It was the day former Wimbledon Crazy Gang goalkeeper Dave Beasant was born: that was the last time Stoke won in the league against Liverpool at Anfield. March 1959. Since then, Liverpool have – sort of – gone unbeaten against Stoke at home. When Stoke did finally win a game of football, in the League Cup semi final last season, it was only enough to bring the game to extra time. Liverpool won on penalties – the Reds hold some sort of voodoo jinx over the Potters.
That jinx makes for an interesting story, but it has no real relevance to actual football. On Tuesday night, though, Liverpool’s 4-1 victory saw them maintain another, more important unbeaten run: Jurgen Klopp’s side are unbeaten at home in the Premier League this season. And that one does have some relevance to real football in the real world.
In fact, the last time Liverpool lost at home in the Premier League was in January 2016, when they lost 1-0 to Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United. This season, their only two league defeats have come away from home against Burnley and Bournemouth – the only two teams in the division whose name starts with a B. Both have been played away, so it should be plain sailing from here on in, right? They’ve already despatched ‘Boro at the Riverside and the next away game is a trip to Bunderland. Oh, wait.
But, as always, unbeaten runs are there to be taken down, and the next contender happens to be Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who come to Anfield on New Year’s Eve. It shows how meaningless unbeaten runs can be – Liverpool would surely have preferred defeat to Stoke and victory over Manchester City to preserving their record one more game before losing to City in the next one. A victory over both would be better, though.
In the first half of Tuesday’s victory, Liverpool were rattled. Stoke’s directness on the counter attack proved to be too hot for Liverpool to handle. Much like Manchester City themselves – and at the risk of losing the respect of Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool have some real problems at the back. But Klopp’s worries weren’t about his side’s lack of concentration, or their sloppiness in possession that led to the Stoke breaks. Not to the media, anyway.
After the game, Klopp did speak of how tough it was. After 4-1 victory that sounds almost patronising, it’s easy for the victor to be magnanimous. But in the first half at least, it certainly was tough. Getting two goals before half time took the wind out of their visitors’ sails, and it was clinical from there – helped along by some suicidal Stoke play.
Yet Klopp’s reaction wasn’t to point out the obvious weaknesses in his own defence – funnily enough – but to point out that Stoke brough Peter Crouch into the team with the purpose of playing long.
It’s a smokescreen, aimed at getting the media to talk about Liverpool’s defence being shaky against a long ball and a big man up front. But that’s not how Stoke caused Liverpool the most problems. They caused them problems by playing quickly on the counter. They were direct, yes, but not necessarily high. Not when they caused the most problems, anyway.
Sometimes the most valuable lessons are learned after tragedy, but the best case scenario is learning after a lucky escape: the house fire that killed no one, the disease epidemic thwarted before any fatalities could occur. Life rarely affords you such a lucky break, but when it does, you have to learn those lessons quickly and put them right.
Liverpool’s victory wasn’t nearly like that. It was a good win: they fought back from a shaky start and a goal down, overturned the deficit, looked sparkling in attack and added a bit of gloss to the scoreline, too.
But there were still some very concerning problems at the back that they need to put right – especially before they face Manchester City, a side with a similar shining attack, shoddy defence set-up.
Spookily similar, in fact. When City beat Stoke 4-1 on August 20th, it was in a similar fashion. You’ll remember that game for Mike Dean’s liberal application of a pulling in the box equals penalty law, but City were, as usual, sloppy at the back, and it was only for some luck and clinical finishing that they managed to win the game at all, let alone by a big scoreline.
But City didn’t learn their lesson. They took comfort in the fact that they won the game, and it looked comfortable in the end. It was only a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur just over a month later when the wheels started to come off.
Liverpool don’t want to suffer the same fate.