Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 14th January 2018 8:01

* ‘The panic among Liverpool supporters – or at least a section of them – is forgivable. We have been hardwired to believe that any player leaving is an admission of weakness, and that only by tempting high-profile replacements can a club hope to keep up with the Joneses.

‘Yet amidst the understandable worries should be an appreciation that their manager is not panicking. Liverpool may have lost Coutinho but they have gained the opportunity to see the very best of Klopp. In fact, he’s in his element.’

If you didn’t believe it before, that ought to do it.

 

* Their first game against each other ended 4-2. Then followed two 3-0s and two 2-0s. There has been a 5-0, two draws, 37 goals and seven clean sheets in 12 games. Neither has ever won more than two straight matches against the other.

No manager has beaten Pep Guardiola more times than Jurgen Klopp (5). Only three managers have beaten Jurgen Klopp more times than Pep Guardiola (5). They have shared three finals and one semi-final together.

They can now add a 4-3 to their collection. This was not easy viewing for those with a fetish for defending, but even Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce must have let out a squeal as Liverpool and Manchester City parked their buses miles away and went to battle on rocket-powered motorcycles. Fortunately for the hosts, only one side remembered to refuel at the break, and City ran out of time to catch them.

 

* Philippe Coutinho was never Liverpool’s best player; he was never their best Brazilian player. He was not the most important cog in this machine, nor the most indispensable. He was the hood ornament on an expensive car, the sound system to accompany a widescreen television. He was the expensive but not absolutely necessary extension to this Liverpool squad.

If this is indicative of a future without Barcelona’s new signing, Liverpool fans will regret that a deal was not struck in the summer. The Reds were brilliant, holding their own against the Premier League leaders in the first half before riding a mesmeric second-half wave. City drowned in the Anfield atmosphere, and were too late to revive themselves.

Not every game in the post-Coutinho era will be this successful for Liverpool, but this does show there is method behind the supposed madness of cashing in on your most valuable asset mid-season. Instead of disbanding and embarking on solo careers when John Lennon departed, the remaining members of the ‘Fab Four’ simply let their backing singers take the microphone.

 

* For Manchester City, a second loss in their last 40 Premier League games, and a first defeat since losing to Chelsea in April of last year. There will be no panic, no fear and no crisis, but this was the wake-up call after the most comfortable sleep imaginable.

Pep Guardiola will know that the most damage Manchester United can do to their 15-point gap at the league’s summit is to reduce it to 12 against Stoke on Monday. Yet the Spaniard will view repeats of this defeat through closed fingers. John Stones has now made three high-profile mistakes in as many matches, Nicolas Otamendi reverted to his previously error-prone self, and Liverpool’s own susceptible defence were only put under real pressure in the final ten minutes.

City have been phenomenal this season, but not perfect. There have been signs of weakness, overwhelmed and countered by their numerous strengths. Most sides have adopted defensive-based gameplans against them, holding up umbrellas in a tsunami and hoping for the best. But Crystal Palace centred their tactics around attacking a vulnerable defence through Wilfried Zaha, and Liverpool did the same on Sunday. But instead of one target man, they brought a three-pronged attack to the visitors at Anfield. Had more sides done the same, City might not have made it to January with their unbeaten run intact.

 

* This was painted by many as the biggest obstacle facing City in their attempt to emulate the Invincibles, and they landed flat on their face while trying to clear it. In a two-minute second-half spell, Liverpool scored two goals and hit the post. City were the dummies in a training ground exercise.

Klopp deserves great credit. His tactical acumen is often overlooked; he is more a spontaneous manager than a thinker. He described City’s biggest strength as “tactical discipline” in the build-up, but said that they are “not completely unpredictable”. Splitting the pitch into different zones, squeezing full-backs into more central positions, using goal kicks to bypass a midfield press – each are known staples of the Guardiola system.

Instead of accepting this and attempting to stifle City’s approach, Klopp turned the tables. The German’s teams have always pressed relentlessly but this was a concentrated and concerted team effort as opposed to a rabble of individuals chasing the ball. It disrupted a defence that grew more panicked with each slightly over or under-hit pass. Channels from goalkeeper to full-back were cut off, and City’s positional play was targeted. Klopp turned their strength into a weakness.

