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Stuff that matters

Towards the end of this thrilling, slightly wild afternoon at Anfield, Jürgen Klopp could be seen with his arms outspread, a tableau of pathos, disbelief, astonishment, bewildered to find himself handed a red card by Anthony Taylor and sent from his touchline.

As Klopp whirled away, almost sprinting from pitchside, air‑guitaring wildly, still barking and yelping and pointing, it was hard to disagree with his look of stunned surprise. This made no sense at all. How exactly had Klopp managed to last 85 minutes out there?

It was just that kind of game, an afternoon that began slowly, before unspooling in a whirl of conjoined attacking thrust and counter-thrust, ignited by Manchester City’s disallowed goal on 55 minutes.

Liverpool’s manager had spent much of the second half cartwheeling down his touchline, beseeching the fourth official or looming over the assistant referee in his billowing quilted coat like an enraged human wigwam. There was an unpleasant edge at times in the spectacle, and a sense of spite in some of the songs and chants. Objects seemed to be thrown at City’s bench from the stand on that side. Football can feel like catharsis, a chance to expel all those pent‑up toxins. There seemed to be quite a lot to go round here.

By the end there was a kind of giddiness around those clanky corrugated stands, a sense of a 1-0 Liverpool win played out through a mist of rage. But for all the theatre this was also a cold victory, and a triumph of planning for Klopp, who achieved that rare thing, a genuine tactical triumph in a high‑stakes game.

The talk around this team in the last few weeks had been of entropy and rust. The players have looked tired. The system has looked tired. Klopp-ism, a way of playing where the variations are always to become a louder, faster version of yourself, to be this again, but more, seemed to have reached something of an end point.

But Klopp made two significant changes here. First he moved Mohamed Salah to the centre and asked him to play as a kind of free radical centre‑forward. Not a false 9 or a real No 9, just a kind of Salah nine, veering about in the gaps between the centre‑backs, chest puffed, legs whirring like a cartoon mouse, and looking utterly refreshed in that role.

Anfield had been a crisp, wintery kind of place at kick‑off, the air above the stands a chilly powder blue. There were some key textural changes to Liverpool’s starting XI, a 4-2-3-1 with Harvey Elliott in an in-out position on the right, sometimes as a wide midfielder, sometimes tucking in, allowing Salah to roam out that way or skitter across into the centre.

City’s back three was also a surprise twist, but in the event it seemed perfectly set up for Salah’s central role, offering channels of space between the central defenders for those spurting diagonal runs. And in those opening moments Liverpool were crisp and bruising and sharp. The last time James Milner had been asked to face off directly against Phil Foden at right-back there was a kind of low-level cruelty about the whole spectacle.

But here Milner had that side locked down, defending with aggression, charging out to intercept, and holding his ground as Foden twirled and jinked in front of him.

The game congealed for a while. There had been a sense of theatre just watching Erling Haaland walk out at the start. As he picked the ball up for the first time, there was the sound of a home crowd goggling just a little at the sheer human variety of it all. If he ever gets bored of team sport Haaland could probably fill a stadium with just him to watch run up and down.

But he didn’t finish well here. It would be wrong to say Haaland had a bad game. He kept finding space and making chances. He just looked oddly gauche, twice heading weakly from a good position. There was a poor touch when he might have played Foden in on goal. He looked, in an odd twist, like a 22-year-old.

Through all this Salah had already drawn one wonderfully athletic save from Ederson, careering in on goal from the halfway line after a fine pass by Roberto Firmino. With 71 minutes gone he seemed to think he was coming off, but was instead treated to a volley of furiously barked instructions from his manager.

And a few moments later he scored a thrillingly simple goal, made by a long, flat punt to the halfway line by Alisson. From there Salah took three touches, the first to nudge himself in front of João Cancelo, the second to shift the ball, the third a lovely, soft, side-footed finish that sent the ball zinging into the net and then back out again.

City might have equalised, might have been caught on the break, but were aided by the astonishingly focused tunnel vision of Darwin Núñez. Virgil van Dijk had a moment, heading out from under the crossbar with Haaland lurking, enough to draw a thunderclap of applause, a TV close‑up, to feel that shot of warmth, energy, vibes.

Another success was the neutering of Kevin De Bruyne’s influence, as Liverpool’s midfield three got close and stopped those bullocking runs. Nothing was resolved here. Liverpool are still only close to being close.

But Klopp earned this victory. Salah looked re-energised. Perhaps this thing might just have some road left to run.