The look on Virgil van Dijk’s face told the story. An hour after the final whistle, Liverpool’s defensive colossus was asked to contemplate his side’s widening advantage at the summit.
Liverpool’s numbers in 2019 are getting into the realms of the unprecedented. Eleven points clear of Manchester City, the defending champions. A club record 31 games unbeaten, with 22 victories from their last 23 Premier League matches, including this grinding 2-1 defeat of Brighton. To make an analogy, they have the look of Frankel, the champion racehorse, who would tear off at the beginning of his races and gallop his rivals into submission. Liverpool have been in front in this race since the gates opened and they are beginning to bound further and further clear.
But then Van Dijk gave his summary of the situation. His brow furrowed ever so slightly and his expression was firm.
The numbers, he explained, meant little at this stage of the season. What matters is the quality of performance and he offered his own take.
‘We are in a good situation points-wise but we know we can do maybe that extra 10 per cent still. We try to do it every week but it is not easy. The only thing we can do is to try. Hopefully, it will work out but the most important thing is to win games.’
An extra 10 per cent? If Jurgen Klopp can unlock that amount of improvement, Liverpool will not be caught and the title race will be over long before the final day. Surely Van Dijk was just being self-deprecating in this assessment? Another look at his face told you he was serious.
‘If you look at the way we play and the quality we have, we could do a little bit better but that is something for us to have a look at,’ he added. ‘We will. We know we can play a little bit better than we do, but we win games and that is what it is all about.
‘The good thing is that we know we can improve and will try and do it elsewhere.’
The more you thought about those words, the more you appreciated the weight they carried.
Liverpool might be careering merrily along out in front but they have established this advantage without being brilliant.
For starters, take the defence. It is 12 games since they kept a clean sheet — ‘we can do a lot better,’ said Van Dijk — and Brighton, so easy on the eye under the impressive Graham Potter, caused them problems before Lewis Dunk’s 79th-minute free-kick went in.
‘It’s probably as good an away performance as I’ve seen us have this year in terms of the game and the quality of the opposition,’ said Potter.
Van Dijk, who scored for the first time since the opening night of the campaign, could be heard bellowing his irritation throughout the game.
He was aghast that Alisson Becker was left so exposed in the build up to the move that led to Liverpool’s goalkeeper being sent off for handball.
Conceding goals, as much as it has irritated Klopp and Van Dijk, is proving no barrier to their ambitions. But if they start snuffing opponents out as they did last season, an avenue rivals hoped to exploit will be closed down.
Then there are the forwards. Mohamed Salah has only scored twice in the Premier League since the beginning of October and none of his tally of six have come away from home. Conversely, Roberto Firmino has a below-par tally of four, none of which have been plundered at Anfield.
The strikers are too good for those statistics to continue. When it clicks for them — and there were flashes of ingenuity from Salah against Brighton — they have the potential to decimate opponents. Again, you could see the validity of Van Dijk’s argument.
Liverpool have enjoyed devastating spells in games so far, such as the breathless hour they pinned Tottenham to the ropes in October and the unrelenting manner of their comeback at Aston Villa, but there has not been a 90-minute performance.
It is that aspect, rather than the points advantage, which should most worry the pursuers who are being chivvied along to stay within arm’s length. If Liverpool go through the gears, they will disappear into the distance.
‘A lot of teams sit back against us,’ said Klopp. ‘Not Brighton, but a lot of teams do. So we have to play around that wall. There are different ways to score a goal. There are different ways to control a game. There are different ways to finish a game off.
‘A couple of them we showed already. A couple more we will show in the future.’