1) They had us in the first half, not gonna lie. Liverpool and Manchester City fooled us into thinking another clash of the titans would involve 90 minutes of damp squibbery and interminable hours of analysis over refereeing decisions. The opening 45 minutes at Anfield featured tentative sparring instead of heavy punches, interrupted only by Ilkay Gundogan’s wild swing of a penalty over the bar. The stalemate felt inevitable.
Sky Sports clearly feared it, commentators and pundits alike poking at the rotting carcass of the usual dead horse they flog in the exaggerated build-up. The last comment before the second half kicked off was Roy Keane insisting that Liverpool needed to “show why they’re champions”. Manchester City heeded that advice instead.
2) The individual players at the heart of this landmark success will be praised in due course but first, a word for the manager. Pep Guardiola still has his many doubters but the Spaniard was no innocent bystander to this massacre. His fingerprints were all over the scene.
Whether he was disappointed with a fairly limp first half is unknown, but the response was emphatic regardless. The formation change to a 4-4-2 ruthlessly exposed Liverpool’s shortcomings when few would have blamed the current leaders had they settled for a draw with the reigning champions, away at a stadium where they had not won for 18 years.
This was the culmination of months of impeccable, focused coaching. Manchester City were 11th and level on points with Arsenal when they last lost a Premier League match. November’s defeat to Tottenham felt like a watershed moment for a team and manager that had stagnated after four years of unrelenting excellence. They have conceded two goals from open play in the 14 league matches since and are five points clear atop the table with a game in hand, having won each of their last ten. In this baffling, unforgiving season that has restricted the time coaches have to work with players and with their dreadful start, that might genuinely be Guardiola’s greatest achievement in England.
3) Liverpool sum up how difficult it is to manufacture and manipulate that sort of permanent shift in momentum. By the end of last week they had beaten Tottenham and West Ham in successive games with some quite sensational football, coinciding with a transfer deadline day that capitalised on and accentuated that positivity by signing some centre-halves to address the myriad issues they had faced this season.
Seven days later, they have been outplayed by a club fighting relegation and thoroughly crushed by their closest rival of the past three years to lose consecutive league matches for the first time of Jurgen Klopp’s reign. Their aura has been absolutely shattered and that is incredibly difficult to reestablish.
4) The most impressive aspect of Manchester City’s performance, if a single part of it can even be highlighted above any other, was their mental strength. Thiago seemed intent on putting an early stamp on the game with an awful challenge on Gundogan, who recovered to score twice. Liverpool equalised out of nowhere through a Ruben Dias mistake but Mo Salah’s 63rd-minute penalty was the last shot of any kind the hosts had. And the merciless way they targeted a wounded animal, forcing the initial Alisson mistake and pressing the goalkeeper and his teammates into oblivion to score three times in ten minutes, was a fine impression of Liverpool at their most devastating, a perfect receipt for January 2018.
For a man who has previously admired the balls of his players, Guardiola must have adored their audacity, character and nerve more than anything else.
5) Aside from Raheem Sterling’s run for the penalty, there were perhaps only two moments of genuine quality in an otherwise bereft first half. After quarter of an hour Liverpool threatened to break through Roberto Firmino, only for the Brazilian to be tackled on the halfway line after Dias stepped up with perfect timing. He started a counter-attack and even offered a decoy run of his own but the attack broke down. By the time Liverpool countered, Dias was somehow already back in position.
A similar situation saw Jordan Henderson move out of central defence to intercept a pass in around the same area, the captain pressing forward and lofting a ball towards Salah that resulted in Firmino testing Ederson from range. In both instances it required impeccable reading of a first half that had become tough to decipher for seemingly every other player, neither team wishing to give too much away in the early stages.
6) With that said, Liverpool should actually have taken the lead. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross was perfect for Sadio Mane, who contrived to head over despite finding the space to manouevre.
The chance came about from perhaps the only mistake Oleksandr Zinchenko made all game, his header failing to divert danger. The Ukrainian was pinpointed as Manchester City’s weak spot when the starting line-ups were announced but his inclusion over Aymeric Laporte was a gamble that undeniably paid off.
7) It is exceedingly funny how one of the most meticulous and obsessive coaches in the sport’s history has assembled a historically brilliant team capable of tearing through any standard of opponent and bending sides to its irresistible will with unerring consistency, yet they simultaneously cannot score from a free shot 12 yards out. Stop dicking around and stick Ederson on penalties.
8) It was Fabinho who conceded that spot kick by lazily dangling a leg that Sterling felt obliged to stumble over. That sort of tackle very much belonged in the ‘central midfielder on the halfway line’ category and the Brazilian really was torrid throughout. He played with all the misguided authority of Jackie Weaver while offering no protection whatsoever to the struggling Alexander-Arnold.
That has to be the last example of Klopp’s experimentation with central midfielders in defence. One can vaguely understand why he has persisted with it for so long, particularly in the case of Fabinho as he looked so comfortable in the role at first. But the risk now outweighs the reward by a laughable amount. Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies would have been sacrificial lambs here, to be fair, yet they have to start from the next game onwards.
9) Not sure Dias dragging a prone Zinchenko into position by his actual head for a free-kick while Gary Neville palpably raged at the concept of a man lying down with his back to the taker received quite enough of a reaction, to be honest.
