1) “You can watch it as a manager or as a football fan and I prefer to do that – wow! What a game. Two teams, full throttle.”
Jurgen Klopp, speaking after Liverpool inflicted upon Manchester City their first Premier League defeat of the season last January, had just witnessed a game comprised of three parts: the highest quality, the most breathless energy and the most glorious incompetence. It made for one of the most engaging matches of the entire season.
Pep Guardiola might feel similarly 12 months on, as City served revenge on the coldest of platters to the closest of rivals at the Etihad Stadium. Liverpool’s grip on the Premier League title has been loosened, their air of invincibility pierced.
This, again, was expected to be a match between artists who doubled up as athletes, where phenomenal work-rate would only supplement skill and technique. But it was quite the opposite. While there were sporadic moments of true quality, City’s desire and spirit was the decisive factor.
2) Liverpool could choose to feel hard done by, with a body of evidence including one shot hitting the post, two being cleared off the line, an opponent perhaps deserving to be sent off, and a deflected winner. In a game of incredibly fine margins, they could not quite walk the tightrope.
But they will hopefully take a more introspective view, accepting that the right side of their defence is a weak spot that more opponents are targeting, and that their midfield offered neither enough protection in defence, nor any penetration in attack. To suggest this defeat was down to a lack of luck would mask genuine issues; they must improve on what was a solid but uninspired performance.
3) The same point stands for City, who should not assume this victory is proof that they are back to their best. Liverpool still enjoy a four-point gap at the top of the Premier League for a reason, and many of the hosts’ bad habits were on show on Thursday.
Save for the impeccable Sergio Aguero, the flawless Bernardo Silva, the brilliant Fernandinho and the fantastic Raheem Sterling, there were many individuals performances that were tainted by mistakes or ineffectiveness. The defence, in particular, was fortunate to escape with just one goal conceded.
Guardiola will ensure that complacency does not creep in. City’s response in victory will be just as important as Liverpool’s in defeat.
4) City had nine shots to Liverpool’s seven, and four on-target to Liverpool’s five. They ended the game with slightly less possession (49.5%) than the visitors, but more corners (2 to 1) and chances created (6 to 4). The difference on the pitch was negligible, albeit in City’s favour.
What set these two title rivals apart was their work off the ball. City were tireless, energetic and industrious, while Liverpool were a little slower both in mind and body. The hosts ran further and made considerably more sprints, pressing as a unit in defence, midfield and attack. They fought Liverpool at their own game and emerged victorious.
5) Bernardo Silva was the star, combining industry with intelligence and influence. He ran 13.7km – the most by any player in the Premier League this season, beating the record he set himself against Tottenham in October – while assisting the opening goal and gaining possession more times than any player (10).
The Portuguese also committed the most fouls (4), offering his best impersonation of the similarly effective Fernandinho in breaking up play and rhythm. In one moment he could be seen chasing James Milner and Jordan Henderson, before promptly tussling with Virgil van Dijk near Liverpool’s area.
It was one of the most complete individual performances the Premier League has seen for some time, described as “clean and clever” by his manager. More than any other player, it felt as though putting him on the opposite team would have changed the game completely.
6) City started as they meant to go on, pressing ferociously and in packs as Liverpool looked to be a little nervous. Sadio Mane and Alisson both accidentally kicked the ball out for throw-ins within the first 70 seconds to a genuinely surprising Etihad roar.
Gary Neville noted in the build-up that City’s starting line-up “just doesn’t feel very Pep-like”, and that “we’ve never seen Pep retreat before”. A defence of Danilo, Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte was certainly the most stable, least attacking selection Guardiola had made in a while, with Kyle Walker on the bench. It seemed like a concession, a rare case of the Spaniard making a tactical change to nullify the opponent instead of accentuating his own players’ qualities.
Guardiola has been guilty of over-thinking these games in the past. His decision to start Ilkay Gundogan over Sterling in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final was catastrophic, and led to a comprehensive 3-0 defeat. The second leg saw Sterling start up front with Gabriel Jesus as Walker moved into a central defensive three; they lost 2-1.
