16 Conclusions: Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City

Date published: Thursday 5th April 2018 8:32

* This is what he promised that they could do, eventually. Jurgen Klopp is different to many Premier League managers, in that he remains committed to the long haul. Seven years at Mainz, seven years at Dortmund, seven more years at Liverpool?

That changes the game, slightly. Because rather than requiring him to achieve it all in his second season, as we might Jose Mourinho, improvements can come in smaller jumps over a longer period of time.

Yet Klopp is threatening to take Liverpool forward in giant leaps. He had already insisted that his team could match Manchester City in “specific moments”, but we remained unconvinced about their ability to outclass the best team in the country over the course of a full 90 minutes. At Anfield on Wednesday, we saw a special team in front a special atmosphere win with a special performance.

They were supposed to be in defensive crisis. Joel Matip is injured, Joe Gomez is injured, Ragnar Klavan is injured and Emre Can is injured. But if we knew they could do wonderful things in the final third, nobody expected Liverpool to stop City not just scoring but even having a shot on target.

It was also a performance of great spirit, which is exactly why I believed Philippe Coutinho’s departure could leave Klopp in his element. This is a coach who believes in improving players (both those he inherits and buys) to create a team ethic that makes the collective far greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t want to be here? Fine, go. We will only work harder for each other in your absence. As with Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, this is the only way for those below the most financially bloated to compete. Both have their clubs in rude health.

Score at the Etihad, and Manchester City will need five to progress. From the evidence of the first half, Liverpool will score. From the evidence of the second, five goals is a big ask. There is more steel to Liverpool’s defending than we have seen at any point since Rafael Benitez left. He didn’t do badly in Europe either.

At last, there is no ‘but’ to Liverpool. Survive the onslaught next Tuesday, and nobody will want to face them.

 

* That said, we must reflect on a job very badly done from Manchester City. As with Liverpool at their worst, there is a suspicion that if you get into the faces of this City defence then you can rattle and unnerve, and one goal can bring two or even three. Liverpool showed exactly as much at Anfield in the league fixture. This time the late response wasn’t even forthcoming.

Three of the four defenders were dreadful, Gabriel Jesus was entirely anonymous and even Kevin de Bruyne misplaced passes. Leroy Sane picked a bad time to produce his worst performance of the season. And the manager got it wrong too…

 

* Guardiola is not a man who makes many high-profile mistakes, but here was one and it really might make a difference to Manchester City’s season. The decision to start Ilkay Gundogan over Raheem Sterling, playing De Bruyne higher up the pitch and Gundogan on the right of the midfield three, was made to give City stability in midfield. But it backfired spectacularly.

Gundogan is a fine player, but he was wrong for this strategy. As a central midfielder, Gundogan inevitably drifted into central areas both with and without the ball. That wasn’t an issue when in possession, but as soon as Liverpool got the ball, Andrew Robertson surged forward and created an overlap on Kyle Walker. Gundogan was the defensive jack of all trades, marking space rather than tracking Robertson.

It is not the first time Guardiola has made this mistake. As the Independent’s Jack Pitt-Brooke noted before the game, he also picked the same midfield four in the League Cup final. Then, it took the substitution of Fernandinho and introduction of Bernardo Silva to change the game, City moving into a 4-3-3. This time, the same move came too late and did not bear fruit.

 

* There’s no doubt that it is a setback for Sterling. His performances when returning to Anfield as a Manchester City player have been disappointing, perhaps suffering due to the boos that so crushed his confidence with the England national team.

But he has also been one of Guardiola’s most trusted performers this season. Trust Pep to have a fancy plan to surprise us all in a big game. Sterling may hope that at least he won’t repeat the trick.

 

* There’s no natural place for this one, so let’s do it now.

Creating an atmosphere is an important and positive thing in a sport that has become increasingly sanitised and homogenised. But there are ways and means.

Firstly, atmosphere within football crowds is at its best when it is natural, like the roar of a terrace or the communal singing of a much-loved club song. When it is deliberately manufactured, it loses its emphasis. That is what the corporate shills that haunt the boardrooms of football clubs fail to understand. You cannot create a spine-tingling atmosphere; a spine-tingling atmosphere just happens.

Why Liverpool supporter groups thought it necessary to organise a pyro party to welcome the Manchester City team bus is unclear, but it makes their eagerness and support appear false, rather than the opposite. Listening to You’ll Never Walk Alone being sung by the Kop is special because it is heartfelt.

The reaction from Merseyside Police to the organisation of pre-match gathering was to warn supporters about their behaviour:

‘We are aware that fans have indicated they plan to gather ahead of the Champions League match to be played on 4 April 2018 between Liverpool and Manchester City.

