16 Conclusions: Manchester City 1-1 Liverpool

Date published: Sunday 8th November 2020 9:19

1) They have been quoted countless times and still will be in the years to come. But the words of Pep Guardiola in his 2013 biography could have been played on loop throughout the first hour of Liverpool’s draw with Manchester City at the Etihad on Sunday.

“It becomes like the basketball play-offs,” he would say, as Liverpool score through Mo Salah in between attempts on goal from Roberto Firmino and Jordan Henderson in the first 18 minutes.

“You do one thing, they respond with another, you answer in another way,” he may continue, as City have three unanswered efforts of their own immediately after, Gabriel Jesus’s wonderful equaliser sandwiched by shots from Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne.

“The guessing, the changing, the preparing, the switches during games…this is what makes everything enjoyable, which gives meaning to everything. It is the thing that made those encounters fascinating,” he could conclude as black and white highlights of the start of the second half play out, with Diogo Jota testing Ederson at one end before Alisson blocks an excellent De Bruyne cross mere seconds later.

The game petered out as one set of players notably tired while the others were reticent to over-commit. But these two managers have now faced each other 19 times, 12 of which have come in England. It is testament to them that their meetings remain exciting and exhilarating for the most part.

 

2) The second-half decline in quality, energy or perhaps a combination of both was inevitable. These matches are played at such a ludicrous early intensity that simply cannot be maintained over 90 minutes, certainly in this of all seasons. Legs become weary but minds start to falter too. Players take a split second longer to make a decision that would previously have been instinctive. What was once a natural reaction starts to feel like a chore.

To that end, it is awfully strange to see Guardiola and Klopp make three substitutions between them when both have championed the need for five each to protect the physical and mental welfare of their players. Using their full quotas would have risked being unable to replace a player in the case of injury but it rather undermines their argument, particularly in the case of the City manager.

 

3) There was a tantalising hint as to what was still to come even in the opening few minutes. A wonderful Andy Robertson ball helped Firmino beat the offside trap and forced Ederson to vacate his goal and successfully close the angle. Moments later, Firmino and Sadio Mane failed to capitalise on an inviting Alexander-Arnold cross. And in City’s first meaningful venture out of their own half Gabriel Jesus did wonderfully to evade Joel Matip but had absolutely no support for his cut-back from the byline. No teammate had even risked joining him in the Liverpool area.

After the procession that was Manchester United’s home draw with Chelsea, it was refreshing to see two members of the gilded elite meet with designs on securing victory rather than simply avoiding defeat. The stakes were higher here but so was the sizzle.

 

4) Will Guardiola be happier earning a point from behind at home while missing a penalty than Klopp squandering three after outshooting a direct rival away but avoiding defeat? It is difficult to say. As much as it jars with the modern demand for one manager to be seen as having out-coached the other, both should be more than happy with their lot.

Liverpool’s start was electric but their end to the game was static. City were the opposite. Klopp deserves credit for, in his own words, a “brave” team selection that was let down by poor accuracy in the final third. Guardiola ought to be praised for identifying a problem mid-game and solving it so emphatically. A draw seemed fair.

 

5) It did not take long for the breakthrough to materialise. How typical that it came from a move that started with City bearing down on Liverpool’s goal and culminated with Mo Salah dispatching a penalty at the other end.

Georginio Wijnaldum’s work in the build-up was exemplary. Liverpool had tentatively emerged from their own area with the ball but the Dutchman steadied them and avoided the attentions of Ferran Torres and De Bruyne before playing in Robertson. Even when that attack was repelled he was there again to restart it by retrieving the loose ball and recycling it once more. Liverpool had their penalty eight seconds later.

It was far from a faultless Wijnaldum performance. He was actually used as the trigger for City’s press at points, most notably in the 25th minute for their first shot: Sterling, saved by Alisson. But he was so often starved of passing options yet somehow managed to retain possession. There are few players as adept at that skill in the entire league.

 

6) But yes, it was a foul on Sterling. Jota ran into and unbalanced him and while the winger took another touch into the area he was never in control. Had he gone to ground it would have been a free-kick; he eventually stumbled to his knee as the ball was being cleared but Craig Pawson was unmoved.

There was a similar situation just before the half-hour mark when Joao Cancelo intercepted a Robertson switch and poked the ball past Matip, who missed it and the player but clearly impeded him. Cancelo lost his footing but got straight back up as Pawson barely seemed to register the incident.

Had either Sterling or Cancelo exaggerated the contact, a foul would surely have been given. That was precisely what Mane did for the penalty: Kyle Walker barely touched him but Mane fell to the ground and earned the decision.

Those who so detest diving should focus on incidents like these in the future. There is no incentive for players to stay on their feet when referees seem programmed not to award fouls unless someone ends up on their arse. It really does feel like they are almost punished for their supposed honesty sometimes.

 

7) The combination of Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri with Kevin de Bruyne in a midfield three was greeted with the usual trepidation by City fans, who have seen that partnership without De Bruyne fail often enough against all manner of opposition. Adding the Belgian to the mix was not about to imbue it with greater defensive resolve or stability.

Yet they overcame a difficult start, in which Rodri was essentially shadowed by Firmino and Mane at every opportunity, to impose themselves well. De Bruyne moved further up the pitch, which would pay rapid dividends, and Rodri and Gundogan provided a solid platform in front of the defence. It still boggles tiny minds like this one as to why and when Bernardo Silva stopped being a regular central midfield option, and those two are absolutely not good or consistent enough in tandem to anchor a title-winning side. But hey, this was progress.

 

8) It helped create the City goal. Rodri finally had enough space to operate, free of the double shackles Klopp had imposed on him, and he found Walker with a fine long ball out to the wing. Mane’s failed press forced Wijnaldum out of position to cover, thus freeing De Bruyne up in the centre to zip a ball into Jesus’s feet to score.