10) The Fabinho and Alexander-Arnold axis was at fault for Manchester City’s opener, the latter ushering Sterling into the box as the former waited patiently to take his coat and show him to his seat. The Manchester City captain duly squared for Phil Foden, whose shot was saved by Alisson before Gundogan converted the rebound.
The lack of fans perhaps contributed to Sterling’s showing, his previous returns here marred by poor displays in often toxic atmospheres. But after a run of relative poor form the winger now has three goals in as many appearances, having put in his best performance at Anfield since scoring first against Newcastle as a wing-back under Brendan Rodgers in April 2015.
11) Then came the Liverpool penalty from a long Alexander-Arnold punt which found Salah. His touch allowed Dias to cut across and intercept but in what might well be his first actual mistake since joining, the Portuguese ignored his safety-first mantra and gave the ball back before tugging lightly at Salah’s arm.
The forward would have done Steven Gerrard in the 2005 Champions League final proud with the arched back and flailing arms. It was wonderfully and unnecessarily theatrical. Yet this is the point players have reached, where probable fouls have to be accentuated for fear of them not being punished. They have seen penalties not awarded when strikers try to stay on their feet. This is a natural consequence: someone simultaneously diving while actually being fouled.
12) That was one of the few times Salah, Mane and Firmino threatened, and only through a Manchester City error. That triumvirate had 11 touches in the opposition penalty area between them; Sterling had nine on his own.
Dias and John Stones really were imperious, so too Joao Cancelo and Zinchenko beside them. But the impact of a settled Rodri in a system that suits him cannot be understated. The Spaniard has come a long way since blaming Leicester and Manchester United for beating them, summing up better than anyone Manchester City’s transformation into a stable and durable side more capable of assessing situations introspectively.
It does help having the most effective player on the pitch next to you. Bernardo was at his 2018/19 best with an assist, more dribbles than anyone except for Sterling and the most tackles for either side. His form had dipped until recently but these were the games he so often shone in, a midfielder able to make sense of even the most hectic matches with his energy and perception.
To repeat a line from a recent 16 Conclusions: ‘If Manchester City can properly harness the talents of an in-form Bernardo, they might be title favourites.’ Mission accomplished.
13) Bernardo was central to Manchester City’s pressing late on, forcing Liverpool’s precarious house of cards to collapse in memorable fashion. The Portuguese and his teammates cut off the passing lanes so effectively as Alisson waited for options to emerge, rolling the ball back and forth. Gabriel Jesus pounced, Jamie Carragher squealed and the ball was launched clear by Fabinho straight back to Manchester City. Their attack was unsuccessful, falling to Fabinho once more as he played the ball back to a clearly rattled Alisson, who proceeded to hit it straight at Foden and play an inadvertent part in Gundogan’s second goal.
A handful of minutes later Liverpool found themselves penned in their own corner, Fabinho this time finding Georginio Wijnaldum who laid the ball back to Alisson. The slightest hint of a press from Sterling panicked the keeper, Bernardo capitalised and Sterling headed in on the line.
It is incredibly easy to suggest in hindsight but perhaps for those two minutes or so Liverpool should have avoided playing the ball back to a goalkeeper who was blatantly unnerved by a hoard of players running directly at him. The mistakes were his and his alone but his teammates loaded the gun before he pointed it at his own apparently cold feet, which is one of the single greatest excuses ever given for anything.
14) Manchester City still had to exploit those moments and they did with unblinking accuracy. Foden was spectacular in sensing how unsettled Liverpool were before focusing in on an uncertainty and anxiety that spread through the team like a virus.
The fleet of foot for the fourth goal was astonishing, blasting into the roof of the net almost immediately after turning inside Robertson. This was a seminal performance from the 20-year-old.
It might be time that Guardiola’s management of Foden was given due praise by those who have demanded explanations over his playing time. The trepidation over his supposed lack of minutes was always disingenuous and this is further proof that he is playing under the perfect coach.
15) It is worth bearing in mind that Liverpool’s best player was the only one younger than Foden. Curtis Jones can count himself both lucky and unfortunate to have been substituted: he was taken off ahead of far more deserving players but was at least not tarnished by the destruction that followed his removal.
Jones was the player who put in the covering tackle as Foden broke from a Liverpool corner in the first half, putting in more interceptions than any other player (4). That summed up his intelligence in reading and tracking the game, traits which the seasoned veteran Thiago, booked in the first two minutes for a stupid foul and playing within himself thereafter as a result, sorely lacked. Jones was let down by his teammates.
16) Guardiola stressed after the game just how different it is to play Liverpool at Anfield without supporters. His point, that fans in the stadium would have been a massive “influence” on the players after they equalised, is fair. There is something about football right now that feels a little false, as if matches are being played with a permanent asterisk against the scorelines. But it is yet another excuse the Reds seem to be falling back on instead of looking within for answers.
No team has fans right now. And even if the argument is that Liverpool rely on that emotional connection more than most other clubs, they have had months to address that issue. There is sympathy with regards to the injury situation but this was something different: a psychological beating as opposed to a physical one. The mentality monsters looked petrified. Too many players look a shadow of their former selves for everything to be attributed to the absence of Virgil van Dijk or Diogo Jota. They are contributing factors but surely not overriding ones.
With unprompted complaints about Manchester United’s penalties and the supposed “two-week break” Manchester City enjoyed over Christmas, as well as snappy answers about title races, Klopp has mirrored his players in losing that air of invincibility, that feeling of unwavering control. He and Liverpool need to shut out the external noise and focus again on what made them so brilliant so recently.