* When asked for what his “secret” was in games against the Premier League’s better sides, Jurgen Klopp offered a simple response on Friday.
“Working hard, probably,” he said. “That’s kind of the plan against them. Having luck in the right moment, a few things.”
Many supporters will point to a supposed lack of fortune, that lack of “luck in the right moment” against Manchester City, but Liverpool were simply outplayed at the Etihad Stadium. Sadio Mane’s red card should not detract from a wonderful performance from the hosts, regardless of one’s opinion on the first-half sending-off.
And with the resounding 5-0 defeat, Klopp’s record against the rest of last season’s top seven is besmirched. This was only his second defeat in 23 games against any of Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, City, Manchester United or Tottenham since joining Liverpool in October 2015, but it is a resounding, comprehensive setback.
After the statement of beating Arsenal 4-0 before the international break comes the whimper of a 5-0 defeat to City. But this had nothing to do with “luck”; City were the better side both before and after they gained a man advantage. Using the referee as an excuse would be to ignore familiar frailties.
* “Always you need pretty much a 100 per cent performance,” Klopp added in that midweek press conference. “If you show weaknesses in a game like this, these teams will use them, for sure.” His Liverpool side were the injured gazelle, and they succumbed to the lions of City. The only thing we were missing was a running commentary from David Attenborough as the hosts ruthlessly picked at the carcass.
There can perhaps be a sliver of sympathy expressed towards Liverpool, but no-one can possibly argue that this was a “100 per cent performance” from the players. Their reaction to Mane’s red card was pitiful, and turned a one-goal deficit into a damaging 5-0 defeat.
In football parlance, a 2-0 lead is the most dangerous, and the same strand of thinking suggests that a team of ten men can pose a bigger threat than before. A wounded animal can strike at any time, and players can often use a sense of injustice in their favour to rally and prove a point.
Not so on Saturday, as the visitors seemed to meekly wave the white flag as goals two, three, four and five nestled into the back of the net. That Klopp tried to stop the bleeding by making Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a man who was as culpable as anyone for a similarly feeble 4-0 defeat in his most recent game, his first substitute, suggests that he got this one wrong. It was a thankless task to try and overturn a 2-0 lead with ten men away at a title rival, but he placed a plaster over gunshot wound.
* Pep Guardiola would have preferred such a victory to arrive in different circumstances, but the Spaniard will know not to bite the hand that feeds him. Had he been offered five goals and a clean sheet before the game, he would have snapped said hand off.
There is only so much that can be deduced about such a game, but it was an absolute delight to watch City in full destructive flow. Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva were varying degrees of wonderful from the start, Leroy Sane was electric as a substitute, and Bernardo Silva was afforded a rest. The suspended Raheem Sterling was an afterthought, but can be added to a forward line capable of ripping any side apart.
Even more impressive is that three players registered a perfect pass-completion rate, while five others made 90 per cent or more of theirs. Only one Liverpool player completed more than 83.3% of their passes. Pep will sleep soundly tonight, with not a crisis in sight.
* It could have been a considerably different story. If Guardiola’s City is an orchestra of possession, passes and poise, then Nicolas Otamendi is the crashing drum kit that everyone tries their hardest to ignore.
There is a sense that Otamendi is unfairly maligned, that the Argentinean is simply collateral damage when City’s fragile defence is analysed despite the millions spent. But the centre-half resembles more a ticking time bomb than tiki-taka, and City won in spite of him on Saturday.
The 29-year-old was clumsy, picking up an early yellow card for a foul on Mohamed Salah, who teased him for the entirety of the first half without providing Liverpool with a happy ending. The winger’s profligacy was the only thing that spared Otamendi.
At one stage, Guardiola was left head in hands, bent over, failing to hide his frustration at another error from the centre-half. That John Stones looked the calmer, more experienced and more measured defender is no compliment.
* And that Stones put in such a positive performance in his situation is testament to both his abilities and his mental focus. Guardiola’s switch to a back four against Bournemouth before the international break saw the centre-half lose his place in the starting line-up, but he provided the necessary response here.
Had Vincent Kompany body not surprisingly failed him in the build-up, Stones would have once more been on the bench. But faced with the Premier League’s most fearsome forward line, he stepped up to the plate, aimed for the skies and hit a home run.
“It’s not easy to play central defender with this manager,” Guardiola said of Stones in March, having praised his “balls” seconds earlier. “It’s not easy. You have to defend 40 metres behind and make the build-up.”
The England international did just that, marshalling the defence confidently before stepping into midfield seamlessly. There are many steps to go, many obstacles to overcome and many mistakes to recover from going forward, but Stones proved his worth.
* At times, it felt as though Otamendi and Trent Alexander-Arnold were trying to outdo each other in their attempts to give their respective managers heart palpitations. The Liverpool right-back at least has the excuse of inexperience, but this was a chastening experience.
