The imagery of a "two horse and little horse" title race was lacking but Brendan Rodgers' tactic after obliterating Arsenal showed evidence of three years working for José Mourinho. Like the Chelsea manager had at Manchester City, Rodgers shifted expectation and eased internal pressure by maintaining the Premier League title is beyond reach. And like Mourinho at City, he was contradicted by a performance Steven Gerrard ranked among the finest of his Liverpool career.
In destroying Arsenal inside 19 sensational minutes Liverpool not only rekindled doubts about the visitors' winning mentality, but also raised the target for the season above fourth place. Gerrard thought long and hard before putting the display in his all-time top three, up there with pulsating Champions League defeats of Juventus and Real Madrid.
There have been many routs in the midfielder's 655 Liverpool appearances but few occasions when an opponent has arrived at Anfield intent on demonstrating title credentials, new-found resilience and belief, only to crumble under wave upon wave of devastating attack.
"Feeble," was Arsène Wenger's withering take on the Arsenal response before their lesser-spotted owner Stan Kroenke. There really was no hiding place for the long-time league leaders as every criticism levelled during the barren years gained fresh credence on one extraordinary afternoon.
Gerrard said: "I am trying to think of a performance, especially in the first half, that I can remember like that in the last 15 years. Maybe one or two in the Champions League got close but that was as explosive as it gets. That is right up there. That's definitely in the top three performances I have been involved in. You are talking about a side that is top of the league with world-class players, ones who are worth £42m; Jack Wilshere, one of the country's big hopes who we are looking to perform at a World Cup; [Santi] Cazorla – a World Cup winner. We absolutely demolished a top team there from start to finish."
Rodgers highlighted the relative weakness of Liverpool's squad compared with Chelsea and Manchester City as a reason he "is not thinking about" a title challenge. No one can disagree with the Liverpool manager on that score. But it is debatable any team could contain an attack in this form and with 13 matches remaining, including Chelsea and City at Anfield in April, what may be a manager's realistic appraisal also appears a diversion from the potential of Luis Suárez and company.
"Let's get to 10 games to go to see where we are at," Rodgers protested. "The level of performance was incredible but we cannot get carried away. I just want the players to concentrate on the performance and I'll manage whatever expectation comes with it."
Through his shell-shocked haze, Wenger countered: "Liverpool are not out of it mathematically so they have an opportunity to do it. That result will give them confidence and belief they can do it but the Premier League is tricky. If you are not at your best you can lose anywhere."
Martin Skrtel thighed Liverpool ahead after 53 seconds and doubled the advantage with a stooping header on 10 minutes, both from Gerrard deliveries, taking the team's total to 23 goals from set pieces this season. The relentless Raheem Sterling tapped in a third from a cross by Suárez, who did not score but orchestrated ruthless cuts throughout, before Daniel Sturridge swept home the fourth as delirium and disbelief tumbled down the Anfield stands in equal measure.
It was bad enough from an Arsenal perspective that Per Mertesacker was caught ball-watching by Suárez for the first goal and Laurent Koscielny never tracked Skrtel for the second, but Mesut Özil's role in the third and fourth Liverpool goals encapsulated an appalling afternoon. Arsenal's record signing struggled to find a yellow shirt during his hour on the pitch, was harried off the ball by Jordan Henderson for Sterling's first and lost possession easily to Philippe Coutinho prior to Sturridge's 18th goal of the season. £42.1m's worth of complacency could not bring himself to shake his replacement's hand when finally withdrawn.
Özil was not an isolated case. Mikel Arteta, the captain, watched as Henderson and Sterling flashed by in the second half while Wilshere's performance, returning from injury admittedly, suggested his reputation at the highest level is hugely exaggerated. He was outthought and even outmuscled by the slight but incisive Brazilian Coutinho; the two No10s reflecting the contrast in the teams. Sterling scored a fifth before Arteta scored a meaningless consolation from the penalty spot but 5-1, Liverpool's heaviest win in the fixture for almost 50 years, flattered Arsenal.
Their reaction against Manchester United in the Premier League, Liverpool in the FA Cup and Bayern Munich in the Champions League in the coming days will reveal the truth about Wenger's side. "A successful team responds to disappointment and we will see on Wednesday night," he said.
For Liverpool, the objective is to take their excellence at home on the road, starting with Fulham on Wednesday. When asked if Liverpool were in the title race, Gerrard replied: "According to Brendan we are not. We do what he says and he says we are not in the title race, so we carry on pushing for the top four and see where it takes us." The only unconvincing riposte of Liverpool's entire afternoon.
Man of the match Luis Suárez (Liverpool)