16 Conclusions: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

Date published: Sunday 7th October 2018 7:39

1) Too often, the big games fail to live up to the hype; yet we had somehow convinced ourselves in this age of high-octane, balls-to-the-wall football, where the elite by and large play with attack as the priority, that things might have changed.

Chelsea 3-2 Arsenal was bonkers and wonderful. Chelsea 1-1 Liverpool was exceptionally high quality. Manchester United 0-3 Spurs and Liverpool 2-1 Spurs were at least interesting in what they told us about the respective combatants’ prospects for the season. The four games between Liverpool and Manchester City last season yielded 18 goals, so it didn’t seem unreasonable to come into this with expectations rather high.

It’s not that this was a terrible game, per se; more that every promising move fell apart because of a heavy touch or a player choosing the wrong option after doing all the hard parts. Liverpool and Manchester City, you have broken our naive little spirits. We hope you’re happy.

 

2) That sense of giddiness was only heightened when the teamsheets came out and Dejan Lovren was unexpectedly included in the Liverpool line-up. Joe Gomez was pushed out to right-back to accommodate the Croatian alongside Virgil Van Dijk in the middle, while Trent Alexander-Arnold missed his first game of the season.

Lovren’s inclusion will have struck terror into Liverpool fans’ hearts: as far as folk memory is concerned, he has historically offered as much resilient defence in big games as a hapless early-level guard in a Metal Gear Solid game. His performance against Tottenham last year, in particular – during which he could be seen running around with a large exclamation mark above his head – was surely a huge part of the reason that Jurgen Klopp pushed the Liverpool board to break the world-record fee for a defender by signing Van Dijk in January.

Add in that Gomez has been one of Liverpool’s best players this season since moving to centre-back, and you have one hell of a gamble by Klopp. Yet ultimately it wasn’t Lovren that let him down…

 

3) Let’s start our conclusions about the match action itself at the end. Obviously. Hoooo boy that was a dreadful penalty.

You feel sorry for Riyad Mahrez, because until the introduction of Leroy Sane on 76 minutes, he had looked by far the most likely City player to force a goal, his movement cutting in from the right wing causing the Liverpool defence one or two problems. That’s not litotes, by the way; creating ‘one or two’ problems was enough to draw some praise in this game.

In many ways, that miss was emblematic of the game itself: great players doing silly things when it counted most.

 

4) After the way it ended, this will feel like two points dropped for City, rather than a very creditable point away from home to one of their closest title contenders.

That feeling will fade over time. The overriding feeling at the start of the season was that City would really have to f*ck things up pretty royally not to retain their title, such was their overwhelming dominance last season.

That has not changed. There have been absolutely no signs that they are about to do what Chelsea did under both Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho. Liverpool and Chelsea may pose more of a challenge than anybody did last year, but City are still the team to beat. That Liverpool didn’t even come close to doing just that at Anfield should be seen as a huge positive.

 

5) Speaking of which: it’s great bantz to lay into Mahrez, but the real criticism should go to Van Dijk. The Dutchman owes Mahrez a debt of gratitude that we are talking about the penalty taker, rather than the man who gave it away.

It was an utterly needless and brainless challenge on Sane, who was heading for the byline at pace and would have done well to get any kind of ball across goal had the defender simply got goalside of him and stood his ground. Liverpool’s defence has benefitted hugely from his cool head, so it was surprising to see him commit such an avoidable, panicky error.

 

6) It was the fourth and final penalty claim Manchester City made, and while it was certainly the strongest, Liverpool should count themselves slightly lucky it was the first one that was given. Is there a figure available for how many penalties you can expect to win for a given number of tumbles in the box? xP maybe?

I’ve watched back Lovren’s challenge on Sergio Aguero in the first half multiple times, and despite the numerous angles available, it is hard to see any kind of definitive kick that would have helped Martin Atkinson give the decision the visitors’ way.

The handball claim against Van Dijk had nothing to it, as I’m sure Fernandinho knew regardless of his vocal protests. But the third – Lovren’s arm swinging into Gabriel Jesus’s face – was reminiscent of the penalty given against Kyle Walker in England’s group game with Panama at the World Cup.

As with that offence, it strikes me as odd that popular opinion allows defenders to flail their arms in whichever direction they like as long as: 1) they aren’t looking what they’re doing and 2) they don’t throw their elbows back with force.

Lovren almost certainly wasn’t aiming to stick his fingers in Jesus’ eyes, but he could only have intended to impede his progress by throwing his arm out so wide as the Brazilian turned him inside out. Liverpool would have complained loudly if it had been given, but they would have been misguided.

 

7) Let’s get back to that running theme of great players being wasteful by talking about Mohamed Salah.

If he were anybody else, and had not had the year he did last year, he would surely not be considered an automatic starter for Liverpool. The problem is not so much the relative lack of goals, because he was always unlikely to remain at the dizzying heights he reached last season. Rather, the issue is his tendency to be needlessly elaborate after getting the ball in good positions.

Case in point: just before the break, Salah found himself on the edge of the box with his back to goal and a defender just behind him. He could have laid it off to either Naby Keita or Roberto Firmino, then turned and tried to get onto a return ball. Instead, he tried to release Firmino with an overhit back-heel that the Brazilian had no chance of getting onto, and City were easily able to sweep up the loose ball.

Great teams need that little bit of the unexpected about them to keep opposition defences second-guessing, but at the moment Salah too often looks like Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors trying much too hard to recreate that one little magic, organic moment in the snow.

He was at it again on 69 minutes (nice), racing onto a wonderful Andrew Robertson ball before providing what may have been an inspiration for Mahrez’s later penalty attempt, shooting waaay over the bar when he had time to either wait for a supporting run or to try and cut inside. Just take it easy, Mo, yeah?