City targeted Alexander-Arnold from the start, giving Benjamin Mendy free rein on the left-hand side. With a floating De Bruyne to contend with too, it was a losing battle.
Every player suffers a bad performance; the road to success is never without its bumps. The response will be vital however, and with Klopp likely to bring in Joe Gomez once more in the Champions League in midweek, Alexander-Arnold will have plenty of time to reflect.
With the 18-year-old and Gomez, just two years his senior, competing for the right-back slot, it does outline the importance of Nathaniel Clyne. The England international’s displays before injury had led to many fans calling for him to be dropped, but neither of his two understudies are quite ready to take the mantle permanently. When Clyne does eventually return from injury, have no doubts that he will start.
* One expects that Aguero has slightly more refined tastes than The Sun newspaper, but had he picked up a copy on Saturday morning before the game, he would have been greeted with the following:
— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) September 8, 2017
Leaving aside the absolutely laughable attempt to pretend that Guardiola told Sterling to ‘man up’ and ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself’ on Friday, Aguero might have been motivated to prove a point. Not to his manager, for the Spaniard has always been completely transparent with him, but to the media who seem determined not to appreciate his brilliance.
“I said many times, he’s going to play a lot of games and sometimes he’s not going to play,” said Guardiola earlier in the week, adding that the striker can expect to feature “maybe 90 per cent” of the time. This was hardly the warning shot it was framed as, merely a reminder that he, like every other manager presiding over a squad facing the prospect of four competitions, will rotate his players.
Only two players have made more appearances for City under Guardiola than Aguero (49), and his subsequent goal record stands up to scrutiny. When put through by De Bruyne in the 24th minute, there was absolutely no doubt that the striker would register his 35th City goal under the manager – 23 more than any other player.
Although he might not be a perfect fit in the system, a player of Aguero’s calibre always has a place. Guardiola himself admits only a “stupid manager” would leave him out, even if the media want to blindly suggest it’s a possibility.
* De Bruyne provided the hot knife, but to liken Liverpool’s defence to butter would suggest that it resembled something approaching solid. The visiting back four was nothing more than a broken umbrella in the face of a tsunami.
At its heart was Ragnar Klavan, whose inclusion was questioned by Jamie Carragher before the game. “Klavan is not a bad player but he plays too often. When your third or fourth choice centre-back plays a lot, you see why he’s a third choice centre-back and not first choice.”
The proof was clear to see. Klavan was tormented by Jesus in particular, and struggled to keep up with the pace of the game.
Klopp defended his decision to start the Estonian by mentioning that Dejan Lovren was not at full fitness after the international break, and Klavan was “outstanding against Crystal Palace”, but that was a primary school exam; this was a university project. Klavan impressed against Palace because his aerial presence was vital, but City play a faster, pass-orientated game.
Klopp must have known that, and therein lies the inherent issue with his refusal to sign a centre-half this summer. Virgil van Dijk was not his main target, but his only target. The decision not to find an alternative really might be the difference between a title challenge.
* At 1-0 down, Liverpool had their chances. They will rue the fact that almost all of them fell to one individual.
“We said after last season that we would try to add things to an already really good squad,” said Klopp in July, discussing the arrival of Salah. “One of those things is speed. He brings that, as well as being able to provide and to finish.”
One out three ain’t bad, but it was not nearly enough for Liverpool on Saturday afternoon. Had Salah converted even one of his chances or made the right pass in the final third, the Reds would perhaps not have slipped to a first defeat in ten games.
Salah is undoubtedly a fine player, but often provides worse service than a drunk waiter on rollerskates. On at least three occasions he managed to find the holes in a veritably bullet-ridden City defence, but either made the wrong decision or simply carried out his plan terribly. He punished Otamendi for almost all of the first half, but managed to only create one goalscoring chance. A tame, low effort that was brushed aside by Ederson was one of his final contributions before being substituted at half-time.
The winger fits into Liverpool’s system well, and will enjoy plenty of success. Three goals and two assists in six games is a fine return, but in games such as these, players can ill afford to waste opportunities. He landed numerous body punches on Otamendi, but slipped and fell each time he tried to land the knock-out punch.
* On 37 minutes, Liverpool were made to regret their wastefulness. Matip’s searching ball breached City’s high line and Mane gave chase. He crashed into Ederson, and the surprise was audible as Jon Moss produced a red card.
It was the right decision. It was an almost impossible decision, one that had to be made immediately, one which many disagreed with at first and still do hours later, but it was an excellent call.
Those protesting Mane’s sending-off are wilfully ignoring or misinterpreting FIFA law. As it states: ‘”Using excessive force” means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.’
To that effect, Mane is guilty. Yes, Ederson would have been culpable had he arrived a second later and collided into the forward. Yes, other players have escaped censure for similar situations. Yes, Mane had his eyes on the ball, and did not mean to harm the goalkeeper. But ‘intent’ is not part of FIFA law; ‘excessive force’ is. Moss recognised that, and deserves praise for a courageous call.
