Liverpool 2 Origi 75’, Milner 90’ + 1 Sunderland 0
Take a moment to consider what the headlines would’ve been had Sunderland held on. Liverpool drop points for the second week in a row. Liverpool fail to score in back-to-back goalless draws. Klopp’s “Heavy Metal Football” strikes a sour note with the festive season right around the corner. You probably don’t have to think too hard to imagine what the lede would’ve been, because you’ve seen this movie before. One or two bad results and the entire narrative changes. The media have been fascinated with Liverpool’s strong showing this season, and because it’s them and because it’s us they’ve already got the obituaries written. You know, just in case.
But the rumours of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. After an exasperating match that could have easily ended in a second consecutive 0-0 draw, Liverpool managed to find cracks in Sunderland’s wall late on and put two past their guests. But it did come with a price.
Sunderland made it clear that they weren’t coming to play football. David Moyes straight-up admitted he planned to have his team “park the double-decker bus” against the Reds. He said this with a sense of smug self-satisfaction, like that one guy who brings a book to a baseball game, confident with how much better he is than those around him. It must’ve been so frustrating for a bunch of footballers to show up for work knowing they’d have to do their job without actually doing their job. How do you play chess against someone who only showed up to punch you in the face? (I mean, other than the obvious.)
The visitors did what they said they would do. They sorted themselves into an 8-2-0 formation. They sat back. They relied on set pieces and defensive mistakes for their chances. They raised an outstretched middle finger to their opposition, to the Anfield crowd, to the entire damn sport. We’ve been watching this Sunderland team claim dibs on their seat by leaving skid marks for years and it’s all become so tiresome.
The self-satisfied anti-football was one thing. Going for blood was another. Sunderland decided early on that goals were too much to hope for but broken limbs were within reach. A day of reckless tackles and surreptitious cheap shots followed. Forcing the opposition to burn through their substitutes can be a very effective strategy, even if it is entirely lacking in morals. Sure enough, Sunderland claimed a scalp in the first half when Philippe Coutinho found himself on the wrong end of Didier Ndong’s boot and had to be carried off in a stretcher. (Thankfully it may not be as serious as originally feared.)
For the first 75 minutes it was the kind of match you regret getting out of bed for. Stifling defense. Physicality bordering on misdemeanor assault. Set piece after bloody set piece. David Moyes colourless, cauliflower expression. The spectre of another 0-0 draw hung in the air. The hot takes were being primed.
But this team, and this manager, simply refused to countenance such a result. With 15 minutes to go in regulation, Divock Origi— brought in to replace Coutinho in the first half— struck from an odd angle and just managed to drift inside the far post to put Liverpool in front with time running out. From there the game took on a manic quality, with Liverpool looking for some insurance and Sunderland desperately grasping for a late equalizer. There was no feasible way the score would remain 1-0 at full time, and Sunderland were nothing if not persistent. But like I said— Liverpool (and Jürgen Klopp) weren’t taking this lying down. With the pressure mounting, Sunderland gave away a penalty just as the clock ticked over into stoppage time and James Milner dutifully converted it to secure all three points.
But it’s not hard to imagine the indictments of this Liverpool side had those two goals not happened, or if Sunderland equalized late as they did at Anfield not nine months ago. Dropped points two weeks in a row, slipping from the top of the table, the team’s imperious run before the international break being nothing more than sound and fury. The pundits would say they thought Liverpool were back, and that they were wrong. The other shoe did drop. Instead, the Reds locked down three points and a clean sheet at home against a team perpetually fighting against relegation. Liverpool briefly returned to the top of the table— Chelsea’s win over Tottenham knocked them back down to second— and the story of the Reds’ renaissance under Klopp picked up where it left off.
It just illustrates how precarious it is to build narratives around results. A team draws, therefore they are in crisis. A team wins, therefore the manager is a genius. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.