New Year’s Eve at Anfield had a genuine workday feel to it in some respects. A lot was made of the fact that the Premier League and beyond had scheduled an extensive day of football, when many people had parties, or nights out to get to.
In reality, although it doesn’t happen too often, it wasn’t the first time we’ve played on New Year’s Eve during the Premier League era. The oddity was being asked to kick-off at 5.30pm, when what you should be doing instead, is sliding into ASDA for a few last minute end of year beer and crisps essentials.
This was the first time that Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola had gone head-to-head since they arrived in English football.
Do we refer to this new concept as el Kloppepico, or el Pepkloppico?
Big decisions to be made.
The workday New Year’s Eve vibe was heavily engendered by Manchester City.
We’ve all been there. New Year’s Eve landing on a weekday, rather than the weekend. Working for a miserable boss, one who stubbornly keeps you working until late in the day, rather than doing the decent thing and sending everyone home halfway through the proceedings. Usually an instance which ends with the patronising flourish of ‘generosity’ when allowed to go home 20 minutes before time.
Manchester City largely played like a set of players who were waiting for Guardiola to say “It’s OK lads, let’s wrap it up and get off home early”.
Misplaced passes, balls sprayed out of play for no acceptable reason, and a general lethargy that you just don’t associate with Guardiola embossed teams. At its worst, it started to be transferred on to us. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, James Milner and Dejan Lovren all had moments of aberration, when performing a brilliant piece of skill and control when under pressure, only to sloppily give the ball away in the very next movement.
Do the hard part with style, then fluff the easy part.
This was about the win, not the performance. It was about the 3 points gained. It was about the blow administered to a rival. It was about ensuring we ended the year, simultaneously reaching the halfway point of the Premier League season, no further back on the 13 successive game-winning league leaders, than we were when the Christmas period began. Given the opponents we faced over that Christmas period, this feels like it was our Christmas, despite Chelsea continuing to roll on.
We did what we needed to last night to contain Guardiola and his Manchester City side. There was little in the way of threat to Simon Mignolet, and what did come was mostly self-inflicted, with carelessly given away set-pieces from free-kicks and corners.
There was a 15 to 20-minute span during the second half when we were chasing shadows, which coincided with Jordan Henderson exiting the game. While I’m not suggesting Henderson has reached the sort of football only dogs can hear; given our most troublesome section of the game came within the wake of him departing the pitch, it is something to consider, especially if you’re one of those people who regularly float the concept of him not being all that integral to the team.
Henderson if anything, now becomes much more pivotal to a January when we have no option but to reinvent ourselves.
Sunderland away will mark the end of the current version of ourselves. The hope has to be, despite being asked to play twice in under 48-hours, that we end this stretch with a bang. Let’s go to Wearside and dance. Let’s throw out our best shapes and end the party-season with a piece of artistry to make an illusionary statement of intent to carry on as we are.
Then we morph into something subtly different.
We have to do that. Yet, it can feasibly play into our hands.
Mane will depart for the Africa Cup of Nations. Set-backs permitting, Philippe Coutinho will make his timely return. The emphasis of the team will change. The coin will spin once again. From Mane and Divock Origi being predominant throughout much of December, January will require different heroes.
The Coutinho vs Firmino dance-off will re-commence. Daniel Sturridge might come to the fore, but the continued presence and high levels of performances from Henderson, Adam Lallana and also the understated importance of Georginio Wijnaldum will be key to us sustaining our challenge to Antonio Conte, and his annoyingly metronomic Chelsea side.
Wijnaldum, a player who looked almost transparent earlier in the season, is rising in stock game-by-game. I proffered on Twitter last night that he is the footballing reincarnation of Nigel Spackman, except with a goal or two in his armoury.
It was meant as a high compliment, rather than the insult one or two people took it to be. Vaguely languid, a deceptive dip of the shoulder, an intelligent, almost silent sense of movement. This was the Spackman of late 1986-87 and the second half of the 1987-88 season. This has been the Wijnaldum of winter 2016. Long may it continue into 2017.
We weren’t consistently brilliant last night, more a case of flashes and glimpses of what we’re capable of. The twists, turns and nutmegs of Firmino, the crunching tackles and focussed attention to detail of Milner. Both of which were spent on Raheem Sterling for much of the evening. In a way, we played like a movie trailer. Snapshot images of our best scenes, which leave you wanting to see more.
Conversely, I’m not sure what to make of Manchester City. It’s like watching a movie which is packed to the rafters with A-list actors, but the script and plot just doesn’t work. Invariably, it also ends up with having Kenneth Branagh in it. They will periodically get it very, very right, but I’m not sure I see them capable of creating a dynasty. It’s exactly the same with Chelsea. This is why we will continue be presented with title-chasing opportunities two or three times a decade.
Guardiola is finding English football a much more difficult conundrum than he envisaged. He is however a massive asset to English football. If the Eastlands experience does blow up in his face, then I’ll happily see him at Anfield one day. If we can entice Klopp to Liverpool, then we can entice anyone.
Sterling. Too much is made of Sterling in these games. Pantomime season continued apace, with routine booing and jeering. Let’s move on eh? In fact, Manchester City fans missed an open-goal to be the bigger person, when they resorted to booing and jeering Milner in reply to it all. Sterling represents football which has flowed under the bridge now. We have something new and beautiful to behold. We should cherish and enjoy that when beating Manchester City, rather than boo and jeer the past.
It was a good way to end 2016. A clean-sheet and some outside of the penalty area showboating from Mignolet was a fitting endorsement of where we are at the moment, but there is hard work ahead to maintain this rhythm. We’ve slipped up at Burnley and Bournemouth this season, and a wounded Sunderland could be similar if we don’t focus.
New Year resolution. What we need now is clinical new year resolution.