There have been a lot of key moments in Jürgen Klopp’s tenure at Anfield. I think most people tend to focus on the exciting games of European competition because those are cup tournaments. As with playoffs in American sports, it’s often “win- or else” so there’s an added level of tension and excitement in the games. Nothing will ever detract from the thrill of the 4-3 comeback over Dortmund in the Europa League in Klopp’s first season or from the 4-0 showing over Barcelona last year in the Champions League. But, when thinking recently about the key games leading to our first league title in thirty years, there are a lot of them to choose from. When I say “leading to”, I don’t just mean this season, either. To be a title contender, you usually have to demonstrate for a season or two that you’re in the running, barring strange days like Leicester City in 2016. You have to show that you’re a threat by having an offense that can run up scores over significant opposition, like the 4-3 we put over Arsenal on opening day in ’16-’17 or the 4-0 we handed to Leicester on Boxing Day this season. You have to show that you have the temerity to stay in situations that seem daunting to your title hopes, like the 2-3 over Newcastle last year, or simply daunting, like being down late at Aston Villa this year before pulling out a 1-2 victory in the waning minutes.
There are a number of moments like that over the last 4.5 seasons of Premier League play, but the one I keep coming back to; the one I keep remembering as “the moment” that showed we were ready to step up; the one that demonstrated that we were really worthy of not just being considered a “top 6” club, but a “top 2 or 3” club, is this one:
We had been beaten soundly, as in 5-0, by the runaway league leaders earlier that season. Mané had been issued a deserved red card for putting a boot in Ederson’s face when we were only down 1-0 and, from that point, we’d been humiliated. A couple weeks later, after a 4-1 thrashing by Spurs with 11 men on the field, people started launching the derisive taunts about our “savior”, Klopp, being a false messiah. After all, this was his third season and Liverpool seemed no closer to being a contender than it had been when Rodgers had been jettisoned, despite the Champions League qualification. But, after that Spurs game, Klopp convinced the team that they had to defend as a unit with the same intensity with which they attacked. People laud Virgil for being the key element that changed the team and he did have and continues to have huge impact. But the defense changed before he ever arrived and, in fact, he was injured for that mid-January game against City. What changed was the attitude and this game is where we really showed that in every aspect of play.
This was a game with Karius between the sticks, Joe Gomez at RB, a midfield of Ox, Gini, and Emre Can at the 6, a centerback pairing of Matip and captain Dejan Lovren, and the rest of the usual suspects in their regular positions. As noted. Virg was out with an injury, as was Hendo, so we were looking at a situation where City could’ve been in a position to filet us. But, again, the spirit had changed and the defensive approach had sunk in. This was a team ready to contend.
Ox’s opening goal (1:06 in the above video, 9′ in game time) begins with a Karius bomb to the middle of the field that Otamendi misplays and which Bob brings to the ground and delivers to Ox. He immediately charges upfield with it and puts it away in a fashion that we’ve seen a couple times since (most notably against City that season, again, in the CL quarterfinals.) Anfield knew that we, as a team, could do that. At the time, these were the two highest-scoring teams in the league, but perhaps not everyone was convinced that Ox could do that. There were many people that thought LFC overpaid for Ox and I was among them. But what he did bring, besides the surprise goal, was a ferocious intensity that the rest of the squad matched in this game and for the rest of the season past that. This was what Klopp meant by “heavy metal football.” We were playing it and City was having a lot of trouble dealing with it.
Leroy Sané would equalize for City after a slick move past Gomez and a tight shot past Karius at the near post. It’s easy to try to blame either of them for that result, but I think Sané scores there because he’s Leroy Sané. To that point, the crowd had been into the game and that took a little wind out of the sails. But it’s clear from the way the second half started that Klopp had reinforced the intensity message in the dressing room. Liverpool was again swarming the City end, with two quick corners, both having to be punched out by Ederson, before Bob lights the crowd on fire.
Bob’s goal to retake the lead (7:08 in the above video, 59′ of game time) was the one requiring the most individual skill for LFC. Robbo brings down Otamendi’s Route 1 kick, Ox and Gini control it, with the former bringing it upfield, and laying it into the path of Firmino. Bob is wearing John Stones like an extra shirt (maybe that’s why he took his own off…?), but still has the strength and footwork to run the ball down, control it, clear some space, and curl a perfect shot past the outstretched hand of Ederson. This is the game embodied in one move: We’re faster, stronger, and able to score just as brilliantly as you can.
Immediately after (as in, right after kickoff), Bob’s harrying takes the ball off a poor Otamendi and Fernandinho exchange again and it ends up at the feet of Mané, who puts a clean shot off the post. A few millimetres to the left (let’s say, oh, 12 or so…) and that’s in for #3. At this point, City looked totally disoriented and the noise emanating from Anfield was as loud as I’d heard since Olympiakos. I remember Arlo White’s exclamation: “And listen to Anfield-!” (Side note: I appreciate Arlo’s calls moreso than Peter Drury’s and it irritates me that I remember White so clearly in this game and the only highlight package I can find has Drury on the broadcast. He isn’t bad, but he’s just not as electric as Arlo can be at moments like this.) Listen at the 9 minute mark above and you’ll hear what I mean. That crowd knew that this was our game. We were playing them off the pitch and Anfield was responding. 19 seconds later, the constant pressure of Bob, Ox, and Can in the middle third led to a pass back to Otamendi with Salah all over him. Otamendi’s attempt at a clearance handed the ball off to Salah and then to Mané…
For those who may not remember, that goal (9:19, 61′ of game time) is almost a carbon copy of the kick Fabinho took against City this season. A touch, a step into it, and right inside the near post, past Ederson’s desperate leap. The crowd was roaring. You can see Klopp’s reaction on the touchline at 10:17 in the video, as he celebrates his team firing on all cylinders and dominating the opposition. This is the Liverpool he was trying to build.
And, then, at 10:52 in the video, after an excellent sliding tackle by Gomez on Gundogan, the ball gets lobbed forward by Gini to Mo, who immediately plays a just-too-strong pass into Mané, trying to feed him in again. Ederson, of course, leaves the box to play it, since he knows Sadio is almost past his back line. The only thing Ederson thinks to do is punt it back… right to Salah… who sees the keeper way off his line…
There’s always a lot of talk by opposing fans about luck. If Otamendi hadn’t done this, if Ederson hadn’t done that, etc. Every good team has some luck involved. But most of the great teams make their own luck. That’s what Liverpool was doing in this game. Our pressing, our intensity, our firm belief that we could outplay this league-leading side in our building, meant that the things they were doing on the field were frequently things that we were forcing them into. As I said, Ederson rushed out of the box to play that ball because he knew that Mané could be strolling in on him basically unopposed if he didn’t. He had to play it fast because Bob was closing from the other side. He played it fast and poorly and Salah cleaned up. Klopp’s spectacular celebration of the goal was just the icing on a dominant cake.
Granted, this was one of the greatest teams in PL history, so City wouldn’t limp out the door. They scored twice more to make the scoreline more than respectable. But this was our game. This was our moment. This was the launching pad for all of the success that has followed after. This was when Liverpool became Klopp’s Liverpool and we started down the path to finally ending the 30-year hiatus as champions of England.