It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of GOATs, it was the epoch of frauds, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, they had everything before them, they had nothing before them, they were all going direct to Heaven, they were all going direct the other way. It was a period in which the only degree of comparison was the superlative, and nobody could feel pressure without being denounced as a bottler.
Liverpool were not bottling the title after 89 minutes at Anfield on Sunday but nor can it reasonably be denied that what happened in the second half, as Tottenham came back at them after a disjointed first half, was conditioned to a large extent by circumstance and the awareness of everybody present of the significance of the result.
Had Liverpool dropped points, had Manchester City remained top of the table on goal-difference with a game in hand, then City could have afforded to drop points. As it is, any slip-up – and City have still to play both Tottenham at home and Manchester United away – could hand the title to Liverpool who continued, somehow, exhaustingly and implausibly, to find a way to win.
What happened in those frantic final minutes on Sunday was absurd. Jürgen Klopp effectively risked everything on one final double substitution, bringing on Divock Origi and Fabinho for Jordan Henderson and James Milner. The shape became 4-2-4, although in the circumstances shape seems a slightly misleading term: it was effectively Virgil van Dijk in one half and everybody else up the other end. It could have definitively cost Liverpool the title. Had Van Dijk, closing down the passing route to Son Heung-min while forcing Moussa Sissoko onto his weaker left foot, not stifled a two-on-one counter, the sort of break that only comes late in games as one side desperately chases a goal, Spurs would probably have won the game and given City clear water.
Klopp would then no doubt have been condemned for casting caution to the winds, for going too gung-ho, but here it worked. The final, critical, chance did fall their way and, via an error and a fortunate ricochet, so did a winner. Every time it looks like they’re finished, every time it seems City can begin to relax, Liverpool jerk back into contention with a chilling gasp; they’ve essentially become Glenn Close in the bath in Fatal Attraction.
In the scrabble for scapegoats after Brazil had lost to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup, the crowd did not escape blame. “When the players needed the Maracanã the most, the Maracanã was silent,” the musician Chico Buarque observed. “You can’t entrust yourself to a football stadium.” But that was precisely what Klopp did. In cold tactical terms, his substitution made little sense; emotionally it was precisely what Anfield needed. Klopp threw forwards on the pitch and had faith that the occasion, desire, need, will, whatever, would do the rest.
Liverpool have started using the phrase “this means more” in their branding this season, prompting (largely justifiable) eye-rolling from fans of other clubs sceptical of the myth of Scouse exceptionalism. There has been a theory that the desperation on Merseyside to end their 29-year run without a title has led to an unhelpful mood of anxiety around Anfield.
The nervous energy that surrounds Liverpool these days is undeniable, the edge sharpened perhaps by a sense, so formidable does the entire structure at City appear, that this opportunity may not come again any time soon. On Sunday, though, it worked for Liverpool: amid the frenzy, it was Tottenham who made the mistake.
In the days when close title races were common, this was what happened. Players, coaches and crowds tighten up as the line draws closer; in 2012 both City and Manchester United staggered their way to the epic conclusion. It feels there is something in the culture of the modern game – perhaps the gulf between the best and the rest, perhaps the way players seem to exist on another plane both of wealth and ability, perhaps the obsession with analysis, perhaps familiarity with Fifa and ProEvo – that denies that, that demands the protagonists should remain bundles of data unaffected by emotion.
But tension is natural, overcoming it is part of the game. For spectators it’s part of the fun. The modern world of extremes, though, seems to struggle to acknowledge that, desperate to apply the tag of bottler to anybody who is struck in the moment by a sense of what a shot or a tackle or a save might mean.
After the dip of the early part of this year, Klopp seems to have found a way to channel that. Liverpool keep coming up with late winners, keep inducing mistakes from opponents. That sort of thing can provoke a narrative of destiny, can become self-perpetuating, inspiring a team to a final push while inducing in their opponents a debilitating insecurity. Perhaps it is written, perhaps Liverpool can ride this emotional wave.
But equally it shouldn’t be forgotten that in Fatal Attraction Glenn Close ended up getting shot. Nobody can keep coming back forever.