For the millions tuning in at home, it was a toss-up between watching the prime minister or witnessing an endearing and exhaustive Southampton side fell the champions in style. Liverpool were beaten in the league for only the second time this season but Jürgen Klopp spent much of this captivating contest, settled by a nonchalant Danny Ings strike after 112 seconds, pacing the technical area and beyond with all of the self-restraint of Basil Fawlty.
For Liverpool, the painful reality is they have now dropped more points in 17 matches this campaign than they did the whole of last season. It took until the 75th minute for the off-colour visitors to manage their sole shot on target, courtesy of Sadio Mané, but Southampton deservedly savoured victory. Victory moves them to sixth and four points now separate the top seven.
At the final whistle Ralph Hasenhüttl collapsed to his knees and was visibly choked. “It is the first time I have taken points against Jürgen,” Hasenhüttl said. “I was joking with him one month or two months’ ago, at the manager’s meeting, saying: ‘Maybe once I could have a chance to take a point against you.’ It was a special performance and a perfect evening.”
Had the Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson – one-half of an unorthodox centre-back pairing alongside Fabinho – not cleared off the line six minutes from time, the substitute Yan Valery would have spared Southampton a nail-biting finish. Stuart Armstrong and then Jan Bednarek flung their bodies at the ball in sacrifice and, until being withdrawn late on, Ings was typically selfless, throwing himself into a diving block on halfway as if the last man.
Liverpool were aggrieved not to be awarded a penalty when Georginio Wijnaldum’s shot appeared to strike the arms of the Southampton defender Jack Stephens, but Klopp recognised his team served up another wishy-washy performance. They have not scored in their past two matches and are now winless in three after draws against West Brom and Newcastle. “We worry about that,” Klopp said. “We know about the situation. We are not silly.”
Klopp’s admiration for Ings is well documented but perhaps the biggest compliment was the one that awaited him here in the form of the Liverpool manager’s lineup.
The Liverpool teamsheet was in effect a game of Spot the Defender and, while it was an unusual centre-back pairing, Klopp pointed towards Henderson’s telepathic relationship with Fabinho, albeit “a few yards ahead” of the Liverpool back line, in his reasoning and also insisted he would take full responsibility if his captain was to be found wanting out of position.
Klopp was happy to bear the brunt of any criticism for his selections, but not for a lukewarm performance. He went ballistic as Andy Robertson was booked and fumed after Liverpool fell behind with less than two minutes on the scoreboard.
James Ward-Prowse dinked a free-kick behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was caught ball-watching, and Ings exquisitely lobbed Alisson from the angle. Thiago Alcântara was booked a minute later and Klopp raged. “Wake up,” he roared. If it wasn’t Klopp, it was Hasenhüttl; neither manager required a megaphone to make their voices heard.
Liverpool, in their camouflage mint green, were conspicuous by their absence in a frenetic first half in which they huffed and puffed, failing to test Fraser Forster. When the goalkeeper, making his first appearance at St Mary’s for more than three years, was eventually called into action, the assistant referee flagged Mohamed Salah offside. Salah headed over just before half-time after meeting Mané’s lofted cross but, in truth, Southampton should have headed down the tunnel with a greater advantage.
Nathan Tella, a first-half substitute for the injured Moussa Djenepo, dipped a shot wide and Henderson had to be alert to snare the ball away after Ward-Prowse again brilliantly freed Ings. There were outstanding performances across the board, from Kyle Walker-Peters to Ibrahima Diallo.
By the time the fourth official, Stuart Attwell, signalled for four minutes of first-half stoppage-time, Liverpool craved the whistle. “If you play like we did tonight, you play with fire,” Klopp said.
Klopp waited until 10 minutes after the interval to tweak things, introducing Xherdan Shaqiri in place of the former Southampton midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but made his feelings known at the break.
Alexander-Arnold drove forward with purpose but his cross went unmet and soon after Wijnaldum powered at goal. His shot appeared to strike the arm of the Southampton defender Stephens but the video assistant referee, Andy Madley, saw it differently. Liverpool’s assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders decried it an “unbelievable” decision as Klopp remonstrated with Attwell.
Stephens was fortunate but his block to deny another former Saint, Mané, moments later was magnificent. It was that kind of full-blooded gusto that embodied a gutsy Southampton display.