Lovely number, 16. There are 16 ounces in one pound; 16-bit gaming consoles include the glorious Sega Genesis and SNES; 16 is the legal age of consent and alcohol consumption – not necessarily in conjunction – in many countries; 16 is a solid number for, say, drawing conclusions from a football match.
To make that many from Liverpool’s win over Sheffield United, their 16th in a row in the Premier League, would perhaps be a stretch. That Trent Alexander-Arnold leaves space behind him and can be targeted was no secret. That midfield creativity is lacking was common knowledge. That they can be thwarted with a suitable game plan carried out diligently has been evidenced before. That an element of good fortune is required to make that count should now be obvious.
Some might consider this narrowest of victories to have exposed their shortcomings, pierced their air of invincibility and showed that they are far from unbeatable. But it is worth remembering this streak has included stoppage-time successes against Tottenham and Newcastle, as well as late winners to beat Fulham and Southampton. Liverpool have not looked particularly dominant for extended periods of this remarkable run of form; there is a reason Jurgen Klopp mentions “mentality” more often than he commends quality.
The manufactured and contrived jeopardy that surrounded their visit to Bramall Lane was a sign of how far this side have come. It was described at kick-off by the commentator as “a ground that has seldom brought the best out of” the European champions. It was one of three stadiums, as social media delighted in reminding us, that Liverpool had visited in the Premier League without ever winning at. To point out that they had not won there since 1990 was Match of the Day, teams-walking-out-of-the-tunnel, pre-match fodder at its finest: this was only the sixth time they had played here in the intervening 29 years, and the first since 2006.
Much has changed in the interim of Robbie Fowler’s contentious late penalty equalising Rob Hulse’s opener here 13 years ago. And arguably more so in the home dugout than the away one. The Sheffield United then is the Sheffield United evoked by Danny Mills and Garth Crooks in their lazy recent punditry: a caricature led by Neil Warnock off the pitch and Chris Morgan on it, bloodying noses and bruising bones en-route to a plucky but inevitable relegation.
But this beast has evolved into something far greater and more complex. Chris Wilder has built a side capable of standing toe to toe with such a phenomenal side and emerging unfortunate in defeat. The Blades might have slashed their way to a 1-1 draw the last time they hosted Liverpool, but they gave a far better account of themselves in this 1-0 loss.
Before Georginio Wijnaldum’s 70th-minute goal – and for some time after it – the hosts were the better side. They restricted Liverpool to the extent that the effort that wriggled through Dean Henderson was their first on target of the afternoon. They forced Andy Robertson and Virgil van Dijk into excellent blocks. They posed a constant threat from the left-hand side: Enda Stevens created four chances while no Liverpool player created more than one.
Yet the “f**king mentality monsters” that Klopp has given life to do tend to find a way. Whether it’s Divock Origi’s head, Toby Alderweireld’s feet or Henderson’s hands, their determination to break through even the most imposing of barriers is admirable.
The biggest compliment to Liverpool is the reaction of their two most recent vanquished league opponents. The applause that greeted Chelsea for their efforts in defeat last weekend were emulated on Saturday. Standing ovations are usually reserved for swashbuckling attacking display or resolute defending over 90 minutes; they are being given out to Liverpool’s opponents merely for almost drawing with them.
That is intended as no insult to Chelsea or Sheffield United. Liverpool have been arguably out-performed in their last two Premier League games, yet have been behind in neither and the winning side in both. While Klopp will have his own causes for concern, he will realise that maintaining this magnitudinal momentum is of the utmost importance. That makes for a pretty sweet 16.