‘Merseyside Police will have a comprehensive policing operation in place, alongside Liverpool Football Club, in preparation for the fixture. As with any match, we have worked to ensure that this game can be enjoyed by all in a safe environment, as well as minimising any disruption on the roads. We will liaise with both clubs and their supporter groups to ensure the event is enjoyed safely by everyone.’

So quite what possessed Merseyside Police to then announce a change of route for Manchester City’s bus is not clear. The route was fairly predictable anyway but, knowingly or otherwise, they told Liverpool supporters exactly where to gather. And where well-meaning supporters gather, idiots follow. Two police officers were injured in what occurred.

It isn’t a huge problem that bottles were thrown at the City bus in the grand scheme of football or society’s many ills, but it did smash a window and cause City to make alternative travel arrangements away from the ground.

It would be nice to think that football supporters could group together without such dickish behaviour, but a flashpoint was unnecessarily created.

As for the police, bravo to them for exacerbating, rather than diluting, the potential issues. Fine work all round. Now back to the football…

 

* The first Liverpool goal was an indication of what was to unfold, City making at least two errors that would cause their own downfall. Firstly, Sane played a wretched pass in the final third, not within five yards of a teammate. The ball was shuttled to Trent Alexander-Arnold, who moved the ball down the channel to Mohamed Salah.

(Yes, Salah was offside. Yes it should have been given. Yes, City should feel aggrieved about the one in the second half that went against them. Both were marginal decisions, perhaps a few inches in them. It was not the reason that the first goal was conceded.)

The next mistake, albeit the least criminal, came from Nicolas Otamendi, who committed himself to the tackle like the Otamendi we know and the Otamendi Guardiola does not love. It allowed Roberto Firmino to take a stabbed shot, that Ederson parried. If we are being hypercritical than the goalkeeper could have pushed the ball away from goal, but it did at least land at the feet of  Walker.

Rather than launching the ball clear with a swinging foot first time, Walker attempted to take a touch and control the ball. That gave Firmino the time to nick the ball off him and touch it to Salah to open the scoring via Ederson’s fingertips.

 

* That became the weird pattern of the first half, City players continuously caught in possession. You don’t have to ask James Milner twice if he wants to tirelessly work back and nick the ball off an opponent’s toes, and he alone made five tackles in the first half.

City also lost far too many second balls in the first half, slow to react when it broke clear with the exception of De Bruyne and David Silva. With and without the ball, they failed in their duties. No wonder Guardiola looked aghast.

There are two reasonable explanations for City’s sloppiness and lethargy:

1) They were genuinely surprised by Liverpool’s energy. That’s hardly an excuse given that they were spooked in the same manner by this team at this ground this season.

2) They have become so complacent at being given time and space on the ball by teams who are psychologically beaten before kick-off that they have simply not been harried or hassled in months and so are not used to playing this way. Which begs the (naughty) question: Did Everton butter Manchester City up for Liverpool? Sam Allardyce will take his thank you card now.

 

* At the time it seemed slightly incidental, but how important was Sane’s miss immediately after Liverpool’s first goal? The German was sent through on the counter-attack by Silva, and had De Bruyne arc a run around him to take away a covering defender.

The decision to take the shot rather than use De Bruyne was not necessarily a poor one, although the Belgian certainly made his case after the incident, but Sane’s shot was dismal and dragged wide when he should at least have hit the target.

 

* The second goal was a wonderful strike from the hugely improved Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and I’m happy to hold my hands up and admit that I got this one wrong. I didn’t see Klopp improving Oxlade-Chamberlain as quickly as he has, and it should be another nail in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal coffin.

But again there were mistakes. Firstly, Walker tried to flick the ball in the opposition half to a teammate, rather than controlling it and calming down play. It went straight to Robertson, and left Walker caught up the pitch.

The ball was then fed to Sadio Mane, with Walker finally back in position at right-back, but rather than put Mane under pressure or guide him down the line, Walker simply let him drift infield with the ball. Mane fed Milner, who fed Oxlade-Chamberlain. Yes, it’s time to talk about the shot.

Most times a goalkeeper fails to dive for a shot that goes in, he merits blame. It is generally an indication that his weight has been planted on the wrong foot, or that he realises the shot is on target too late to make a difference. It just doesn’t look right.

That does not apply here. Oxlade-Chamberlain hit his shot with such venom and such accuracy that Ederson was simply preserving energy by not diving. The only things he would have caught were a handful of air and a faceful of turf.

I’m not quite finished on the defensive errors. There is nothing more galling for a neutral (and therefore certainly a manager too) than a senior defender turning his back on a shot. I’m no advocate of blood, guts and pashun defending, but if your club captain’s automatic response to a shot being taken is to turn his back rather than face up and get his body in the way of it, he shouldn’t be on the pitch.

 

* And then the third goal, to cap off an extraordinary half of Liverpool attacking blitzes and City misery. Until then, we had only seen glimpses of 2017 Nicolas Otamendi. We were about to get a wonderful tribute act.