So the manager deserves the utmost credit for his selection, his system and his tactics here. A more balanced defence allowed for a more elongated and higher press, safe in the knowledge that more reserved full-backs could not be caught on the counter. Guardiola finally out-thought Klopp.
7) Liverpool still hand their chances; it is almost impossible to completely silence them. Their best first-half opportunity came from what is fast becoming their most potent weapon: a forward dropping deep to recover possession before bursting forward at a panicked defence.
Roberto Firmino played the role wonderfully against Arsenal, but Mohamed Salah did a fine rendition at the Etihad. He collected a short pass from Henderson on the halfway line and instantly turned Bernardo Silva. The pitch suddenly opened itself up, and a quick one-two with Firmino eliminated Fernandinho from the equation.
The pass to Mane was perfect, weighted so as to allow the instant shot while drawing Kompany out and keeping Stones out of reach. And it all came not from over-lapping full-backs or a trademark rampaging three-pronged attack, but a player hiding in plain sight and driving through the centre. Liverpool attacked in swarms to great effect last season; they have learned how to do just as much damage with far fewer players.
8) But Mane’s shot did not cross the line. His effort beat Ederson before rebounding off the post, giving Stones time to recover and clear the ball squarely off his goalkeeper’s head. The Etihad collectively gasped as it careered towards the goal, ready to either celebrate or commiserate.
That Stones was able to hook the ball off the line is still a wonder. His speed of thought and instantaneous reaction was not befitting of a player who still has a reputation for making needless mistakes due to a lack of concentration.
Alongside Kompany, eight years his senior, he looked like the more experienced, seasoned head at the heart of the City defence. The Belgian should have been sent off for his tackle on Salah – one, admittedly, that came from a misplaced Stones pass – and also laid on a second-half chance for Firmino with an unnecessary header as Ederson was coming to safely claim a free-kick. Graeme Souness must be the only man alive who still thinks Kompany is the best centre-half at the club.
9) By that point, and despite their early dominance, City had still not had a shot of their own. Their attacks felt disjointed and incoherent, and not because of supreme defending.
Fernandinho eventually grabbed the initiative with both hands and his right foot, taking a short break from his fine defensive work to find Sterling with a sumptuous pass down the right-hand side. The winger cut back and played the ball to a lurking David Silva. Virgil van Dijk blocked his goal-bound in the 28th minute, ending City’s longest wait for a shot at home in the Premier League since October 2016.
That it came courtesy of David Silva was ironic, considering how surprisingly ineffective he was throughout. The Spaniard had the lowest passing accuracy of any player in the first half (57.1%), and was Guardiola’s first substitution in the 65th minute. He failed to create a single chance when starting for just the second time in the league this season.
That City beat the Premier League leaders with Silva so off-colour is testament to the strength of their squad. That they did so with Kevin de Bruyne sitting on the bench for the full 90 minutes almost felt like a pointed message. They will not give their title up quite so easily.
10) The opening goal came soon after. Laporte might offer less in attack than Benjamin Mendy, Oleksandr Zinchenko and even Fabian Delph, but it was his pass that led to concerted pressure down the left-hand side. Two crosses came in that were cleared by Liverpool’s towering centre-halves, but the third decided to crawl under the wall instead of climbing over it. Bernardo Silva’s driven ball in was converted beautifully by Aguero.
By half-time, City had made 49.5% of their attacks down a Liverpool right-hand side containing the susceptible Trent Alexander-Arnold and the erratic Dejan Lovren. With Georginio Wijnaldum (successfully) man-marking David Silva, the two were largely left to fend for themselves against City’s best attackers. But it was only when Bernardo Silva and Aguero joined the fray that Liverpool could no longer hold out. The game’s two best players combined for the crucial goal.
11) While many of his teammates can be excused due to inexperience, Lovren deserves no such defence. He reached a World Cup and Champions League final last year, while professing himself to be one of the best centre-halves around. This haphazard performance only adds to the belief that he is only keeping the place warm for when Joe Gomez returns.
