* Two of the highest-scoring teams in the division going head-to-head, suspect defences and all, with league leaders Chelsea threatening to disappear well beyond the reach of at least one of these sides. It promised to be a ding-dong battle to close out the year. You would think that by the final day of 2016 we would have learned not to raise our hopes too high.
Were it not for the time of year you could almost have believed this was a Champions League quarter-final first leg tie: two talented teams cancelling each other out, with the home side happy to grind things out to avoid conceding that crucial away goal, and the away side going for it but knowing defeat wasn’t the end of the world. Had Chelsea failed to beat Stoke earlier in the day that might have been understandable from City – but they didn’t, did they?
* Disappointing for City, then, but a vital win for Liverpool to keep Chelsea within touching distance – though six points is still considerable when we’re talking about a team that looks as unstoppable as Antonio Conte’s side have – and maintain their excellent league record against City.
Is there anything in the bogey team concept, or are they just statistical quirks? It’s tempting to think that one could easily become the other given what a superstitious lot footballers tend to be, though you would bloody well hope it wouldn’t at this elite level. Either way, the head-to-head stats for the two sides didn’t make enjoyable reading for City: in their past five Premier League meetings, City had claimed just three points from the Reds, worse than against any other side they’ve faced as frequently in the past six years.
Liverpool, conversely, came into the game with the same recent Premier League record against City (12 points from five games) that they’ve enjoyed against Fulham, QPR, Stoke and Swansea, putting Guardiola’s men on the same level against Liverpool as two relegated sides – likely three by the end of this season. Only Norwich have recently fared worse against Liverpool. Superstitious or not, that can’t have felt too good for City.
* There was one minor surprise in each lineup: Sergio Aguero returning from suspension in place of Nolito was a no-brainer, but John Stones was able to keep his starting spot despite being forced off by injury in the Boxing Day clash with Hull – a vote of confidence in the 22-year-old from Guardiola after preferring to play Aleksandar Kolarov (who moved back to his habitual left-back role) at centre-back for so long.
Meanwhile, with Joel Matip and Philippe Coutinho both still missing through injury, the only decision Jurgen Klopp seemed to face was whether to call on Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi to play between the red-hot pair of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
In the end, he did neither: mindful of the threat Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling posed if they got behind Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner, Klopp instead opted to bring the more defensively-minded Emre Can into midfield and shift Adam Lallana into the front line. Considering how wonderfully Lallana has played as part of a midfield three this season, it was a big shout from the German.
* It was quickly vindicated however: a Liverpool break released Lallana in down the left courtesy of an excellent Firmino ball, and Georginio Wijnaldum easily beat Kolarov in the air to put a firm header past Claudio Bravo from 12 yards.
Wijnaldum’s run was good, but it was a terrible goal to concede for City. The normally-excellent Fernandinho, who should have been tracking Wijnaldum’s run, completely failed to even notice the Dutchman enter the box until it was too late, while Kolarov offered as much resistance in the air as single-ply toilet paper affords a New Year’s Day hangover dump.
* As if that defending weren’t enough cause for concern for Guardiola, his side utterly failed to present any kind of response and should have fallen 2-0 behind before the break but for two rare poor moments from Firmino. First, on 28 minutes, Milner curled a wonderful pass in to the Brazilian, who had found space between Kolarov and Nicolas Otamendi, but his first touch was woeful and allowed Bravo to recover.
Then, just before the break, Firmino and Lallana had the opportunity to go two-on-two. Lallana continuing to run ahead of Firmino could generously be put down to his not wanting to slow down the break; the Brazilian’s decision to pass to him was just thoughtless.
Firmino’s frustrating game continued midway through the second half as he was again put through in a good position to provide a cross, but over-complicated things with an ineffective Marseillaise roulette when cutting inside seemed the more sensible option. Firmino has been largely great this season, but it just didn’t quite click for him.
* It was strange to see City fail to threaten the Liverpool goal given that their age-old defensive problems peeked out on a couple of occasions, with Ragnar Klavan forced into a professional foul to prevent Aguero from exploiting a poor Milner backpass just before Liverpool took the lead, while Simon Mignolet succeeded in tightening every red sphincter in the stadium by rushing 25 yards out of goal to cut out a ball over the top and entertainingly flicking the ball over Aguero’s head. Great fun to watch, and he got away with it, but if you listened carefully you could hear every dad in the country shout “just hoof it!” at once. I thought it was Bravo who was meant to be a liability with his feet?
* The game settled into a familiar rhythm in the second half: City had 57% of the possession and made ground with some good dribbling before Liverpool either fouled in safe areas or closed off the options. Occasionally they would break, but they didn’t manage a single shot on target and didn’t beat a man once between the 49th and 73rd minutes.
In fact, Liverpool completed just seven dribbles all game, and one of those was Mignolet’s aforementioned juggling act. By contrast, City completed eight between the 61st and 81st minutes alone.
Much of that can be put down to a poor game from Firmino, as discussed, but also Mane, who was – for the first time this season – entirely anonymous, failing to take the ball past a man even once. Klopp might have preferred to take him off when he introduced Origi on 64 minutes, but an injury to Henderson forced a change of plans.
