* Liverpool’s home game against Manchester City was the stand-out match of last season’s Premier League, an absorbing encounter in which both teams took turns to attack each other at will. It almost felt akin to five-a-side style football in an 11-a-side scenario, such was the ceaseless excitement.
Nothing changes, it seems. These two teams may not still be fighting each other for the title, but this was a replica of April’s wondrous fare between the Premier League’s form team and its reigning champions.
One league fixture always seems to create more excitement than most, as the style of both teams creates the perfect recipe for drama. Spectators and the television audience are expectant of wonderful entertainment to match the importance of the occasion, and are rarely disappointed. Matches between Liverpool and Manchester City are becoming the standard by which all other games should be judged.
* A large part of that excitement is created by the flaws that both sides share. Despite our desire for our own teams to strive for defensive perfection, football as a spectacle is improved immeasurably when teams have defending as their Achilles heel. The possibility for clubs tediously cancelling each other out is removed.
This was a perfect example of that principle. Both sides attacked with vigour and at pace, but were never far from discomfort at the back. Well aware of those deficiencies but without a viable remedy, the only available response was to try and make the most of their ventures into opposition territory.
That made it a fascinating watch, decided only by which team could continue at such a high pace for the longest. There was only one, categorical answer to that question.
* The reveal of both line-ups caused a great deal of surprise. Brendan Rodgers chose to leave Daniel Sturridge and Mario Balotelli on the bench, preferring to use Raheem Sterling as his false nine in the now=customary 3-4-3 formation. His other big decision was to include Lazar Markovic as the right wing-back instead of Jordon Ibe (who had a slight knock) or Javier Manquillo. Given David Silva’s tendency to start on the left before roaming, the role demanded great discipline from Markovic, and caused a warning alarm to sound.
If Rodgers was taking a gamble on Markovic, it felt as if Manuel Pellegrini was rolling the dice at far higher stakes. One may have expected City to line up in a 4-2-3-1 after the struggles against Barcelona on Tuesday, but the decision to once again partner Edin Dzeko with Sergio Aguero sat somewhere between stubbornness and blind faith. The answer lies in the result.
There was another big call from Pellegrini, dropping Martin Demichelis for Eliaquim Mangala, a decision that seemed to entirely lack logic. There is no doubt that Demichelis has been City’s best central defender this season, with Vincent Kompany remaining in the side on the basis of his captain’s armband and reputation alone (I wrote this bit before the game started, so more on him later).
Dropping his in-form centre-back for a struggling expensive new signing and playing two up front despite consistent criticism for doing so; this felt like an important day in Pellegrini’s City future.
* Somewhere (probably the internet) there will be a website where some fine person has collated all of the best offside goals in football history, therefore avoiding them being lost to the incessant passing of time.
That hero is now uploading a video of Adam Lallana’s wonderful touch and finish after eight minutes – it was splendid. Philippe Coutinho fired in a low cross, which Lallana took down with his right foot, swivelling and lashing the ball into the roof of his net with his left from an acute angle. The assistant referee is a bloody (although entirely correct) spoilsport.
* We had to wait less than two minutes for a brilliant goal that did count, Jordan Henderson giving Liverpool the lead with a shot that was part-curler and part-piledriver.
There is something wonderful about watching football when you can see what is about to unfold seconds before the inevitable occurs, almost as if you are cheating time. Henderson had the ball at his feet on the edge of the area, and it was obvious to all that he would shift it to the side before aiming for the top corner. That ambition was achieved with breathtaking accuracy. Gerrard-esque, dare I say?
* That was not the only comment-worthy aspect of the goal, however, for we were treated to another episode of what I’m broadly calling ‘misery loves Kompany’. City’s captain’s poor touch allowed Raheem Sterling to steal the ball and pass to Henderson. What then unfolded punished Kompany emphatically.
Two years ago the Belgian was rightly considered one of the best central defenders in the Premier League, but this is more than just a rut or funk of form. Instead, his abilities have been steadily declining as the positional errors and basic flaws in decision-making add up.
“It is simple: when the results go well, everybody will say I am performing well,” said Kompany after the defeat to Barcelona, against whom he was at fault for both goals. “As long as the results don’t go our way, people will say there are several players on the team not performing. All this is part of the game and it doesn’t bother me at all. You [the media] are going in with an angle. For me, I cannot pay attention with it – it is what I have said.”
