1) When Liverpool failed to win the Premier League title from such a commanding position last season, there were at least mitigating circumstances. It was the first such situation many players had found themselves in, made all the more decisive by the fact that they were against imperious defending champions. Failure to beat Manchester City in either of their two meetings also proved fatal. To come so close while balancing Champions League glory deserved commendation, not ridicule.
There will be no such excuse this time. Liverpool will carry an eight-point lead into the depths of November, having won a quite ridiculous 131 points from their last 50 Premier League games. For reference, Tottenham and Everton have both dropped more – 22 – this season alone. Jurgen Klopp’s side have faced and beaten the teams currently second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, and are unbeaten while everyone else has lost at least twice.
Which is not to say the title race is run, just that Liverpool can suffer about three separate stitches over the next seven months while still retaining a healthy lead atop the table. They can afford imperfection while anyone who hopes to catch them must attain and maintain perfection in both the short and long-term. Momentum resides entirely on Merseyside, but it feels different this time. They will not cede it so easily, and no-one looks capable of wrestling it from their grasp as City did in January.
2) Perhaps the key is that they are not playing particularly well; there is still a sense that Liverpool have gears to shift through, levels to reach if and when necessary. City matched them and might have even bettered them for substantial periods at Anfield but were behind for 85 minutes and never got within two clear goals after the 13th.
Their attitude and mental strength sets them apart. The difference between Liverpool and City in terms of playing quality is negligible, as this week’s countless tedious combined XIs have told us. The only discernible gap in calibre is in defence, and it is there that the biggest overall contrast is outlined: mental strength. City seem to have expended some of their resolve over the course of two incredible seasons, while Liverpool are only now testing the limits of what they can achieve.
Letting the title slip from their hands last season could have broken this side and these players, but it has had the opposite effect. Liverpool have more depth and more durability because of what they have been through, not in spite of it.
3) That said, their start was actually characterised by a nervous energy. There was an Alisson miskick; Virgil van Dijk was beaten in the air just before Trent Alexander-Arnold’s handball; Dejan Lovren started. The visitors looked more confident and less overawed.
The hosts completed just nine passes in the opening five minutes, three of which Alisson accounted for. Mo Salah and Georginio Wijnaldum did not have a single touch, while Kyle Walker and John Stones both had efforts on goal.
Most telling was that City were playing their own game while Liverpool were struggling to assert themselves at home, with a five-point advantage, fewer injuries and a much longer rest and more preparation after their respective Champions League games. Pep Guardiola sought to fight fire with fire and Liverpool were anxiously fanning the flames.
4) Which is what made their response so impressive. Liverpool have weathered storms and emerged from the other side unscathed before, but to stroll out of a City typhoon with barely ruffled hair and a slightly untucked shirt is almost other-worldly. Against a side that drives opponents into submission, Liverpool forced a rope break then applied an unbreakable hold of their own.
The mistake City made was to stop applying the pressure to appeal for handball against Alexander-Arnold, Bernardo Silva having handled it first. But while they protested, Liverpool profited. Sadio Mane led an attack down the left-hand side, his low cross was edged away by Ilkay Gundogan, and Fabinho revelled in the freedom of Merseyside to open the scoring.
Claudio Bravo stood no chance – silly Gary Neville – but Gundogan and Rodri should have cut the shot off at the source. Liverpool’s mentality monsters withstood a barrage; City folded at the first semblance of pressure. It would become something of a theme.
5) Not that City failed to offer any sort of answer. They posed a particular threat from set-pieces, with Kevin de Bruyne’s dead-ball delivery the silver lining to his rare grey cloud of a performance.
Raheem Sterling missed a presentable early header from a free-kick. Sergio Aguero failed to make any contact in a similar situation soon after. The two corners De Bruyne took in the first ten minutes both reached their target but the same could not be said for players he found.
Liverpool had the height advantage, particularly in defence, yet struggled to deal with the danger, almost exacerbating it with such a high line. If Klopp is to pinpoint one area for improvement from such a galvanising win, it was established early on.