* Speaking of which, let’s talk about Daniel Sturridge. His continuing injury problems cloud the issue of whether he would have been Klopp’s preferred deputy in the front three rather than Origi, and the fact that Sturridge has not played more than 20 competitive minutes in a game since October can’t have helped, but that Klopp looked to the raw 21-year-old rather than an undoubtedly talented player in his 11th top flight season and is an indication of how the England striker’s standing has fallen over the past three years.
The good news for Sturridge is that the Africa Cup of Nations will leave Mane available for selection for the better part of a month, including games against Manchester United and Chelsea. The bad news is that Coutinho is due to return from injury imminently. I’m sure the home bench in the new dugouts at Anfield are terribly lush and cushy, but the view from them is awfully similar to the one that so frustrated Sturridge at both Manchester City and Chelsea.
* City were somewhat better after the break, but Liverpool looked more assured in defence than at any other point this season. When you consider their previous frailties and those hints of a crack in the defence, it couldn’t really have come at a better time for Klopp: if you’re going to be solid for one game, you really want it to be against the talents of David Silva, Sterling, De Bruyne and Aguero.
* There has been a common factor in Liverpool’s recent defensive sturdiness. Klavan has played all 90 minutes in the back four alongside Lovren in the last four games; Liverpool have conceded just once. I bloody love Joel Matip, and nobody would have expected the 31-year-old Estonian to become such a key player, but in fairness to him he’s been excellent.
Prior bad experiences with Cameroon have led Matip to rebuff his country’s invitation to the Africa Cup of Nations (why it is ‘Africa’ and not ‘African’, anyway?). I bloody love Matip, but Klopp may have something of an unexpected decision to make once he returns from injury.
* That said, nothing sums up this City performance better than this stat:
0 – Sergio Aguero didn't have a single touch of the ball in the Liverpool box in his 90 minute appearance today. Stifled.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 31, 2016
It was clear how under-served Aguero was, so it’s strange that Guardiola didn’t introduce anyone from the bench until the 86th minute, when he finally turned to Jesus Navas. Because that’s who you need if you want to get balls into the box. Iheanacho then joined the fray with just a minute left on the clock, by which point Liverpool had obviously given up any intention to push for a second goal and were intent on wringing the remaining seconds out.
I’ve defended Guardiola from accusations of stubbornness up until now, because I believe his record has earned him the right to be so. Perhaps he was banking on a defensive mistake from Liverpool – not an unreasonable hope, it has to be said – but in this case, a change was sorely needed. Guardiola got it wrong.
* Perhaps expectations are too high on Pep, as I believe he is known to his friends, but City fans will be disappointed to say the least to see their team continue to struggle against the big teams. Last season, they lost 5-1 to Chelsea, 4-1 to Spurs and Liverpool, 3-0 to Liverpool, 3-1 to Leicester, 2-1 to Arsenal and Spurs, 1-0 to Manchester United, and drew against Arsenal, United and Leicester.
The first half of this Premier League campaign hasn’t been too much better under Guardiola: only against Manchester United have they looked truly excellent, and even then they had to withstand a late onslaught to hold onto all the points after playing dazzling football in the first half.
Not to suggest that a trophy-less season would put Guardiola under any pressure whatsoever, and nor should it, but Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini will tell you that winning the FA Cup, EFL cup or even the Premier League isn’t enough at City: they want the Champions League. That will remain a long way off if they can’t improve results against the bigger teams.
* Liverpool’s record in that area is just the opposite. They are undefeated against the rest of the current top six this season, having won at Arsenal and Chelsea, drawn at Spurs, and taken four points at home to the two Manchester sides. It’s a big ask, but if Liverpool are going to keep Conte’s side on their toes, that must continue, such has been the leaders’ dominance. Liverpool fans have had more than enough of Chelsea exploiting title-deciding slips.
* Listening to Milner and Klopp speak after the game, you would never have thought Liverpool had won the game. You expect Milner to be somewhat downbeat – he has a reputation to live up to – but both spoke of their frustration at their poor decision-making and inability to punish City when they got the ball.
Klopp summed it up perfectly: “We don’t want to show how good we are: we want the points.” We’re well past the point of comparing Klopp to his predecessor, but can you imagine how barely Brendan Rodgers could have concealed his delight at this kind of result? Perhaps Chelsea’s league lead looms too large for overconfidence, but Liverpool fans should be nothing but pleased that a narrow win over City is no longer regarded as a biggie.
* Guardiola put on a brave face after the game, but tellingly he did say his players need to “wake up”. He’s not wrong: they’re now ten points adrift of the top with half the season gone. Talk of him struggling to adapt to the demands of the Premier League are missing the point overblown: there’s something a bit ‘not quite’ about City and that’s been the case for going on three years now. Guardiola needs to figure out what that is and put it right, fast.
* I joked in the first conclusion about 2016 being a disappointment, but at least we had a highly-entertaining title chase between Leicester and Tottenham to keep us all interested. With half the season gone, are we already down to a two-horse race for the 2017 title? Or are there some surprises in store? I’m excited. Are you excited? No? Alright. Get back to me once your hangover subsides. Trust me. It’s exciting.