Sorry, but this is more than just a media ‘angle’. Vincent’s starry, starry nights have turned stormy.
* Following the pattern of the match, City almost hit back less than two minutes later, a chance forged out of Liverpool’s defensive problems of early season. They were saved by the width of the post.
Simon Mignolet has received effusive praise for the manner of his response to being dropped by Rodgers, and it is worth remembering that he was only recalled after Brad Jones sustained a thigh injury. Mignolet has looked calm and assured in his shot-stopping, but it is his commanding of his defence and improved aptitude in dealing with crosses that have most impressed his manager.
“I think he looks like a different goalkeeper,” Rodgers said in January, but this was a return to the bad old days of November. David Silva sent a through ball high over Liverpool’s defensive line, and there was a lack of communication between goalkeeper and defence. Mignolet should have come out of his goal but stayed put (another hallmark of his poor autumn form), allowing Aguero to reach the ball no more than ten yards from goal. His shot hit the inside of the far post and bounced clear.
* When City did equalise, it was a move of superb quality. Yaya Toure fired in a pass to Silva, who had drifted dangerously across the field and into the space in front of Liverpool’s back three. He found Aguero 25 yards from goal.
Aguero’s reputation is understandably based predominantly on his goalscoring record and finishing ability, but that does something of a disservice to his work in creating, rather than finishing, chances. The way he drew all three of Liverpool’s central defenders towards him on the edge of the area reminded me of Lionel Messi – all three were so wary of giving him space that they ignored the bigger picture.
The space created allowed Dzeko to have the time ten yards out to fire past Mignolet. The pass that found him was also worthy of comparisons with Aguero’s fellow Argentinean.
* What is going on with the quality of the Anfield pitch? The ball continuously bobbled and made first touches difficult, a combination of hard surface and patchy grass. What happened to the carpet?
“It was an outstanding performance, the quality of our passing and moving on a terrible pitch, the pitch is awful here,” said Rodgers in December after the 2-2 draw with Arsenal. “We will be getting a new pitch next summer to help the speed of our game,” explained Rodgers a week later. “It is an old pitch that has not been upgraded for some years and it can be a disadvantage for us. It is difficult to play one-touch football on it.”
Rodgers is not the only person to comment on the surface. “I don’t think either team played that great and a draw would have been a fair result”, said Tottenham’s Ryan Mason after their 3-2 loss last month. “The pitch wasn’t great and both teams couldn’t really play their football that well.”
It failed to take away from the spectacle of the match (and may have even added to the calamitous defending), but Liverpool should have a pitch on which a side can pass the ball freely and quickly without problem. Anything else is unacceptable.
* City started the brighter in the second half, Aguero’s header drifting just over the bar, but they then fell away in alarming fashion as Liverpool began to dominate the match. City needed victory, but found nothing.
The issue appeared to be a lack of work rate and desire to press the ball to copy the tone set by their hosts. Too often passes out of Liverpool’s defence were played into midfield leaving a midfielder able to control the ball, turn and look to create danger before a tackle was made. Which was the team that played 120 minutes on Thursday again?
Pellegrini opted to change things in order to add solidity, bringing on James Milner for Dzeko before the hour mark. However, rather than setting up as a 4-2-3-1 with Milner alongside Fernandinho (thus giving extra bite in central areas), City instead went with a 4-1-3-2 with Milner out on the left. That predictably failed to address the aforementioned issue.
A situation was instead created whereby City’s players were forced to play catch-up, committing fouls in order to break up attacks. This was reaction rather than proaction.
City were penalised for four fouls before half-time but gave away three times that many in the second period, with three players booked after the break. Combine that with a carelessness in possession (75% passing accuracy compared to 82% in the first half) and Liverpool were allowed to search for the winner. They gleefully accepted that offer.
* When the goal finally came, it was as a result of that space afforded to Liverpool’s midfielders. Sterling was given the time to find Coutinho, with the Brazilian able to consider his options on the edge of the box. It’s fair to say that he chose the right one.
Coutinho’s finish was beautiful, less powerful than Henderson’s opener but therefore with more bend, leaving Joe Hart equally helpless. Give the best players time and space, and being punished for that benevolence becomes an inevitability, not a possibility.
* And Coutinho was the ‘best player’, a wonderful display to add to an ever-growing list. There is a case for labelling the Brazilian the best Premier League player of 2015 so far. He is still just 22, another member of a stellar group of young attacking players gracing this league.
