It happened again. Liverpool proved to have the temperament in yet another lofty Premier League tussle but managed to surprise fans by winning in a way that was quite unexpected. A first league win of 2017 was much like the club's last of 2016.
Protecting a lead. Keeping clean sheets. Avoiding needless individual errors. These are areas that Liverpool remain deficient in, especially the last two categories. Even during an unparalleled first 19 games of a Premier League season, which has represented the halfway point since 1995/96, Jürgen Klopp's entertainers showed fragility in defending and game management. It is unfair, of course, to expect perfection from an impressive extended spell even if December began with two results that demonstrated and exposed such frailties.
Heading into the clash with Manchester City, the prevailing feeling was that Liverpool would need to prevail in an entertaining spectacle full of goals and flaky defending. Taking an early lead and failing to extend it usually ends in regret. It's one of football's general truths that repeatedly confirms its veracity in matches across the globe. For a ferociously industrious and counter pressing side as Liverpool, often top-heavy in quality and competence, this can be problematic. To astonishment of many, however, it wasn't. After 59 minutes, Manchester City did not have a single shot on goal.
Eleven games in three competitions came and went with only an FA Cup replay victory over League Two Plymouth Argyle to add to the season's win column. Spurs were not only second but also four points ahead of a floundering Liverpool team that had dropped out of the top four for the first time since September. Again, it was a similar tale of an early start that was sealed by an solid second half. After going two goals up within 20 minutes, Liverpool should have score at least one more before the interval. Incredibly, the visitors only had two shots in the second half as they were suffocated by the home side. One shot on 69 minutes and just two minutes before the referee's whistle ended the four minutes of added-on time.
Neither Pep Guardiola nor Mauricio Pochettino could find answers in second halves where Liverpool showed defensive resilience, game management, cleverness, leadership, fight, and experience to see out notable victories. Don't think that because Klopp's Liverpool has generally excelled in big games that the players and the team do not deserve considerable credit for managing to consistently turn up mentally, physically, and tactically in these contests. While there is a problem when struggling sides sit deeper in lower defensive blocks, there is no guarantee that Liverpool should either win or go undefeated against each rival team in the top six.
Such form, however, compensates for dropping needless points against teams in the bottom six. Well, it does to some extent. This method of picking up points cannot sustain title challenges. It cannot gloss over a wretched period of form that has caused fissures in a relatively united but expectant fanbase since Klopp took over in October 2015. There are only two games against top six members remaining—Arsenal at home and Manchester City away—for Klopp and his players to maintain this phenomenal record. A Merseyside derby at Anfield can be thrown into this group, too, considering the importance and pressure surrounding a local derby.
Maybe this is what Klopp's Liverpool does—turn up in derbies and high-pressure battles. Only Manchester United have managed to secure a league win at Liverpool's expense in the Klopp era. Should our admiration of this development weaken as it continues? Perhaps it's the fear that wins in these televised and widely-viewed meetings will be undermined by Leicester City or drained by Burnley. It shouldn't detract from how difficult it is to maintain a laudable record against Liverpool's closest rivals, but "the second Holy Grail" Klopp spoke of cannot be achieved with just three huge performances.
It is the needful that will see Liverpool through to Champions League qualification in a season where anything but a top four finish will be considered a failure. That may seem unfair to those who may rightly refrain from unwise and hasty assessments. Yet the standard has been set by two finals last season, a strong start this season, and a taste for the grand occasion. Teams may not be as adventurous as Arsenal or Manchester City, but there should be no reason why the levels of concentration shown on Saturday cannot be displayed at the King Power Stadium in the last game of the month.
It appears that even after such a monumental victory on Saturday, teams languishing in the bottom half of the table represent the greatest barrier to reaching the land of milk and honey.