I’m not quite sure how an international central defender manages to let the ball get 15 yards away from him whilst running at jogging pace, but Otamendi did. Jordan Henderson could nip in and take the ball, Otamendi completing his circus act by trying too hard to make up for his error and being caught up the pitch making an inopportune tackle.

As a brief aside, and while we’re lambasting defending, I’m not sure Mane should be getting free headers in a penalty area at 5ft 9in. Three Liverpool goals, and a crowd in ecstatic disbelief.

 

* The only question at half-time was whether Liverpool would tire after their first-half exertions. There is no doubt that they expended more energy before the break, albeit very efficiently given the scoreline.

Although they did indeed win the league game at Anfield, the last ten minutes was a game of attack vs tired defence in which City came close to stealing an unlikely point. They have also played far less high-intensity pressing football than Liverpool over the last three months.

 

* And so it proved. Liverpool, clearly half-exhausted by their first-half work, immediately sat back and invited Manchester City onto them. This was what made all the pre-match claims in the media that Liverpool would go ‘all-out attack’ so foolish. Firstly Klopp never said that, or even really implied it, but also because that task is an impossibility.

With Liverpool dropping deeper, City were able to dominate possession and Liverpool did far less pressing until their opponents reached the final third. Firmino was substituted for Dominic Solanke as Klopp desperately tried to get fresh legs closer to the halfway line. It’s at times like these you see why he wants Timo Werner this summer.

 

* That defensive strategy was further entrenched by the removal of Salah with an injury. Given his brilliance this season, it would be a crying shame if that was to be the last of him in this and any other competition this season. Early indications (me, looking at where he was holding) would suggest a groin knack, but I’ll leave the prognosis to the medical folk. Nice coats, guys.

Salah was again not at his best against City, as on Saturday against Crystal Palace. He scored the first goal from close range and at one point dribbled past three players, but Aymeric Laporte was comfortably City’s best defender and actually shackled him for the most part.

But the problem for opposition teams is that Salah’s threat is a latent one. Even when he is not involved in every attacking move, defenders have to double up on the Egyptian because they know what he can do at any given moment of any given game. That creates space infield for others to delight in.

 

* For all the brilliance of Liverpool’s attacking, their second-half performance was just as impressive. Klopp knew that his team would come under pressure, and knew too that Liverpool’s defending has been regularly called into question this and last season. How would they cope against the best attack in the country, when every momentary lapse of concentration would be exploited?

Brilliantly, as it happens. We’ll come onto the full-backs next, but Dejan Lovren backed up his midweek words about his response to criticism with an impeccable performance. Beside him, Virgil van Dijk proved exactly why Liverpool paid all that money for a robust central defensive leader, and it’s suddenly hard to believe that Simon Mignolet, Liverpool No, 1 was ever a thing this season.

Time and again, we have been told that Klopp cannot organise a defence. The job is only half-completed, but the manager, his tactics and his team answered so very many questions on Wednesday. That’s how you take on City, Jose Mourinho. More of the same Saturday?

 

* We love Andy Robertson here at Football365. He is a young man who has dealt with multiple setbacks in his career, whose only response was to redouble his efforts and professionalism and prove that he deserves to be heard.

Robertson is proof that there is talent low down the leagues (he went to Queen’s Park having been released by Celtic and worked his way back up) and proof that being a lovely person can be a sign of strength rather than weakness even in a competitive and cut-throat industry. When the crowd sing his name, it is for who he is as well as how good he is.

But he is also ruddy good, probably the best player on the pitch in a Champions League quarter-final tie having been outside the first team three months ago. The energy levels were remarkable, providing more crosses than any other Liverpool player and constantly overlapping Mane but also never being caught out of position. Pin him back and no cracks appear in the defending either. I just wish he was English.

 

* But the final word can only go to the only Scouser in Liverpool’s team, and a young man who is is somehow taking every astonishingly large leap forward in his stride.

It looked like the most obvious mismatch on the pitch, the Premier League’s best out-and-out winger against a raw 19-year-old full-back who was only six when Liverpool won the Champions League in Istanbul. Alexander-Arnold has displayed mistakes in each of his recent games. They are to expected, of course, but these are not the times for errors. Marcus Rashford proved that to him.

In the end, it was indeed a mismatch. Alexander-Arnold was faultless, nullifying the threat of Sane, playing balls down the channel for Salah and even getting forward himself as the situation allowed. No Liverpool player won possession more times, none had more touches and none made more passes. Shrinking from the occasion? Not a bloody bit of it. Going in with caution? No chance.

This was the biggest night of Alexander-Arnold’s career by a million miles. There were thousands in the stands who could not bear to look due to nerves, and yet a 19-year-old lad from West Derby was the most assured player on the pitch. Klopp is making him a star.

Daniel Storey


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