Just as England was locking down, so the title race was opening up. What an impact Southampton and matchwinner Danny Ings have had with their deserved, impressive, victory here.
If Manchester United win their game in hand at Burnley next week, they will go top for the first time this late in the season since 2012-13. Sir Alex Ferguson was still in charge back then, and went on to win the league. United’s next fixture after the Burnley game is at Anfield, the biggest match between the clubs in years. Jeepers.
Yet that is next week’s story. Monday night’s headlines belonged to Southampton, who led inside two minutes and held tight to that slender advantage, despite Liverpool’s intense second-half onslaught.
There were penalty appeals – most, but not all, were specious – and some quite heroic defending from a back line still missing its most influential player Jan Vestergaard.
There were blocks and last ditch interceptions and stand-in goalkeeper Fraser Forster appeared to make one save with his back half turned. Not that he had many saves to make. Liverpool were made to wait their longest for a shot on target since a defeat at Newcastle on December 6, 2015. Somehow, Southampton’s fortress held.
They had only won a single Premier League game of their previous 15 played on a Monday, but maybe their luck will change after this.
It certainly deserves to. Few teams can match Liverpool’s press but Ralph Hassenhuttl’s did. Stuart Armstrong was exceptional in midfield, the defence demonstrated the resolve that was missing when surrendering a two-goal lead here to Manchester United before Christmas, and come the end the coach sunk to his knees in the technical area as if in thanks to the Almighty.
In many ways, he had already received that validation, Jurgen Klopp leaning in with a congratulatory fist bump before the final whistle blew, in acknowledgment of Southampton’s display.
Of course, resistance comes with a price and Southampton were almost out on their feet by the end, but still could have made it two when Alisson ventured too far from his goal and was nearly beaten from wide by substitute Yan Valery. The ball ran out of steam before an open goal and was caught by a chasing defender.
Indeed, it was a pleasingly neat reversal of the norm here. On so many occasions of late Southampton have been undone by a player they sold to Liverpool, so it was refreshing to see the opposite can also be true. Ings has now scored 50 Premier League goals but at one minute and 51 seconds this was his fastest.
And while we can all reach conclusions about Liverpool’s makeshift defence comprising two central midfielders – Fabinho and Jordan Henderson – in the centre-half positions, it is worth noting that the man who let Ings go was playing in his customary position at right full-back: Trent Alexander-Arnold.
He was caught out, as is so often the case, by an intelligent free-kick from James Ward-Prowse that caused Liverpool a problem from which they never recovered. Alexander-Arnold lost Ings while Henderson left a leg in and played him onside.
Both errors, major and minor, conspired and proved costly. Ings received the ball but not a flag and from a wide position lofted it up and over goalkeeper Alisson. It was a very neat chip, probably the best we’ll see this winter now golf courses are closed for the foreseeable future.
The start clearly rattled Klopp, who also saw Thiago Alcantara booked in the early stages, and then Andy Robertson. The second foul, needless and petty on Armstrong, provoked an outburst from the touchline that echoed around the empty stadium. For once Klopp’s anger was not directed at a referee, a linesman, Chris Wilder or BT Sport, but his own player. ‘Why did you do that?’ he asked Robertson. No explanation was forthcoming.
The shakes continued. Alisson played the ball straight to Theo Walcott, who failed to bring it under control, and soon after Henderson and Fabinho lost out again to a ball by Armstrong, forwarded to Moussa Djenepo, who shot over, his final significant action of the game before picking up what appeared to be a muscle injury.
His replacement Nathan Tella was soon involved, however, collecting the ball after Ings got the better of Henderson but directing his shot just wide. Word is that Henderson has earned the nickname Hansen in training due to the quality of his defensive performances, but there was little evidence of that here.
He did his best, as he always does, but the midfield missed him and he still looked a battlefield promotion rather than one immersed in the role. No doubt Klopp thought his callow understudies were not ready for Southampton’s lively front line. Yet Henderson and Fabinho looked every bit as vulnerable at times.
As did Southampton’s own second string. With goalkeeper Alex McCarthy isolating, Fraser Forster made his first Premier League appearance since May 2019 with inconsistent results. He was certainly rather fortunate to receive a foul when he dropped the ball after a heavy landing.