* The immediate reaction to the red card was understandable. “Sorry Jon Moss, but you’ve just ruined the game there,” said Gary Neville on Sky Sports. With the fixture finely poised, and both forward lines bullying their respective defences, there was a sense that the spectacle had been ended – although the referee is hardly to blame for upholding the game’s laws.
Mane is the only Liverpool forward who can strike the delicate balance of intelligence and skill blended with raw pace. Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are fine players, but the former lacks the acceleration and the latter has an end product that belies his £34.3million valuation. The Egyptian had countless opportunities to make a telling contribution to the scoreline, but constantly made the wrong decision.
With Mane now sidelined for three games, it provides Jurgen Klopp with a chance to experiment. Daniel Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are both closer to Salah in terms of characteristics, so a slight tweak in terms of the playing system might be necessary. But one thing is for certain: in this Liverpool clock, Mane is the one that makes them tick.
* As for Ederson, one can only hope that his recovery is as quick as his reaction times. The keeper was stretchered off, but was taken to the medical institute at the club’s training complex as opposed to the hospital to check for cheek fractures. He appeared in the tunnel towards the end of the match, which is a positive sign.
The key point is obviously the keeper’s health, but this was perhaps his best performance for City yet, even if it was cut disappointingly short. He made three good saves, was proactive in coming for crosses, and provided an assured presence in goal. The home fans must have been stunned at the sight of a competent keeper.
His bravery and anticipation in challenging Mane for the ball should also not be overlooked. “I take risks but I’m aware of the situations,” Manuel Neuer, Guardiola’s keeper at Bayern Munich, once said in December 2014.
“I always try to make the right decision when I’m in a dangerous position,” he added, in a line that sums up Ederson’s game perfectly. City’s high defensive line requires a keeper to think quickly to thwart any and every counter-attack, and the 24-year-old carried out his job to the letter.
* To quash any hopes of an unlikely comeback, City doubled their lead before half-time. De Bruyne’s delicious cross was headed home by Jesus, who would make it 3-0 eight minutes into the second half.
The Brazilian might be the most important signing Guardiola has made at the Etihad. In 14 Premier League games, he has now scored ten goals and assisted four. He makes a direct contribution to a league goal once every 66.5 minutes. He is only 20 years old, and he cost just £27m.
Most endearing about his performance is the relationship he continues to foster alongside Aguero. The pair have started six games together, each scoring five goals, and each providing five assists. When Aguero was played through by Fernandinho in the 53rd minute, the Argentinean’s first thought was to play Jesus in for an open goal.
If the pair continue to combine so wonderfully, the Premier League had better be wary. Guardiola deserves credit for managing them both so well thus far.
* The other combination that passed its latest test was in defence. “The full-backs gave us a lot of energy,” said Guardiola after the game. “They can run and put in a lot of crosses. That helped us to hurt the opposition.”
Mendy and Kyle Walker claimed an assist apiece late on, both for substitute Sane, but their overall showing suggested just why the manager had parted with over £100m to sign them. The most expensive full-backs in history reflected their importance on Saturday.
Walker was quietly efficient, more subdued on the right yet still involved. That no threat came down the Liverpool left is to his credit.
But Mendy was the star of the duo, giving Alexander-Arnold a torrid time. The former Monaco left-back’s ability to cross at full sprint is a useful weapon.
Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy started the most Premier League games at right and left-back respectively last season. It’s like upgrading from an Etch A Sketch to a MacBook.
* Against Arsenal, Liverpool’s midfield was irresistible. Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum all had clear roles, and carried them out to perfection. The lack of an opposition admittedly helped, but the signs were positive.
This was back to square one, and was more akin to the 3-3 draw against Watford. In that game the trio were constantly bypassed, and City ensured it was a similar story.
Between them, Henderson, Can and Wijnaldum created one goalscoring opportunity, made two tackles and lost possession 35 times. The lack of drive was telling, and hardly helped by the introduction of James Milner.
With Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho to return, the difference in creativity will be telling. Klopp is heavily in faovur of rotation, but Can and Wijnaldum should expect to spend far more time on the bench than on the pitch if such inconsistency continues. Henderson’s captaincy might spare him.
* The other side of that particular coin is that Fernandinho was great, but De Bruyne was brilliant: the man of the match.
Some have questioned the decision to play the Belgian in a deeper midfield role, but this proved that he is more than capable. No player created more chances (3), and no player had more of an influence on the game.
In defending Salah in the summer, Klopp noted that “a lot of players have shown it is quite easy to struggle at Chelsea,” and that “De Bruyne is one”. On Saturday, only one of those individuals proved capable of supplying a final ball.
Robbie Savage once stated that he “wouldn’t pay to watch Kevin de Bruyne”. The pundit retracted that comment last season but the Belgian gave him no choice. On his day, he is the best in the Premier League.