We didn’t imagine it then. The Premier League’s reanimation may have been ghostly, muted, frantic, low-key, and oddly vague. But at Anfield Liverpool drew themselves up to their full height and produced a performance that felt like muscle-memory kicking in; like roots beginning to stir; that felt, above all a bit like football.
A 4-0 defeat of Crystal Palace leaves Jürgen Klopp’s team a ludicrous 23 points clear at the top of the table. It was a reminder of something too. It wasn’t a fever dream. Yes, they really are that good.
It seemed fitting the moment of reignition should come from Trent Alexander-Arnold, a poster boy for many aspects of this team, from its rootsiness, to the tactically progressive elements of Klopp’s system.
There has been a suggestion only the most natural footballers will be able to find their rhythm in these early comeback games. Well, this was exactly that from Alexander-Arnold, a performance of frictionless attacking excellence, and in the middle of it the re-engagement of his own evolving, deeply personal relationship with the position formerly known as right-back.
Before kick off it even seemed fitting the opposition manager should be Roy Hodgson. Ten years ago today Hodgson was a week away from beginning his own ill-fated spell as Liverpool manager, with the club £351m in debt classified by its own bankers as “a toxic asset”.
Lockdown has been good to Roy. Palace’s manager has emerged from confinement whippet thin and agreeably tousled, strolling the touchline like an ageing roué returning at dawn from the casino table with only an ivory cigarette lighter and Marianne Faithfull’s phone number in his tuxedo pocket.
Here Hodgson was still shaggy, but dreamier, as though someone had summoned the ghost of Keats from his laudanum slumber, propped him up in front of a board covered in adverts and demanded he talk in dreamy tones about Christian Benteke’s thigh injury.
Hodgson knows better than most how to organise against high-class possession-heavy teams. Here Palace were tightly stitched across the centre. Early on Andy Robertson tried a give and go and was crowded out by what seemed to be at least two hundred men in white shirts.
This wasn’t so much attack v defence as a meeting of entirely opposed world views, neurotic introspection versus relentless alpha energy. It was only going one way. With 20 minutes gone Palace conceded a free-kick in a central area as Virgil van Dijk was bundled over.
The ball was spotted slightly to the right, 30 yards out. At which point, for reasons that will remain obscure, there was a brief jostling match among the Liverpool players over who should take the kick. There is a pretty decent rule of thumb in these situations. Nine times out of 10 give it to Alexander-Arnold. The 10th time, think about it, then give it to Alexander-Arnold.
It should be said this is based on future projections rather than past performance. Liverpool’s right-back came to Anfield with six goals in 126 appearances, a surprisingly barren return for a prolific assister.
He is, though, one of those players who just seems to have some greater understanding of the ball, its contours, its qualities of roundness. There was even something in the angle Alexander-Arnold set off towards the ball, arcs and trajectories tracing themselves out in the air around him.
The sound of foot striking leather was gorgeously crisp. The ball set off in the direction of “fifth-stump”, heading for the plastic seats, then began to snake back in, spinning across the back of the net with a delicious nylon swish.
This was as close to unsaveable as free-kicks get, the arc of the ball effectively erasing any notion of the role of goalkeeper. Either side of it Alexander-Arnold had 52 touches in the first half. He made 37 passes, five crosses and no tackles, a perfect little snapshot of the way he interprets his role.
The game effectively died in that moment. But there was time for plenty more ritual laying to rest. Mo Salah scored a fine goal, running on to a flighted pass from Fabinho, who was probably the outstanding player on the pitch.
Fabinho took 70 minutes to actually misplace a pass, his 60th of the game. Best of all was his second-half goal, a hard, flat, right-foot shot that went howling into the corner of the net at the same height it left his foot. Even a dogged Brazilian holding midfielder is still a Brazilian.
For all his excellence it was Alexander-Arnold’s grace that will remain the defining note of a decisive win.
Earlier this season Liverpool’s right-back had answered a suggestion he might move to a different, more central role by pointing out that he could instead move the concept of right-back into a different role, that the mountain might just come to him. This was simply more evidence: it’s not cockiness when you’re right.