It is a cliché to say that Coutinho was the heartbeat or pulse of Liverpool’s performance, but an appropriate cliché. In a side without a recognised striker, he became the link between attack and midfield, consistently finding joy in between City’s lines of midfield and defence. Coutinho had double the amount of shots of any other Liverpool player (and also in terms of shots on target), making 50% more passes in City’s half than Raheem Sterling.
However, Coutinho isn’t all glamour. He has won more tackles (17) than any other Liverpool player in 2015, and he also covered 10.6km against City. Determination and commitment are necessities, not options. The winner added a perfect varnish to his Man of the Match performance.
* A quick word of praise too for Joe Allen, another who has previously been deservedly maligned at Anfield. Faces may have winced when they saw the Welshman potentially pitched against Toure in midfield, but he was superb in marshalling that area of the pitch.
Allen won possession more times than any of his tea mates, and lost possession fewer times than everyone but Martin Skrtel. He also passed the ball with markedly better accuracy (88%) than Henderson (73%), Coutinho (73%), Alberto Moreno (74%) and Markovic (81%). His figure was bettered by only Skrtel, Mangala and Fernandinho of all 27 players used. Allen should be delighted with his work.
* Rodgers spoke before the game on the disadvantage of playing on Thursday evening in the Europa League.
“That extra period of 48 hours that City have could be crucial, certainly physically, especially as we will have very little preparation time,” the Liverpool manager said. “It’ll just be about recovery. We can’t train on the pitch at Anfield, we can’t make it any worse than it is, so we’re having to train during the day.”
Evidently Rodgers failed to mention that all those problems could have been avoided by beating FC Basel at home (or away), but his point does remain. Liverpool’s delayed flight got in at 4.19am Friday morning, the end of a 4,300-mile round trip. This was not ideal preparation.
Even Pellegrini agreed on the issue: “You cannot prepare the game because you finish on Thursday night and you must play on Sunday. The players need at least 48 hours to recover. It is an advantage for the other team. Of course it is an advantage. I have played in the Europa League and when you arrive on Friday, it is not the best way to prepare for a game on Sunday but that is the rules.”
As far as the Europa League is concerned, the result of Sunday’s match was largely irrelevant, for the minds of managers appears to have been made up. Even with the added incentive of a Champions League place for the winner, whilst Thursday night football continues to feel more like a burden than an honour, its prestige will suffer.
A compromise is needed: What about playing the Europa League on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 6pm ahead of Champions League matches at 8pm? That would remove the concerns over fatigue and short recovery times, making it feel more like a delicious appetiser than unwanted stodgy pudding.
* What now then for Manuel Pellegrini? As I wrote in Big Weekend on Friday: ‘Roberto Mancini was sacked for finishing second in the Premier League, exiting the Champions League in the group stage and reaching the FA Cup final. Unless Pellegrini can manufacture a Camp Nou miracle, the Premier League remains his only hope of redemption.’ That hope has now surely faded, and will lead to serious questions about Pellegrini’s suitability to continue in his role beyond this season.
Players have regressed in form under his tenure, and his signings have thus far fallen woefully short of providing value-for-money. A total spend of £180m returns Martin Demichelis as the only unqualified success when considering the purchase price. That’s just not good enough.
Furthermore, it feels as if City’s players are no longer playing for Pellegrini. The second half at Anfield was their big opportunity, the moment when they needed to press for victory in order to remain viable contenders in the title race. All that followed was a damp squib, an acceptance of second best. That’s not a principle Sheikh Mansour’s ambitions are built on.
* For Liverpool, the continuation of some superb form, and credit must go to Rodgers for this resurgence. It is his 3-4-3 formation that has given them a threat in wide areas but added steel in central defence, his positivity that has kept players upbeat and his team that leads the Premier League’s form table.
Rodgers is guilty of saying the clichéd, the cheesy and the ridiculous, but Liverpool’s players and supporters will not give a stuff. This season has brought dark days (Liverpool were as low as 12th in late-November and tenth at Christmas), but it is impossible to not to admire the response to that adversity.
“It was a brilliant result and a brilliant performance. The players were relentless today,” said Rodgers after the match. For once, it’s impossible to argue with that optimism. Liverpool were worthy winners, and will rightly be confident of a second consecutive top four finish.