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Liverpool at home in the eye of the storm

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Liverpool are back to winning ways, but beware the gifts bestowed on us by Tottenham. Form and fortune aren’t entities which can be switched on and off like a light switch.

When confidence is eroded, it can be a complex and arduous task to restore it, and even when the tide has seemingly been turned, a fragility can remain beneath the exterior for a while, until you find a consistent stride once again.

After the FA Cup defeat at Manchester United, I mentioned the similarities between the continuing impasse and our dip in form during the winter of 2016/17.

Four years ago, we ended that barren stretch with a win against Tottenham, in which Sadio Mane scored… We then went to Leicester City, where we were soundly beaten.

It was essentially a lesson in not taking a return to form for granted; one swallow doesn’t make a summer, as the old proverb goes. A victory, after so long without one, has a natural effect of loosening tense shoulders.

Within this, Sunday’s trip to take on an in-form West Ham will be an interesting stress test of the confidence boost that was enjoyed on Thursday night, against Jose Mourinho’s side. A post-win slump at the London Stadium would fit in with the 2016/17 template, before taking our frustrations out on the remaining games of the campaign.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 31, 2020: Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp (R) chats with West Ham United's manager David Moyes before the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and West Ham United FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by Propaganda)

Using the musical analogy, in our search for the misplaced heavy metal football we’ve missed so much, in our winless and goalless streak, we had displayed something that was meek, and self-deprecating, The Smiths, in footballing form.

While not quite heavy metal football as yet, Thursday night was something along the lines of The KLF.

What we had were hints of heavy metal, with an indie slant, while throwing in bits of operatic pathos, and very impressive tangents of hip-hop. A dizzying mix of everything, that you can’t help but love. Instead of Mu Mu Land, you could say the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium represented our very own Mou Mou Land…

For more information on The KLF, ask your parents…

Mourinho tried to kill us with kindness prior to this one. He knew someone was eventually going to suffer on the end of a reawakening Liverpool, while added to this we’ve had the measure of both his and Mauricio Pochettino’s versions of Tottenham in recent seasons, which, given they are a fully paid-up member of the big six, as mad as it sounds, it made them the perfect opponents for us to break the winless spell.

Around six weeks ago, when these two teams played each other at Anfield, it was a top of the table clash, rather than the fifth vs. sixth encounter that this one was.

Theoretically at least, Tottenham are still fighting for trophies on four fronts. They have it within them to prevail in at least one of them, and they have the capabilities to take points off our rivals.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Thursday, January 28, 2021: Liverpool's Sadio Mané (R) celebrates with team-mates after scoring the third goal during the FA Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. (Pic by Propaganda)

For Liverpool, in a personal battle between instinct and fear, instinct succeeded, with Mane, Mo Salah, and Roberto Firmino casting off the shackles that have bound them of late.

Salah was unlucky to be denied a goal of his own, to put alongside those scored by Firmino and Mane, his effort contentiously taken away by the footballing arbitration system that is VAR.

The intricacy of Klopp’s brand of football went up against Mourinho’s direct ethos. It made for one of the best games we’ve been involved in this season, as we ruthlessly picked goals off from the mistakes that we forced Tottenham into.

Within this, Thiago Alcantara’s influence was pivotal when we were on the front foot, yet he was arguably a bit of a passenger when not in possession of the ball. He is, however, edging towards peak condition, and James Milner put in another understated performance to complement him, with Gini Wijnaldum dropping deeper.

Another plus point was the return to prominence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, the scorer of one, the creator of another.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Thursday, January 28, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold scores the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. (Pic by Propaganda)

As reassuring as victory was, and as soothing as the overall performance was, this one started and ended with our centre-back problems being writ large.

No Fabinho, out with a muscle injury, this was compounded when the returning Joel Matip didn’t return for the second half, befalling what Jurgen Klopp defined to be a serious-looking ankle injury.

Without our three senior career centre-backs, when we start to lose the makeshift ones too, then we really are reaching a critical point. We can’t seriously defend a league title and challenge for the Champions League without a central defensive partnership that is cohesive, and able to strike a telepathic understanding.

Alarmingly, as it now appears that Fabinho’s injury might be more problematic Matip’s, it’s perhaps not the best time to point out that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in a game where Fabinho hasn’t started at centre-back this season.

Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips have stepped up brilliantly at times, but it is too much to expect them to be able to do it game-on-game.

In covering for Matip, a yellow card aside, Phillips didn’t put a foot wrong. He is showing signs of being the reincarnation of Martin Skrtel. Nothing too elaborate, just a display of no-nonsense defending, and a propensity for being a general obstacle to his opponents.

This season, we have taken to the field with 16 different central defensive pairings, and we’ve only just passed the halfway point of the campaign. The need for both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to deputise at the back has meant our midfield has operated in a more restricted, yet no less of a revolving door manner too.

Title-winning sides aren’t built upon such upheaval. If we were to retain the Premier League from this position, then it would have to go down as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever achievements.

Yet, we now face an increasingly unforgiving fixture list. While we struggled through the back end of December, and into the first month of the New Year amid what was a relatively sedate set of games on paper, February is instead littered with what are bludgeoning and obvious threats, with March not looking much kinder.

On the plus side, Liverpool seem to be more at home within the eye of the storm.

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