There are two types of defeat. Those that show you how far you have to go and those that underline how far you have come.
Liverpool’s loss to Manchester City falls into category two, Jurgen Klopp’s side vanquished in a high-class game where they had cause to leave The Etihad as encouraged as they were dejected.
For numerous reasons this is a different Anfield challenge, primarily because of the quality of Klopp’s team. City are correctly acclaimed for the majesty of their football under Pep Guardiola. It was their desire and intensity dragging them over the line on Thursday night. That is testimony to an opponent superior even to that which protected its 3-0 advantage against City in last year’s Champions League.
But this is also a different Liverpool challenge because it comes in this social media-polluted era of instant gratification, where players and teams are judged on moments rather than characteristics.
Greatness and haplessness is scattered like the proverbial confetti, the definition of a trend shifting from what is habitual to atypical. Liverpool have lost their first Premier League game in 21 matches, so anyone concluding an irreversible slide has begun on the basis of a loss to this Manchester City team is working with flimsy evidence.
If there is any consolation from Liverpool’s defeat – and it is an admittedly tiny one – it will be an end to the dubious urge for an immediate, premature coronation of champions. The Christmas period has provoked some kind of clumsy ‘hokey-cokey’, clubs declared ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the title race on the basis of a defeat or win like it is a juvenile parlour game. It is January, for God’s sake. No wonder Klopp’s most recent press conferences have sounded like a rally cry to those who cannot wait for the outcome in May to get a grip.
With 17 games remaining, Thursday night’s result was never going to be definitive, merely an enthralling guide as to what might follow. The conclusion is both sides will not just be slugging it out for the rest of this season, but for as long as Klopp and Guardiola are in position. Their next meeting will be as keenly anticipated as this.
It is not and never has been Liverpool’s title to lose. Nor will City believe closing the four-point gap a formality, as if they have gifted the secret of how to beat Klopp to the rest of the league. It required such a mammoth effort by City to win - with a surprise team selection and formation that knowing Guardiola required weeks of tactical consideration - those yet to meet Liverpool are under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge. That is why rather than swiftly exiting The Etihad with their heads bowed, so many Liverpool players made their way through the post-match interview zone with them held high and in talkative mood.
“There is no need to get carried away,” said Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson.
“Why would you lose confidence after a game like that? It is normal to be disappointed by a defeat. Now it is about reaction and I am sure the lads will react in the right way.
“We were beaten by a very good City team but there were still moments in the game where we could have scored one or two more. We just have to accept the defeat. With a little bit of luck it is different, especially with the first-half chance. If that goes over the line it can change the game.
“I am sure it was a great game for neutrals, two good teams going at it. Tactically it was a good game – very intense. We both had our moments and they have nicked it. Overall we are disappointed because we thought we could get something.”
In the Premier League, Liverpool will not face a team as good as City again before May. At the start of this season the question to Henderson and others was whether Liverpool could mount a title challenge. Now he is asked about refuelling momentum to preserve a four-point lead.
A month ago, when Liverpool were two points and 15 goals behind City, they would have been swinging from the chandeliers at Anfield when informed of this position.
“All season we have taken it game by game and we will do that again,” said Henderson. “The Premier League is a tough league, the games keep coming. We need to be ready and we will be.”
Breaking news – even good teams often lose football matches.
“I am confident we can bounce back,” added Henderson.