 

8) For their part, City suffered from a similar problem, at least in the early stages of the game.

Their players and staff will have been all to aware of the stats: since Klopp joined Liverpool in October 2015, City have taken just four points from six league games against the Reds, as well as losing twice in the Champions League last year; tit is their worst record against any club in that time. Klopp has taken more points off City (13) than he has any side except Leicester and Crystal Palace (both 15), and his Liverpool side has scored more goals against only four other clubs (West Ham, Watford, Arsenal and Bournemouth).

After seeing his side give the ball away in their own half four times in the first ten minutes, Guardiola must have feared the worst. Their response was to go a little bit too far the other way and retreat for much of the first half, only really coming alive in the last ten or 15 minutes of the first half.

 

9) Not coincidentally, that’s around the same time that James Milner limped off with a hamstring injury that will have Klopp rightly concerned.

Only Eden Hazard has reached the levels of performance that Milner has in the Premier League this season, and if that injury is as bad as it potentially could be, it would be a huge blow to their title aspirations…

 

10) …if for no other reason than that it will leave them rather dependent on Jordan Henderson for a while.

I am something of a defender of Henderson’s (defenderson?), but Liverpool’s midfield has looked at its best this season when he has not been there and Georginio Wijnaldum has instead been tasked with the holding midfield role.

Much like it’s hard to see Salah being an automatic starter if it weren’t for last season, it is hard to believe that Klopp would have selected Henderson against PSG, Chelsea, Napoli, and City if he weren’t the captain.

His early absences may have been to give him a break after a longer-than-expected World Cup campaign, but the trio of Milner-Wijnaldum-Keita was so convincing that Klopp would surely have preferred not to break it up if it weren’t out of a sense of obligation towards his skipper?

 

11) Sticking with midfield: is anyone at all surprised that Graeme Souness absolutely loves Fernandinho?

The City midfielder was at his attevelding best, enjoying (if that is at all the right word) a match-long battle with fellow shithouse Sadio Mane that left the Senegalese looking frustrated and increasingly out of the game, while Fernandinho himself only grew in stature.

That is exactly the point of having a bastard in your midfield, and it worked wonderfully for City, earning the run of the pitch that Jesus, Sane and Mahrez enjoyed so much as the game progressed.

 

12) I touched earlier on City taking their dominance to another level after Sane’s introduction, so let’s take a little moment to dwell on that – if only because this is conclusion number 12 and I can hear noises and smell delicious scents from the kitchen that suggest my dinner is almost ready. In hindsight Matt Stead has absolutely stitched me up by letting me take this game.

After missing out on Germany’s World Cup squad, Sane has more to prove than anyone else in the entire City squad. It is a wonderful thing for Guardiola to have: a young player who has excellent reason not to be overly arrogant despite his enormous talent.

The 22-year-old was superb in his 14-minute cameo, earning what should have been a match-winning penalty. Having earlier wondered what on earth possessed Van Dijk to overcommit in such a a way, I’m now realising he was simply shit-scared of what might happen if he didn’t.

 

13) He was certainly more potent than Sergio Aguero, who departed the pitch 13 minutes earlier to make way for Jesus. This was Aguero’s 10th visit to Anfield, and yet he remains goalless.

Given City’s much-vaunted travails against Liverpool in recent years, perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising, but this is one of the greatest strikers in English football history we’re talking about, and it’s not as if Liverpool’s defence has always been rock-solid throughout Aguero’s career.

The lines between statistical quirk and human psychology are rarely as thin as with this kind of record. I would be fascinated to know whether that contributed to his relative anonymity here.

 

14) We now have a two-week break from Premier League action for international duty, and it feels like that is more to Chelsea and City’s advantage than it is to Liverpool’s despite their identical records of six wins, two draws, and no defeats.

The reason I say that is the inverse of a point I made earlier: just as I would expect City to retain their title simply by not completely muffing everything, I also would not expect Liverpool to win it by doing anything short of the spectacular.

Just as with Aguero’s Anfield record, there is no real basis for this analysis other than the gut feeling that comes from having watched English football all my life. We expect stories to follow a particular structure, and it just wouldn’t feel right if Liverpool’s wait for their 19th league title – a wait that has been going on since 1990 – were to come to an end through anything less than a big, show-stopping flourish.

With Klopp as manager, they feel as close to achieving that as they are ever likely to be, but ‘spectacular’ does not include a limp draw to follow up an utterly abject defeat. It is senseless and illogical and just a feeling, but if that gets through to the players, then their wait will surely continue. Humans are stupid like that.

 

15) To put a more sensible spin on it: the main issue is that the sense of invincibility has now gone, and that will affect the way teams approach Liverpool just as much as it will affect the way they approach their opponents.

City were able to cast off the nerviest of starts away from home and finish the game firmly on top, ruing desperately that a missed penalty kept them from the maximum points. Despite being composed of the same personnel, this does not feel like the same Liverpool of Supermen that so convincingly destroyed Tottenham less than a month ago. It is now on Klopp to restore that aura.

 

16) Finally: if it were possible to pin television chyrons up on a dressing room wall, Maurizio Sarri would surely be sticking Sky Sports’ ‘Champions vs Contenders’ branding up at Stamford Bridge. After a ninth consecutive win, Unai Emery might be tempted to do the same, as would Maurcio Pochettino (but at their own respective grounds, obviously).

With 21% of the season gone, we have an undefeated top three separated only on goal difference, and the two north London sides are just two points back. As I have said ad nauseum in this piece alone, I still think it is City’s to lose – but after two years of runaway leaders having the Premier League all but wrapped up by February, we might actually have a proper three-, four-, or even five-way title race this year. Heavens be praised!

Steven Chicken

 

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