As brilliant as Aguero’s goal was, it was also preventable. Lovren was caught completely static, failing to anticipate either the cross or the near-post run. For once, Van Dijk was not there to rescue him.
Of course, Lovren’s greatest party trick is to insert foot squarely into mouth. How’s that unbeaten season going for you, Dejan?
12) The question was now whether City could hang on. They had gone ten games without a clean sheet heading into this match, which is the single longest run of Guardiola’s entire managerial career. A side that was built on a stable defensive platform has forgotten how to keep the door locked.
So it proved. Liverpool had looked blunt in attack, save for Mane hitting the post and Stones clearing off the line in the same move. But it suddenly all clicked when Milner was replaced by Fabinho, and a previously stodgy central midfield had life breathed into it.
Fabinho’s introduction allowed the full-backs to push higher, and Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson hardly needed an excuse. For the first time in the game, Henderson passed with pace and purpose to the former, who cut inside and crossed to the back post for the latter. Robertson’s touch to centre for Firmino was perfect, and the header was simple. Liverpool were level.
In truth, there was little City could do to stop the goal; it was the first moment that Liverpool really combined properly as a unit. But it does continue a poor defensive conundrum that Guardiola will be desperate to solve. The first clue: don’t play Kompany.
13) Those who thought Liverpool were now in the ascendancy would soon be proved wrong. Guardiola was not distracted by the situation, bringing on Gundogan for David Silva to stem a potential tide. It gave City a more dynamic option in midfield, with Gundogan sticking to a left-hand side that the hosts were determined to overload.
The winning goal came eight minutes after his introduction, but from a move that started down the right. Ederson raced out quickly to thwart a Liverpool attack, with Danilo receiving the pass. The Brazilian picked out Sterling, who proceeded to drive through the centre of a backtracking Liverpool defence before laying the ball off to Leroy Sane. His deflected finish went in off Alisson’s far post.
When Liverpool beat City 4-3 at Anfield last January, Guardiola made his changes far too late. After making an enforced first-half substitution, his second came in the 71st minute; Liverpool had taken a 4-1 lead in the 68th. The Spaniard learned from that mistake, acting fast and acting decisively.
14) Let Sterling’s part in both that goal and this game not be forgotten. He assisted Sane’s winner, he was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty in the second half, he played in Aguero for a late chance that Alisson thwarted, and his battle with Robertson was a delight to watch: both held their own against an elite opponent.
It was the first time Sterling had truly excelled against his former club, notably making the right decisions at the right times. He completed 24 sprints, with Salah, Firmino and Mane managing 25 between them; he created four chances – the same as Liverpool combined.
15) Klopp’s part in this result should not be forgotten: he got it wrong. The midfield was ineffective in a formation that allowed for no anonymity. Liverpool matched City’s 4-3-3 for most of the game but were beaten in too many individual battles.
After spending almost £100m on central midfielders in the summer, Klopp should not still be resorting to a trio comprised of two players he inherited and one he purchased two and a half years ago. Liverpool have grown exponentially in terms of their goalkeeper, defence and attack under the German, but still have a tendency to take two steps back in midfield.
It might not have been a problem against a lesser opponent. Fernandinho only exacerbated the mistake by being so f***ing good.
16) The scoreline actually could have been more emphatic, however unjust that would have been. City had the greater chances in the closing stages as Liverpool left huge gaps in their search for an equaliser.
It will come as scant consolation to Alisson that he kept Liverpool in it until the final whistle. His saves at the feet of Aguero and Bernardo Silva were excellent, and those questioning him for the first goal really are just a bit dim.
The Brazilian was also impressive in possession, making more passes (55) than Wijnaldum (41) and Milner (32). His default position is to err on the side of caution, allowing opponents to get within an inch of the ball before he releases it, yet he never seems to panic.
But Ederson, while unable to showcase his shot-stopping abilities, was an even greater asset on the ball for City. Without him, that second goal might not be scored. Without either him or Alisson, this game might not have been quite the spectacle. Remember when suggesting that keepers should be decent with the ball at their feet was met with widespread scorn?