6) It is worth noting that City scoring from any of those chances might not have changed the complexion of the game all that much. It would have affected the approach of both managers and some of the players, but Angelino would have still been up against Alexander-Arnold and Sadio Mane and the isolated massacre would still have been televised.
A minute after the Aguero chance, Liverpool doubled their lead. The nature of the goal was instant and crushing, so decisive in turning defence into attack that any other final result felt inconceivable after just a quarter of an hour. Within ten seconds of Alexander-Arnold’s sumptuous weaker-footed, 60-yard, inch-perfect switch of play, Salah was celebrating an excellent header, with Andy Robertson’s controlling touch and fantastic cross wedged in between. It was devastating in its application and accuracy from three absolute masters of their roles, a sensational goal that deserves more acclaim, and I’m still trying to figure out where Angelino was.
7) The sheer shock of that goal saw a whole eight minutes go by before the next shot: the longest such wait of a frantic first half, and second longest of the entire game. There were 30 efforts in total, compared to a combined 13 shots in last October’s goalless draw at Anfield. It was a breathless game without lulls – the lack of a break to check Salah’s goal, while justified, must have jarred with Sheffield United fans in particular – and no time to even take account of what was happening.
The Premier League should probably address VAR first, then take a look at match scheduling that actually considers the fans, concussion protocols and whether adorning corner flags with numerous small poppies is actually respecting and remembering the war dead. But any list of changes should include the automatic awarding of one goal to any side in the opening stages of these matches, because it forces both teams to take risks thereafter. This was bloody fun as a consequence.
8) It was almost lost in all the action that Angelino hit the post just before the half-hour mark. City had been floored by two perfect sucker punches yet still rose to their feet both times, albeit a little more groggy than before.
Aguero seemed to suffer for the atmosphere and the occasion more than anyone. He created one opportunity for himself but it was tame, central and easily saved. Another effort, when he was played in by De Bruyne on the left and, while accompanied by defenders, had only Alisson in front of him, had absolutely no conviction and trickled wide.
These were the sort of chances that set him apart from most other strikers, that slightly ajar door that he bursts wide open by taking another perfect touch or ghosting into a space not before seen. But his inability to tap in a cross from a matter of yards out or make any connection to De Bruyne’s free-kick in the first half were more symptomatic of flagging self-belief. One goal in five Premier League games is enough to justify Gabriel Jesus’s recall.
9) The narrative dictates that Raheem Sterling will be similarly scapegoated – and accusations of bias will almost certainly be levelled at the handsome devil currently typing – but he was not ‘pocketed’ by Alexander-Arnold nor ‘bullied’ by Joe Gomez. He was City’s best and most influential player without being excellent.
His aerial prowess was quite bizarrely their best outlet at one point in the first half, with two first-half headers won against Alexander-Arnold creating opportunities to break. He also showed a willingness and faith to actually carry the ball – he completed at least twice as many dribbles (6) as any other player – instead of indulging in the patient passing that Liverpool would have been happy to defend against for the rest of the month.
Throw in his every touch being booed, the crowd accusations of ‘greed’ and the curious call not to award a penalty for Mane’s push, and he is one of precious few City players who can claim to have performed anywhere close to their potential in a difficult atmosphere.
10) “Sometimes he’s diving, sometimes he has this talent to score incredible goals in the last minute,” Guardiola said last week. And sometimes Mane can strike a balance between the two: diving to score pretty decent goals in the 51st minute.
His header was well-executed; Jordan Henderson’s cross was exquisite. Gundogan was fooled by a simple drop of the shoulder and Angelino, as he had been all afternoon, was powerless to stop it. Two Liverpool midfielders scoring and assisting two different goals in the same game for the first time since the 5-0 win over Huddersfield in April? What was that about creativity and threat from behind the front three?
11) The directive before the game is that Angelino’s selection ahead of Benjamin Mendy was a tactical one. And it was not without reason. Starting the latter would have been akin to throwing an umbrella into a tsunami: an offensive, attacking approach when conservatism and control was key.
