in possession. Centre-half Jack Stephens recovered the ball and, with no Southampton teammate prepared to make a run, ended up reluctantly dribbling the ball out of defence, as if being forced to do so at gunpoint.
Eventually Stephens punted a hopeful long ball over the top to for Yan Valery to chase. At which point, enter Alisson: sprinting heroically out his goal to clear. Except, as Alisson quickly discovered to his horror, he was not going to reach the ball first. And so, having advanced 45 yards, the Liverpool goalkeeper now simply stopped dead in his tracks, like a man who has just stepped forward to receive communion only to remember that he is not a Catholic.
Ultimately, Valery’s rolled shot was scraped clear by Jordan Henderson, and play continued in more conventional fashion. But in a way this curious and faintly comedic passage of play seemed to encapsulate something wider: not just the game as a whole but perhaps the season as a whole, or very possibly the world as a whole. At some point in the last year we have been all of the characters in this scenario: the stumbling Milner, the unenthused Stephens, the impetuous Alisson, the startled Valery. Even the ball itself: grubby, lacking in energy and destined never to reach its intended target.
From the perspective of this title-chasing Liverpool side, however, slowness is becoming something of a recurring problem. Alisson’s late metamorphosis into a rush keeper, chasing down a ball he would almost certainly have got to last season, summed this up. They often say the last yard is in the mind, and Liverpool’s memories are writing cheques that their tired bodies are no longer able to cash for them.
A little perspective first. This was only Liverpool’s second league defeat of the season. They remain top on goal difference. Four of their next six fixtures are at home. And even in this wasteful effort there was still more than enough pressure, more than enough possession, more than enough in the way of openings, for Liverpool to have turned this around on another night.
But as Henderson pointed out afterwards, these slow starts are becoming a bit of a problem. So it was that shortly after 8pm, in common with the rest of the country, Liverpool were made to pay a harsh price for inadequate precautionary measures. Even if there was an element of training-ground cheek to Danny Ings’s flick from James Ward-Prowse’s free-kick, Trent Alexander-Arnold should have made a far better effort at clearing it.
It would, all told, be a miserable night for Alexander-Arnold: he gave the ball away 38 times, more than any Premier League player this season, and failed to see out the game. But he was far from alone. Andrew Robertson on the opposite flank was just as poor. Mo Salah struggled to get into the game and offered little when he did. The midfield was slack. The press was barely functional. There was not a single shot on target until the 75th minute. We could go on.
Above all, the real issue here was the lack of Liverpool’s trademark efficiency: the crosses to nobody, the heavy touches in the final third, everything that was sticking for them last season. They did look brighter in the second half, after what we have to assume was a sober and measured team talk from Jürgen Klopp. But still there was a basic sloppiness on the ball, one that feels a natural consequence of the injury crisis of the opening weeks of the season.
At the time, Liverpool still had the depth and energy to cover for the absences of Virgil van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Thiago. This may be the period when they start paying for it. Unlike their title rivals Manchester United, Liverpool do not have banks of experienced reserves sitting on the sidelines. Meanwhile, Sadio Mané has played 12 games in 43 days. Robertson hasn’t missed a Premier League or Champions League game since July.
As for Klopp, he can rage – not without justification – about kick-off times and rest periods. But it wasn’t the broadcasters who made the decision to play Diogo Jota in a meaningless Champions League dead rubber who then got a knee injury. The good news for Liverpool is that the title remains up for grabs. The bad news is that if they want to win, they’ll have to suffer like never before.