By the end, Alisson was trying to waste time. Sadio Mané was listlessly dribbling the ball into the corner in an attempt to burn away a few more seconds. Deep into injury time Naby Keïta started rolling around on the turf in apparent agony. Was it a cruciate? The broken leg? A debilitating muscle tear that would put him out for the season? Happily, as a victorious Keïta disappeared into the embrace of his teammates just a few seconds later, we have to conclude that he may just survive the night.
Curiously, given his famously forthright views on teams adopting cynical tactics in an attempt to win games, Jürgen Klopp had very little to say about any of this afterwards. But then, perhaps it was understandable that aesthetics would be the last thing on his mind at Villa Park. This was the sort of win you have to extract like one of your own teeth, the sort of win that almost feels too debasing to truly celebrate, the sort of win you pull out on the day your title rivals sign Erling Haaland for next season.
But it was a quietly crucial win too, for no other reason than because there was no real alternative. Liverpool know deep down that they will probably finish second in this year’s Premier League, and more painfully they know they will probably deserve it. Those seven dropped points over Christmas and new year, an entire month without a league win, are likely done for them. Hope is the most precious commodity of all to retain at a time like this. But there are two major finals still to be played and this is no time to start feeling sorry for themselves, as it briefly appeared as if they might.
You could even see the fatigue and lethargy in Klopp’s face as he did his post-match interviews: a coach of boundless energy whose tank looks like it has almost run dry. More than ever you sense Liverpool are trying to ration their efforts, spread their resources, chug gamely towards the end of a season that will encompass 63 games in all competitions. The omissions of Andy Robertson, Mohamed Salah and Thiago Alcântara from the starting lineup appeared telling. The injury to Fabinho, who limped off before half-time with a hamstring injury, will stretch them still further.
And so, in a strange and scruffy game, disarmingly open in parts, Liverpool were forced to rely on their unlikelier stalwarts. Kostas Tsimikas had a wildly eclectic game at left-back, a juddering high-wire act that generated several misplaced passes, at least two clear positional errors and some crucial tackles and blocks. But his electric surges up the left flank, his willingness to ping the early cross, his restless sense of dramatic tension, were exactly what a tired Liverpool required here after the ice bath of going an early goal down.
What was now notable about Douglas Luiz’s third-minute finish was that there were probably about five or six individual duels that led to it – crosses that could have been stopped, tackles or headers that could have been won – and Liverpool lost them all. Villa were lavish in those opening minutes, even after Joël Matip bundled home a quick equalizer, and so what Liverpool really needed was someone who could break the game up, upset Villa’s rhythm and impose one of his own. What they needed, above all, was Keïta.
Those of you who may not have been watching too closely probably wrote Keïta off as damaged goods a few years ago: probably during one of the many injury layoffs that threatened to curtail his Liverpool career before it really begun. Even when Keita managed to work his way to full fitness he found opportunities hard to come by in a midfield increasingly shaped by the metronomic Fabinho and Thiago, a midfield more concerned with controlling games rather than rattling them open.
The problem was, in a way, that Keita was signed to play in a Liverpool midfield that no longer existed. At RB Leipzig, where he played until 2018, he was an expansive, marauding presence, as comfortable dribbling the ball 50 yards through the center as burgling goals with late runs into the penalty area. The problem was that by the time Keïta arrived, there was no longer much call for any of that. Liverpool were already beginning to pivot away from the sort of concussive, vertical midfield play that he was best at.
And yet, four years into his time at Anfield, Keïta is quietly having his best season at the club so far: now appearances, most goals, a pivotal role in Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final. To a large extent this is a question of timing and fitness. But there also seems to be a recognition from Klopp that there are certain games where Liverpool need a little extra unpredictability in the middle: the snapping tackle, the enterprising dribble, the quick 50-yard long ball into space. Keïta is the man you call on when you’re worried things are just getting a little tired, a little stale.
So it was fitting that they came to the fore on Tuesday night, in a game where Liverpool were in danger of submitting to their own languor. The limbs are screaming with tiredness, the minds are cooked, there’s a cup final on Saturday and effectively three more after that. Depleted, disheartened, but somehow still fighting: in a way, the story of Keïta is also the story of Liverpool’s season.