Jurgen Klopp has been uncomfortable with Liverpool being described as “the best team in the world” because of the historical connotations of that terminology: breathtaking football by the biggest names in the game.
“Usually you think of Real Madrid from a few years ago or Barcelona from a few years ago,” the manager underscored, juxtaposing that with “but the team we have is about attitude – go and go and go – mixed with really good football players. We fight and that’s what people appreciate when they watch us: the intensity the boys put in even when it’s difficult.”
On Monday night at Anfield, Liverpool provided the perfect canvas for Klopp’s words in an onerous test against West Ham.
They looked fallible and they fell behind. For large swathes, they were more Indistinct than Invincibles. But then, they did what they always do: find a way. Go and go and go.
The initial sketches of the game did not disrupt the expected plot: Liverpool were offensively aggressive with the Hammers having to – in biting conditions – weather an onslaught.
The hosts applied pressure from successive corners before Lukasz Fabianski’s face was painted with relief. The goalkeeper’s heavy touch resulted in his subsequent clearance being blocked by Sadio Mane, with the ball narrowly evading the opening goal.
He was not spared for long, though. Brilliant interplay from Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita saw Roberto Firmino’s strike cannon off Aaron Creswell into a wide area. With no angle and no-one expecting anything special, Trent Alexander-Arnold supplied a superb cross that Gini Wijnaldum met with a glancing header. Fabianski, like his defenders, had switched off and reacted too late to avert the danger.
Conceding in under 10 minutes to Liverpool is not the smartest way for a team to try and lift themselves out of relegation danger, but the visitors did not fade into the backdrop of another routine win for the league leaders.
Instead, they turned to their core weaponry: set-pieces. Robert Snodgrass, West Ham’s assist king since making his debut for the club in February 2017, sent a super delivery to the near post, where Issa Diop got up highest to power a header low inside Alisson’s near post.
One hundred and forty-seven seconds before Liverpool’s opener and Fabianski slapping the crossbar in frustration, the Brazil international was also cursing conceding from a situation he’d usually command. It was the first goal Klopp’s side let in at home since December 4 in a 5-2 victory over Everton.
It was game on, but Anfield was strangely quiet and aside from Alexander-Arnold’s wondrous manipulation of the ball, there was little to applaud from the European champions. West Ham remained menacing from deadball situations and they were ultimately rewarded for showing greater ambition than usual.
On 54 minutes, they flipped a middle finger to the script with Mark Noble and Snodgrass engaged in smart build-up play, before Declan Rice directed a sweet cross into the area that only Pablo Fornals had reacted too.
Liverpool had stuttered and were served an almighty task to avoid a first league defeat in 417 days. As per Klopp’s portrayal of his side, the challenge was accepted and the fight switch was flicked on.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced for Naby Keita and offered an energetic, driving cameo as the pacesetters pushed to swing the encounter.
Fabianski, who had done well in collecting high balls, was left to facepalm again. Andy Robertson did excellently to race to the byline and cut the ball back to Salah on the penalty spot. The forward’s first-time shot was low and straight at the goalkeeper, but he let it slip between his hands, through his legs and over the line.
From then, Liverpool ratcheted up the pressure and a fortunate deflection from Joe Gomez’s shot allowed Alexander-Arnold to feed Mane, who struck into the open net to put them ahead.
The Senegal attacker was played in again by the right-back – man of the match – but his effort was disallowed after a VAR check for offside.
The damage had already been done and Liverpool’s unbeaten league record ticked over to 44 games. They have already won as many points in the campaign – 79 – as Manchester United treble winners of 1998-99 managed. The Merseysiders have triumphed in as many league games as Arsenal’s unbeatables in 2003-04 – and it’s still only February.
Liverpool have equalled Manchester City’s all-time English top-flight record of 18 league wins in a row. The stats are astounding, but it is the attitude of the side that is the real standout element.
Only four victories are required from their remaining 11 fixtures to end a three-decade wait for the title. Liverpool are within touching distance of being crowned champions while reconfiguring the perception of what it means to be ‘the best in the world.’