Manchester City will feel aggrieved at a couple of decisions that went against them, but a draw was probably a fair result against Liverpool at Anfield.
1) Football is at its absolute best when the script gets thrown out of the window. Much as we love our tactics and predictions, and much as we all believe that we know exactly what will happen before a ball is kicked, even the most meticulously planned matches can head to some extraordinary places, once everybody has loosened up. There was no sign whatsoever at half-time that we could be in for one of the best 45 minutes of football that we’ll see all season, but that is exactly what followed.
2) It’s fair to say that Manchester City have been blowing hot and cold. They rattled six goals past RB Leipzig in the Champions League and Wycombe Wanderers in the Carabao Cup, while their 1-0 win at Chelsea was a consummate team performance. But sandwiched between those were a goalless home draw against Southampton and a loss to PSG.
Strange though it may seem to say of a team that has already twice scored six and five so far this season, their most pressing recent issues had come in front of goal. With just two in their previous three Premier League matches, attention returned to the subject of why Sergio Aguero was not replaced during the summer. Manchester City’s ‘issues’ are far from terminal, but when expectation levels are sky-high, the margins for error reduce to the breadth of a hair.
Liverpool, on the other hand, have had an air of serenity about them for much of this season so far. Apart from their Premier League match against Brentford – which was the sporting equivalent of being sucked into a tornado and deposited somewhere an hour and fifty minutes later – they’d looked fairly solid, winning without breaking into too much of a sweat and holding Chelsea to a draw. Mo Salah had been in electrifying form, the defence had been sound. While the drama has been going on elsewhere already this season, Liverpool had been quietly getting on with the job of positioning themselves well in both the Premier League and the Champions League.
3) City’s lack of a striker glared most obviously midway through the first half, when Bernardo Silva wriggled his way skilfully through the Liverpool midfield and then threaded a perfectly-weighted pass through the left-hand channel for Phil Foden, who drew Alisson out, only for his shot to be blocked by the goalkeeper’s legs.
4) After this slightly sluggish opening, Manchester City started to leave Liverpool behind a little. Three minutes after Foden’s chance came another, when Cancelo fed the ball inside to Kevin de Bruyne, whose shot from a tight angle was a little optimistic and flew wide.
But with half an hour played, Liverpool were moving from sluggish to pedestrian. Phil Foden broke through on the left and went to ground following a challenge from James Milner that had a hint of foul about it, but not enough to persuade the referee to put his whistle to his lips.
There’s some debate to be had over whether it happened inside or outside the penalty area, most of which was academic because no foul was given. Barely 30 seconds later, Jack Grealish was in plenty of space on the left and managed to cut along the touchline, only to rifle his shot high and away from goal.
5) Liverpool spent most of the last 15 minutes of the first half camped in their own half of the pitch. Smothered in midfield and with space starting to show behind the home side’s defence, the City attackers grew in confidence as the half progressed after an opening which had seen them defending far deeper than they did against Chelsea.
As soon as Manchester City had identified the weakness on the Liverpool right, they started to tailor their movement towards getting the ball towards that channel, and as soon as they did that they started to really dominate the game.
6) When Ederson signed for Manchester City for £35m in the summer of 2017, there were one or two who questioned spending that amount of money on a goalkeeper. That question should have been emphatically answered by now regardless, but at the very end of the first half he showed exactly what extra options the best goalkeepers in the world bring to a team with an absolutely sumptuous 70-yard pass to set up a chance from almost nothing for Phil Foden. It was only another good save from his opposite number that managed to keep the score goalless.
7) By the end of the first half, Jurgen Klopp was open-mouthed, having watched his team’s first-half performance. To say that he will have been more relieved than Pep Guardiola to have got to half-time on level terms is one of the understatements of the season, with James Milner, who was alleged to be playing at right-back, looking particularly tortured in his position. Liverpool would have been at least a goal or two behind by half-time had Alisson not been on top of his game for the first 45 minutes.
But it wouldn’t been difficult to imagine a certain amount of concern on the part of Pep Guardiola. Manchester City had dominated possession, created all the best chances, and had come away from 45 minutes of football without any tangible reward. Not only was this starting to look like a repeat of the PSG match, but it also served as a reminder of that broader question over City’s attacking options in the post-Aguero age. It was a bit of a surprise that neither manager opted to make any changes at half-time.
8) Liverpool did at least come out for the second half with a little more purpose, and five minutes into the second half Diogo Jota brought a fine save from Ederson. Indeed, Jota seemed particularly animated throughout the first ten minutes after the restart. A couple of minutes after this shot he was running at the Manchester City defence again, this time drawing Cancelo into a tackle which made contact, but didn’t impress referee Paul Tierney enough to give Liverpool a penalty. But none of this energy did Jota a great deal of good. He was withdrawn in place of Roberto Firminho mid-way through the second half.