How jarring it was to see City score such an orthodox goal: a switch of play, a wide player hugging the touchline, the playmaker dropping deep into space and a centre-forward taking one touch to control and another to finish. Even in this vulnerable state they are still capable of incredibly effective adjustments against remarkably testing opposition.

 

9) That deliberately underplays the excellence of Jesus. Whether he meant to or not – and it certainly seemed calculated, so quick was his reaction to where the ball travelled – he turned a pass with his back to goal about 18 yards out into a shooting situation in an instant.

He will never be a goalscorer the calibre of Sergio Aguero. It is entirely pointless even trying to make him as such. Jesus misses far too many presentable chances, such as the free header early in the second half. But he is good enough to lead that attacking line. Three goals in as many games this season is not sustainable; his general all-round play absolutely is.

 

10) That goal was crucial as City seemed to be losing their patience at times beforehand. Liverpool are probably the worst possible team to play when a collective frustration sets in, so ferocious is their press and overwhelming their energy. So when a few of Pawson’s decisions went against the hosts it felt as though they could be consumed by a sense of injustice: at the referee and at having to play in this Liverpool storm.

It is to their immense credit that they emerged with only a slightly windswept look. They were galvanised before the Jesus equaliser; that merely solidified the comeback. And the penalty award in the 40th minute turned the tables completely.

De Bruyne missed, thus it feels largely pointless to even discuss the preceding call in great depth. But it was a penalty. While Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher lamented the death of the game as we know it, the sight of a cross colliding with Joe Gomez’s forearm and skewing away conjured only one thought that was reinforced by replays. It was a handball. And more of a penalty than Mane’s. Do not @ me under any circumstances.

 

11) Gomez and Matip were quite good, as it happens. Very good, in fact. The latter continues to astonish with his ability to slot straight into the team after injury. A pairing that had never started a game together under Klopp did well. Neither were without their mistakes but, crucially, both covered for any errors their partner made. And if that isn’t love then what is?

Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte were even better, marrying that defensive solidity with a little more nuance on the ball. It has taken years and many, many, many millions but City have a centre-half pairing worth their status.

 

12) Yet Cancelo was the best defender – and perhaps even the game’s best player. No-one completed more tackles than his four, nor more interceptions than his two. Guardiola justifiably singled him out for praise post-match after an excellent display.

City have quietly landed upon a multi-faceted back line as a consequence of that Leicester humbling. It is no coincidence that since losing 5-2 to the current leaders, they have conceded no more than a single goal in each of their subsequent eight games. Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken a high-profile break-in for Guardiola to install a burglar alarm, gets locks on the windows and doors and employ proper security guards, but still.

 

13) That Cancelo handball shout on the hour was possibly the worst yet. The ball hit him on the elbow that was tucked straight into his chest yet the Liverpool protests came, accompanied by a Neville ‘ooo’, as if he should have simply detached his limbs before jumping.

There should be no blame apportioned to the players or the pundits. They are simply reacting to what they see and know. But that one moment summed up how utterly ludicrous the handball law has become. It is an absolute nonsense.

 

14) It might be time. Firmino has been, if not the best, then the most important Liverpool player throughout Klopp’s reign. Others have dominated the headlines while he works tirelessly in the newsroom. How cruel it seems that his moment in the spotlight comes at his lowest ebb on Merseyside.

He was not good. Those touches that used to be crisp were flat. His pressing was largely ineffective. His two shots were off-target and for the third straight Premier League game he created no chances.

Klopp will say his removal was pre-planned and down to fitness. That it came in the 59th minute suggests an element of forethought. But Firmino did absolutely nothing to affect that decision. None of the front four were brilliant yet Salah scored and greedily laid on three chances, Mane won the penalty and Jota was at least accurate in mostly everything he attempted.

Firmino was the only one who did nothing to justify his inclusion. His defence might be that Liverpool looked poor without him but that was simply a byproduct of a game that fizzled out: both they and City had only one shot between them in the final half an hour. Rather, what Liverpool did with him on the pitch seemed entirely unrelated to his presence.

That Firmino, in the short or long-term, might finally no longer automatically qualify as a regular starter should be no surprise. The fact he, Salah and Mane have been so consistently brilliant together is the outlier; almost every other attacking trio in history at club level has had to be ripped up long before this point. Klopp has been able to avoid that inevitable for admirably long. He will surely soon have to at least partially destroy what he himself created.

 

15) Liverpool producing that display and draw underlines just how overblown injuries can be. Virgil van Dijk was missing and the defence was changed again yet it looked well-drilled and was undone by one moment of genius. In the absence of Fabinho and Thiago the visitors still had enough midfield control and vigour.

Even City, without their first-choice left-back, central midfielder and striker, were great. It feels a bit like we sometimes forget there are actual professional footballers there to replace injured players in refined systems that are able to accommodate losses with slight tweaks.

Although a one-man injury CRISIS is always fun. Alexander-Arnold being out for any number of weeks will presumably derail Liverpool’s title bid – even though James Milner replaced him ably here and will continue to do so into his 70s.

 

16) With that said, Alisson was sublime and Liverpool likely lose that game with Adrian in his place. His ability to react to developing danger is unparalleled and the few times his defence is beaten, the Brazilian is almost always there off his line to cover for them. There is no better goalkeeper in world football.

His distribution was poor, mind. Combined with the loss of Van Dijk, whose passing might genuinely be more important than his defending to this team, Liverpool suffered a little in building from the back as the game wore on. They were there for the taking but it is not difficult to see why City deemed the risk too great.

Matt Stead

 

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