And so it ended, not with a whimper, but with a bellow from deep inside Virgil van Dijk’s lungs.
As the majority of Vicarage Road celebrated Troy Deeney’s goal on Saturday, the final of three stakes in the heart of Liverpool’s unbeaten league campaign, the best centre-back in the world berated Trent Alexander-Arnold for a rare lapse in judgement.
Rarely have we seen the unflappable Dutchman as anything other than an oasis of regal composure in the last two years.
Having been stung by the Hornets, he and his team-mates were rendered vincible, the most cruel infliction possible for champions-elect.
Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League remains an insurmountable 22 points.
From a purely objective viewpoint, they are still on course to be the greatest champions in English football history.
Jurgen Klopp’s troops will end the campaign with more points than any team before them, more wins, and a winning margin so daunting in breadth it could give agoraphobics anxiety.
But football is not entirely objective.
The world’s most-popular sport is warped by emotions, opinions, and romance.
And nothing evokes these intervening factors like the concept of invincibility.
Traversing 38 Premier League games without suffering defeat would be inconceivable had it not already happened.
In 2003/04, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal did what no English side had done since Preston North End’s team of 1888/89; they avoided defeat from the start of the league season to the end.
It’s the rarity of this achievement that gives it such prestige — Preston’s unbeaten league campaign was just 22 games in length.
However, there’s no denying the esteem attached to such a feat somewhat contradicts the basic mechanics of league football.
After all, the trophy goes, not to the team who lost the fewest games, but to the side who accumulated the most points.
Theoretically, a team could avoid defeat all season and suffer relegation, if they drew every game.
A more practical example occurred in Italy in 1978/79, when Perugia completed an unbeaten Serie A season but were pipped to the title by AC Milan because they dropped points in 19 games.
Points-wise, the value of a win is triple that of a draw and so, logically, a team is better off chasing as many victories as possible, rather than simply aiming to avoid defeat (through regular draws).
Arsenal 2003/04 are unquestionably one of the best ever Premier League sides, but it’s notable that seven other teams have accumulated more points from 38 games than the Gunners’ 90:
- Man United (1999/00) 91 points
- Chelsea (2004/05) 95 points
- Chelsea (2005/06 91 points
- Chelsea (2016/17) 93 points
- Man City (2017/18) 100 points
- Man City (2018/19) 98 points
- Liverpool (2018/19) 97 points
Liverpool (2019/20) are likely to join this list in May with a points total superior to any team in English football history.
However, with the exceptions of Chelsea (04/05) and Man City (17/18), it’s rare to hear any of the above teams included in discussions concerning the greatest Premier League champions of all time.
When have you ever heard anyone say Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were a better side than Arsenal’s Invincibles? Never.
Why? Because Thierry Henry and co finished with a goose egg in their losses column.
There is something about the notion of being unbeatable that adds intangible worth to a team.
On the most basic level, it’s immensely satisfying to say none of your direct rivals got the better of you at any point during the defined time length by which the sport revolves.
But there’s surely something deeper at work.
In the chaotic and unpredictable sphere of football, defeats are inevitable, even for the very best teams; nobody knows this better than the punter who has his heart broken by an accumulator every Saturday.
To avoid defeat for an entire league campaign is to defy the preordained humbling put in place by the nature of the sport.
An invincible season invites us to reassess what’s possible, it blurs the boundaries.
The latest effort at invincibility – the one ended at Vicarage Road on Saturday – reinforces this phenomenon.
Liverpool have won 26 games out of 28 in the league, an utterly astounding record.
And yet even this team of unprecedented dominance have fallen foul of football’s enduring reality check: at some point, you will lose.
The weekend’s shock result has urged us to consider, now more than ever, the improbability of Arsenal’s achievement in 2003/04.
Conversely, and rather harshly, it means this Liverpool side join the other great teams who earned a mountainous points tally without preserving an untainted record.
It seems unfair to lump Klopp’s side in with Conte’s Chelsea, etc.
They deserve their own category, which they will partially receive with the breaking of the City’s points record, but not to the extent Arsenal (2003/04) have been afforded.
Another avenue to specially designated recognition remains open for Liverpool: the Treble.
Man United (1998/99) finished the season with 79 league points, the same total Liverpool have now with ten games still to play.
The Reds are reigning European champions but, since we measure football in seasons, they will need to retain the trophy in Istanbul at the end of May if they are to match their rivals’ greatest achievement, and that’s assuming they are able to succeed in lifting the FA Cup, a competition that has been an afterthought to them thus far.
For the Anfield faithful, after a long wait that featured several cruel false dawns, the Premier League trophy will be more than enough.
While they will justifiably claim their heroes to be the greatest champions of all time, there will be doubting replies citing Arsenal’s gold trophy as evidence to the contrary.
Invincibility is the closest thing the sport has to the impossible and those who venture furthest into the realms of the impossible will always be the greatest to many.