 

* Perhaps the most telling aspect is that no City player excelled. Kevin de Bruyne was the only man who attempted to take on Liverpool, but even he could not change the course of the game. They may have scored three goals, but this was a deserved defeat.

Not even Raheem Sterling could express himself at his former home. The winger has been incredible this season, but he was the question to which Andrew Robertson had the answer each and every time. The Scot made a match-leading seven tackles and seven clearances each.

Alberto Moreno would have offered more going forward – Robertson did not have a shot nor create a chance – but he struck the sort of balance that the Spaniard struggles with. Defence was more important than attack on this occasion, and this was an incredible defensive performance from Robertson. Liverpool finally have a proper left-back.

 

* There is a need for instant gratification in football. A constantly changing sport demands progress, or at least signs of it, with each game. New managers can be written off after two or three poor results, even if performances are positive. They immediately face an uphill battle to overcome an often unfair reputation.

For new signings, this effect is exacerbated. There are countless examples of players moving clubs and initially struggling and being dismissed as terrible business mere months after their arrival. This overlooks the very human difficulties of moving house, adapting to new managers and teammates, and uprooting families.

This site and this writer was guilty of deriding Liverpool’s signing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The point remains true that £35million would have been better spent on a porous defence than on a forward player with 12 months left on his contract, but the England international has more than proved his worth in different surroundings.

The 24-year-old made his Liverpool debut in the 5-0 reverse at the Etihad Stadium in September, Klopp’s second-half sacrificial lamb when the Reds were one man and two goals down. His previous game was the 4-0 defeat to Liverpool while playing for Arsenal in August. It was this kind of record which left his reputation at its lowest ebb.

So the character Oxlade-Chamberlain has displayed to not only recover but to produce the best football of his career has been astounding. His first-half strike was wonderful – the drive from midfield leading to the sublime finish – and his versatility is proving invaluable.

Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool on August 31, yet only four players have made more appearances this season. He deserves every plaudit for turning things around.

 

* “I was in certain habits and certain things became second nature to me and in football it is all about instinct,” Oxlade-Chamberlain said earlier this week, explaining the difference between Klopp and Arsene Wenger. At Arsenal, the 24-year-old picks up possession 40 yards out and recycles it with a short pass. At Liverpool, he acts on “instinct” and scores a fine goal.

It is a damning indictment of Wenger’s coaching. In six seasons at Arsenal, Oxlade-Chamberlain never scored more than two Premier League goals. This was his third of the campaign, and there are four months remaining. His progress in north London was negligible, the player falling into “certain habits”. Impulse is a remarkably useful trait in a player if harnessed properly; Wenger saw it not as a strength, but as a weakness to coach out of him.

No player created more chances (3). No Liverpool player completed more dribbles (5). No Liverpool player had more touches (67). Wenger had all the ingredients at his disposal, but Klopp seems to have found the recipe.

 

* Liverpool led for 32 minutes before City found an equaliser. It was only the second time in 18 games that the Reds had conceded a first-half goal, with Leroy Sane the beneficiary of some familiar questionable goalkeeping from an unfamiliar face.

“People will always find a hair in the soup!” Klopp replied when quizzed over handing Loris Karius a fourth Premier League appearance of the season in such a crucial game. The Reds have lost only one of the 14 league games the German has started since last campaign, but he has kept just four clean sheets. Simon Mignolet was dropped after keeping six in his previous 14 in the league.

Klopp is right that looking for flaws in such an impressive win is curmudgeonly in the extreme, but Liverpool won despite Karius’ presence, not because of it. City had four shots on target and scored three goals. The manager must now either dent his confidence by promoting Mignolet again, or reward a poor display by keeping Karius involved.

 

* Karius was not solely to blame. It was Joe Gomez who failed to cut out a simple 40-yard cross-field pass from Kyle Walker, horribly misjudging the flight of the ball and opening the door for Sane to stroll through. For a player who has made figurative giant leaps this season, his failure to make a literal one here was regrettable.