But that doesn’t explain Joao Cancelo’s omission. He is comfortable on the left-hand side, a seasoned Champions League international and, most pertinently, cost £60-sodding-million. This was really not the time to give a 22-year-old £5.3m signing his second ever Premier League start.
12) The folly of Angelino starting was furthered by the fact he was woeful in defence but created three chances, including the assist for Bernardo’s goal. Mendy would have been no more of a liability while at least replicating that threat going forward.
It was a fine finish that served mainly as a prompt that Bernardo was actually playing. In this, the sort of game he would dominate, define and decide last season, he was forced into the background. That combination of tirelessness and skill he perfected in 2018/19 was more evident in any of Liverpool’s three starting midfielders.
His first goal in six Premier League games – in which time he also has only one assist – offers not hope of a renaissance but a reminder of just how influential he was a few months ago, and how his relative decline mirrors City’s. Guardiola might look back with regret that he neither started Riyad Mahrez nor brought him on, particularly as he had two substitutions left by full-time.
13) That Guardiola did not make his first and only substitution until 20 minutes after his side went three goals down would ordinarily be cause for consternation, a sign of either stubbornness or helplessness. But he would have a general point about City playing well and simply suffering for poor finishing or vague misfortune with the officials. That is not to say any of the handballs or fouls in the penalty area should have been given, more that they have before and will in the future.
Klopp deserves credit for his changes – an area he has long struggled with. Henderson made way for James Milner shortly after the hour mark to restore energy and balance in midfield. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was intended to be introduced before Bernardo’s consolation to provide counter-attacking drive. Joe Gomez came on to shore up the defence and confirm the victory; Liverpool did not concede a single shot from his introduction to the final whistle. Klopp’s game management is finally matching up to every other facet of his excellent coaching acumen.
14) There is one constant across City’s three league defeats thus far. Kyle Walker started at right-back in each but, in mitigation, was part of a different defence every time. Raheem Sterling featured on the left with Sergio Aguero central here, as well as against Wolves and Norwich, but again had interchangeable players alongside them.
The common theme, though, is the midfield partnership between Rodri and Gundogan. As individuals they offer a certain stability as pivots, but as a pair they seem to cancel each other out, performing a similar role to a fraction of their capabilities. Neither seemed comfortable with less time on the ball than they are used to. Is Bernardo no longer a central-midfield option?
15) Fourth is not a position City are accustomed to, and being sandwiched between Frank Lampard’s transitional Chelsea and a promoted Sheffield United side guided impeccably by Chris Wilder is not exactly the kind of look they were going for. But not all is lost. The reaction to a defeat, as ever, has already been magnified.
They were decent. They had more shots and more possession, but less luck and, most importantly, considerably less ruthlessness. Anfield is not the sort of place any team visits and imposes themselves on.
It was also not necessarily the defeat to City in January that eventually cost Liverpool but the draws against lesser, beatable teams. If City do drop their title in May they will look back on defeats to Wolves and Norwich, and that infuriating 2-2 with Tottenham, with regret.
Nine points is not insurmountable. For now, they should concentrate on keeping pace with Chelsea and Leicester. But the psychological impact of this loss will be intriguing. Since their 15-game winning Premier League run ended in August, they have not recorded more than three consecutive league wins. That air of invincibility has long been polluted.
16) Liverpool are happily breathing theirs, proof that winning can become a self-perpetuating addiction. That League Cup game against Arsenal encapsulated it perfectly: losing by two goals on three separate occasions with a team comprised almost entirely of youngsters and designated drivers Milner and Adam Lallana, they simply found a way.
Lovren summed it up on Sunday. He blocked as many shots (2) as City as a whole, with five clearances thrown in for good measure. Van Dijk was typically solid but his partner, in the side after injury, still finding his rhythm and having played such a small explicit part of their recent run, was superior.
Klopp is an underrated tactician, but it is here where he undoubtedly shines. A player that was almost sold in the summer, was told he was back-up to the back-up in his position and has long been ridiculed and written off, laid the foundations for an emphatic victory over a direct title rival. That is incredible man-management.
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