The Liverpool defense might have decided in a rare show of togetherness to demonstrate what the word ‘appalling’ means, and Spurs only had a pathetic Manchester United to beat, but something strange is happening to association football. After all, Manchester United have conceded six goals before (well, one other time since the 1930s) and Liverpool have conceded seven before (just a couple of other times since the 1930s) — but both on the same day!
So what’s going on? Like actors performing out of their skulls at dress rehearsals because the pressure of a first night is off, are footballers flying through games with freedom, flair and zest, ready to try the unexpected, because the crowds are not there? Spurs’ Erik Lamela would have certainly felt at home on the West End stage after falling to the floor as if taking a straight right from Tyson Fury when United’s Anthony Martial had lightly touched his cheek. ‘Typical Latin,’ remarked Graeme Souness afterwards, and few would disagree. Still, a touring Erik Lamela thespian troupe could do a lot to save the entertainment industry.
And just as lesser actors can shine at dress rehearsals, so unheralded players — talented but not superstars, such as Villa’s Ollie Watkins, ex-Brentford, Exeter City and, er, Weston-super-Mare, and now with a hat trick against the Champions, European Champions and World Club champions — can start to shine in a crowd-free atmosphere.
After all, wouldn’t you rather be lining up a delicate in-swinging corner without some frazzled old granny sitting behind you at the flag, her face twisted in hate and furiously flashing V-signs at your back? And somehow a throw-in becomes just a throw-in without a gang of tattooed half-wits a couple of feet away from you shouting foul-mouthed abuse.
Managers are conducting themselves impeccably too. Jurgen Klopp was his usual magnanimous self after the thrashing at Villa Park, and Villa’s Dean Smith as excited as a schoolboy with an Oscar-winner’s autograph as he revealed that Klopp had simply said to him: ‘Wow.’
Even Jose Mourinho is behaving well — and good for him for stalking off down the tunnel the other day after a particularly demented VAR ruling pulled play back as if in some nightmare version of Back to the Future to award a late penalty against Eric Dier, whose arm had been brushed by an Andy Carroll header. Newcastle scored from the spot and Spurs were denied two points. Personally I hope Jose smashed a passing partition wall. It was a shocker.