9) Liverpool’s reward for their refreshed second-half performance took just 13 minutes to arrive. Some tidy interplay on the right left the ball with Salah, who ran at the Manchester City defence before feeding the ball an absolutely inch-perfect through ball for Sadio Mane to score. Mane’s run across the central defender and finish past Ederson was superb, but it would have counted for nothing had it not been for a brilliant pass from Salah, who’d been particularly anonymous prior to this.
10) Anfield had not been silenced by Liverpool’s first-half inertia, and the noise reached a familiar level of crescendo with the goal. With the noise of the crowd swelling behind Liverpool, it was as if the two teams’ roles had been completely reversed during the half-time break.
And when Manchester City’s equaliser came, it came from out of nowhere. Gabriel Jesus cut in from the right-hand side, but the Liverpool challenges that he faced weren’t particularly, well, challenging. He played the ball right to Phil Foden, and Foden looked at first to have carried the ball a little too far wide before collecting himself and shooting across Alisson to bring City level. Foden had been the best of Manchester City’s players by a substantial distance, and he thoroughly deserved his goal.
11) After 73 minutes, Bernardo Silva was fouled by James Milner, who was already on a yellow card. It looked pretty much nailed on to be a second yellow; the video assistant doesn’t check for second yellow cards so this never followed. Pep’s reaction to all of this will have looked very familiar to those who remember his reaction to a handball not being given during a fixture between Liverpool and City in 2019 and sure enough, these reactions are never not funny (and all the more so for the fact that the fourth official for this match was one Mike Dean), but it wasn’t difficult to see why he reacted in the way that he did, even though he did pick up a yellow card for his troubles.
12) And if Pep was ready to explode with the failure to send Milner off, he was likely ready to go supernova three minutes later. Mo Salah had endured a difficult first half, but his form throughout the season so far has been superb, and he picked the ball up on the right-hand side of the penalty area, twisted and turned his way through the defence, and slid the ball coolly across the goalkeeper and in to put Liverpool back into the lead.
It was a superb piece of invention, a supreme example of a player grabbing the entire game by the scruff of the neck. If the aftershocks of Pep’s reaction to the non-sending off had been loud, they were drowned out by the wall of sound that accompanied the ball hitting the back of the net. From the point of view of Sky Sports’ microphone muters, this was almost certainly a very, very good thing indeed.
13) Anfield’s delirium lasted for precisely five minutes. Phil Foden was picked out by a long, raking pass from central defence, turned it inside and rolled the ball towards Kyle Walker. Between Walker and his marker, the ball flicked loose to Kevin De Bruyne, whose curling shot was deflected past Alisson to bring Manchester City level again.
Pep’s reaction to the goal was a perfect 50-50 between furious and delighted, but it was no less than his team deserved, even though Liverpool had broadly dominated the second half to that point.
14) Even after these four goals in 22 minutes, there was still time for another opportunity to decisively swing the match to one of the teams. Liverpool won a free-kick on the right, and Jordan Henderson took it short to Salah. His cross wasn’t the best we’ll see this season, but Ederson seemed to have a bit of a rush of blood to the head and charged out to try and gather it, but only succeeded in letting it sail straight past him.
At the far post was Fabinho, who found himself suddenly staring an open goal full in the face, but he wasn’t reckoning on Rodri sliding in to make a literal game-saving tackle to deflect the ball from goal. Both teams were a little sloppy in the closing minutes, but neither seemed to have settled for a draw and the game undulated as they both tried to push forward in search of a winning goal.
15) That a winning goal didn’t come was, just about, fair. Liverpool didn’t really turn up for the first half at all, but the way in which they controlled the game throughout the first 20 minutes of the second half meant this was largely forgotten by the closing stages.
Mo Salah summed up their afternoon, largely anonymous in the first half, inspired and transformational in the second, but Jurgen Klopp will be concerned at the sluggishness of their first-half performance, especially coming after a fairly straightforward win in their previous match against Porto.
Manchester City may feel aggrieved at the failure to send off Milner, but if luck evens itself out over the course of a season, then sometimes it can even itself out over the course of just a few minutes. The deflection on their second goal was big, and the ball might not have gone in otherwise, and had Liverpool’s late chance fallen to a striker rather than Fabinho, then things might have ended up different again.
A genuine question remains over whether they can negotiate their way through the entire season without having bought a replacement for Sergio Aguero during the summer, but when Phil Foden is playing the sort of football that he was in this match, that question at least feels a little less important than it did before.
16) It’s too early to say whether this result will have any significant bearing on the eventual destination of the Premier League trophy, but when the football on display is this good, when the match leaves you on the edge of your seat even though you don’t have any particular interest in one team winning or one team losing, does that really matter? Both Manchester City and Liverpool may emerge from this game feeling a a little disappointed – City were probably just the better team over the whole 90 minutes, but Liverpool did lose a lead twice – but in truth, both teams deserve congratulations for a heart-stopping and tumultuous match.