It was the latest in a number of mistakes made by a player who is admittedly learning on the job. With Robertson handling one side perfectly, Liverpool were perhaps fortunate that City chose not to attack the right-hand side more often. Trent Alexander-Arnold lies in wait, tutting and twiddling his thumbs.

 

* After 15 minutes of back and forth, the game suddenly sprung into life once more after the break. Oxlade-Chamberlain turned provider as Liverpool took the lead.

“He’s probably the most underestimated player in world football,” said Klopp of Roberto Firmino back in August, and the Brazilian once again proved his worth. His finish left Ederson with no chance, and his performance, that of the selfless, hard-working striker, is difficult not to juxtapose with Sergio Aguero’s awkward, nondescript display. How Guardiola must hope that Gabriel Jesus can emulate his compatriot.

Firmino had three fewer shots than Mohamed Salah, but his job is to facilitate others. He created chances, made tackles, led the press from the front and set the tone throughout. Only four players have more Premier League goals this season, and those who once implored Liverpool to sign a ‘proper striker’ are conspicuous by their silence.

 

* Again, compare Firmino’s performance to Aguero’s. One sacrificed himself for the cause, linking midfield to attack seamlessly. The other failed to offer anything.

Aguero has been unfairly maligned under Guardiola. Gabriel’s arrival saw many question the Argentinean’s long-term future, but he has scored 24 more goals than any other player under the Spaniard at City.

The issue has only ever been in what Aguero offers aside from goals, however. And at Anfield he offered nothing in terms of defence, and was dispossessed more times than any other player (8). It is why Guardiola signed Jesus, and why City will rue their indecision if they miss out on Alexis Sanchez.

 

* If City can take any positive from this match, it is that De Bruyne’s form shows no signs of abating. He may not have scored or assisted any of their three goals, and thus incurred the wrath of ‘MagicMesut’, ‘ExcellentEden’ and ‘MartialMadness’ on Twitter, but he prevented this from being a landslide. He is the one City player who can hold his head high.

 

* Before this game, City had trailed in the Premier League for a total of 70 minutes. In this match alone, they were behind for 63. Those who are fortunate enough to score against them understandably react by putting up a defensive blockade and sticking ten men behind the ball. Liverpool found a crack in the wall and ruthlessly targeted it.

Within ten minutes of Firmino’s goal, the hosts were 4-1 up. From the 45th minute to the 68th, Liverpool had seven shots; Manchester United had eight in total in their 2-1 defeat in December.

Most impressive is that this was not one individual stepping up and taking the initiative. This was a team effort throughout. Firmino assisted Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal, Oxlade-Chamberlain assisted Firmino’s goal, Mohamed Salah assisted Sadio Mane’s goal and Ederson, clearly unhappy at being left out, assisted Salah’s.

 

* Of course, it would not be Liverpool were it not for the constant threat of defensive collapse. Bernardo Silva dragged City to within two goals with six minutes of normal time remaining, before Ilkay Gundogan scored in the first minute of stoppage time.

Liverpool hung on, and Klopp arguably deserves a knighthood for beating this previously unstoppable side with Dejan Lovren as his captain. But the Croatian was hardly a leader in the closing stages, and panicked as much as anyone else as City chased a draw. If anything, Virgil van Dijk will at least bring calm to a defence that sh*ts itself at the first sign of trouble.

 

* For a player with no discernible pace, an average goal and assist record, an ordinary tackling ability and no real star quality, I have often wondered how Emre Can commands interest from Juventus and beyond. Not for the first time, I have been made to look a fool.

Can was quietly brilliant in midfield, helping the hosts control proceedings from the centre. De Bruyne was not quite nullified, but his impact was certainly lessened by the German.

Klopp explained post-match that Can “tried everything”, but eventually had to be substituted in the second half due to illness. Liverpool were 4-1 up when he was replaced by James Milner on 79 minutes. Their subsequent near-capitulation suggests that the club really must do everything in their power to persuade the midfielder to stay.

Matt Stead

 


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