Well, it wasn’t exactly a pasting, but Liverpool navigated their awkward date with Steven Gerrard.
It was a largely dominant performance and three very valuable points plucked from stubborn opponents who were playing a brand of football that could only be described as pragmatic.
Of course, much was made of Gerrard’s homecoming. It was something that hung over the game as soon as he was handed the Aston Villa job; not exactly a pantomime, it was a fixture that had ‘kitchen sink drama’ spray-painted all over it.
This almost felt like one of those wonderful Liverpudlian family parties – usually taking place at a cricket club, despite none of the attendees ever having played the game since leaving school – those ones where a member of the clan, who has moved away from the area, in the name of improving their career, and themselves, has mutedly come home, deigning to grace us with their presence at Christmas.
There is an edge to the atmosphere in the room, which is laced in a unique combination of pride and antipathy, where smiles and sneers are in equal measure. They aren’t initially welcomed with open arms, but by the end of the evening, it is big laughs and warm embraces all around.
A million photos taken for the album and promises that it won’t be so long until they come home again.
It wasn’t until after the game that the warmth reached the type of levels that the former Liverpool captain genuinely deserves, or perhaps more so until he himself seemed better at ease with the situation of being back at Anfield as the opposition manager.
No matter the exaggerated professionalism he approached the game with, it must have been an afternoon like no other for him.
Make no bones about it, Gerrardball was difficult to deal with on multiple levels.
A goalkeeper who shamelessly time-wasted from the very off, a degree of bus parking obduracy when required, and a physical nature to chasing the ball – something they were forced to do for much of the afternoon – although ably assisted by Stuart Attwell, a referee who never really seemed to be paying the game the attention and focus it required.
This was a considered form of pragmatism, as it was also allied with an effort to play the ball on the ground, rather than with an aerial approach. Gerrard offered diet-pragmatism. Sugar-free, with zero calories.
It was combative yet grounded in him having been taught the ‘right way’ to play the game, the Liverpool Way. Gerrard knows that the sport is called football, not headball. It’s just as well really, as Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, and Fabinho won every single ball in the air that floated towards their direction.
Liverpool were the better team for much of a frustrating afternoon, with Villa’s best football reserved for chasing the game in the latter stages, on a day when they failed to muster an effort on target.
A game littered with penalty shouts, the outcome was eventually settled by a Mohamed Salah penalty after he and his teammates had squandered a litany of semi-decent situations.
So, what about Gerrard, in the guise of the Liverpool manager of the future?
To assess that, what we must do is try and do what he did in his approach to this game and remove the emotion from the equation. All sentimentality aside, if any other Premier League manager brought the brand of football he spun on Saturday afternoon to Anfield, would anybody be touting him as the next Liverpool manager?
Currently, in a world of avoiding what happened at Chelsea, when they appointed Frank Lampard, I’m certainly in no rush to see Gerrardball on the weekly menu at Anfield.
As Jurgen Klopp said the other day, Gerrard will be the Liverpool manager one day, but, for me, he needs to continue his education elsewhere for many years to come before he does, maybe even go and coach in one of the big leagues across mainland Europe too before returning.
Come the foreboding day Klopp departs, letting emotion get the better of decisions of succession could easily back Liverpool into the type of corner that Manchester United manoeuvred themselves into when Ole was at the Old Trafford wheel.
On the day Klopp does call it quits, it will very much need to be a question of what Liverpool needs, rather than what ‘our Stevie’ needs.
The title trio
It was narrow victories all round for the top three on Saturday, and as we head into the midweek round of fixtures it is a case of as we were, with just two points separating the trio of title-chasing protagonists.
Games that effectively fire the starting gun on the madness that is the Christmas run, it will all be about the durability of the mind as much as it will be the legs over the weeks ahead.
This is where the battle for the title might just realistically reduce itself towards a two-horse race.
It’s up to Liverpool to ensure they are still in the running, by the time they roll away from Stamford Bridge on January 2.
Let the madness begin.