16 Conclusions on Man City 4-1 Liverpool: Grealish phenomenal but Robertson, Van Dijk and midfield awful
Liverpool and Man City are no longer quite on the same level. Klopp has presided over the decaying of this squad; Grealish is part of Guardiola’s evolution.
1) Manchester City have faced Liverpool 20 times since Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp took their respective Premier League posts. Their first meeting was a 1-0 victory for the latter, which suited the general trend of games between elite sides being cagey, cautious and close.
While these two sides currently occupy vastly different spaces in terms of trophy relevance, competence and general happiness, the Premier League’s two longest-serving managers have maintained a proud tradition of glorious entertainment. That vigintuple of games has produced a nice 69 goals at a rate of 3.45 per match.
It is not rare for them to be shared so unevenly. Manchester City have previously won 5-0, 4-0 and, even before making Liverpool look like April fools here, 4-1. The Reds have won 3-0 and, on two occasions, 3-1. But never before has there been a gulf in quality so chasmic, as laid out with brutal mastery at the Etihad.
2) Most of the first half presented a stark contrast in styles. Manchester City were patient and methodical in their passes and movements, waiting for any gaps to emerge which they could subsequently exploit. They had more than three-quarters of possession in the opening 10 minutes, and their threat gradually increased as the wonderful Kevin de Bruyne started to drift into dangerous positions.
Liverpool were slack on the ball; Jordan Henderson, Cody Gakpo and Andy Robertson were all guilty of avoidably surrendering possession in problematic areas which invited pressure. But one pass in particular summed up their imprecision. A period of vague control was punctured by Virgil van Dijk perfectly bisecting Mo Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold with a fairly straightforward low diagonal under little coercion.
Any attack the Reds tried to build for longer than 10 seconds was founded on quicksand, so it was no surprise to see them embrace the chaos of old whenever possible.
3) The opening goal helped drive that point home. Three positive forward passes cut Manchester City open and Diogo Jota’s excellent hold-up play set up a delightful finish from Salah.
The defending which allowed, hell, practically begged it to happen was atrocious. Nathan Ake had pushed up without justification to take up residence in a halfway house between his actual position at left-back and Alexander-Arnold, neither close enough to defend the space nor block the pass. That dragged Ruben Dias across to watch Salah but Manuel Akanji did not respond to the many moving parts, aside from trying to lay a half-hearted offside trap.
Having done well enough to catch up with Jota, he then proceeded to specifically not tackle him. Soon after the equaliser, he almost got Rodri sent off by becoming similarly transparent when Gakpo walked through him. In terms of raw ability and versatility, combined with often bizarre decision-making, lapses in concentration and an inability to win duels, Akanji is the archetypal Guardiola defender, all the way down to it being perfectly conceivable that he improves markedly with enough time.
READ MORE: 12 outrageous stats from Man City’s 4-1 statement victory over Liverpool
4) Manchester City responded well, with Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez missing chances. But Liverpool were a constant menace on the counter. One corner from the home side turned into an attacking burst from the Reds as Harvey Elliott played Salah in for a two-versus-one against, of all players, Grealish. The England international had noticed the situation unfold, held his position after a poor Stones header and intercepted the pass.
Less than a minute later, Grealish was contributing to a glorious Manchester City passing move with the perfect low ball for Julian Alvarez to finish. It was game-altering genius at both ends from a player most consider to be too ineffective when it matters. And in a match of this magnitude – although that is becoming a theme. Five of Grealish’s nine goal contributions this season have come against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man Utd, including an assist as a substitute in a 1-0 win at Chelsea, scoring to make it 2-1 in the eventual victory over Arsenal, and changing the course of this match so emphatically.
If they haven’t been already, so many opinions on the 27-year-old need updating.
5) Even beyond the obvious moments, Grealish was phenomenal. An awful lot of money must have been made on the first two fouls of this game being Fabinho upending the forward in the first 10 minutes. But the tireless Grealish gave as good as he got: one crunching tackle received a rapturous second-half applause from an understandably obsequious crowd, who witnessed an increasingly popular player silence his laborious critics with a beaming smile on his face and destruction on his mind.
Liverpool could not cope with him, as evidenced when he managed to play a one-two with Henderson in the opposition penalty area in the final five minutes, shortly before his substitution was met with a warranted ovation.
Even during a rare period of pressure after Manchester City equalised, the visitors allowed themselves to be pulled into Grealish’s game as he bought a cheap free-kick off Alexander-Arnold in the corner to activate a sort of relief valve. A minute later, Klopp was apoplectic on the touchline as Alexander-Arnold committed precisely the same foul at the other end of the pitch, letting Manchester City rebuild once more with Grealish the architect.
6) While the work-ethic of Grealish was more conspicuous, it should not entirely overshadow Alvarez’s sacrifice and indefatigability. Beyond his goal and the industrious overworking of a weary Liverpool defence, the World Cup winner was also making his presence known at a crucial point in defence.
One of those early free-kicks won by Grealish was worked out to Mahrez, who cut back for Alvarez to float a harmless cross into Alisson’s arms. As the keeper tends to, he immediately looked up in search of an outlet to find with one of those piercingly accurate long kicks. Alexander-Arnold had ventured into the opposition half in the hope of latching onto it but Alvarez was somehow already back there to intercept and then immediately join a new attack without breaking a sweat.
Manchester City evidently lose something when Erling Haaland is unavailable, but the dynamism and energy of their other forwards makes for just as effective an attack – and defence.
7) If Ake’s mistake in stepping up out of left-back was a contributing factor to Liverpool’s goal, Andy Robertson must bear even greater responsibility for Manchester City’s equaliser. Rushing out of position to try and thwart a composed move, he subsequently left his entire defence exposed when the slipping De Bruyne nudged a pass out to Mahrez, the Belgian’s touch unlocking a previously organised backline.
In the context of that attack alone, Liverpool never recovered. Mahrez cut inside, Gundogan did what he does so well in knitting the play together and Grealish centred for Alvarez to score. But Liverpool never recovered in the wider context of the game either.
Robertson was so rushed and haphazard in his every action, and as electric and unstoppable as that approach can make him look in chaotic games such as the thrashing of Man Utd, it is a manifest weakness against teams who exert even the slightest degree of control.
Andy Robertson goes chasing into midfield & leaves his man, it happens a lot.
You can’t always press!
— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) April 1, 2023
8) It was very funny to see Simon Hooper point to numerous random areas of the pitch when booking Rodri for what was actually only the midfielder’s first foul – particularly as Fabinho had two in the first six minutes.
It was equally funny to see Liverpool players immediately surround the referee when Rodri committed the exact same foul a minute later. Henderson has not moved that quickly for about a decade. The indignation was palpable. Not sure what is going on with that rule about the third man to crowd the official being booked, mind.
9) It was around this time that Hooper and his team did start to lose control of the game somewhat. Some of that was largely outside of their remit, with a couple of those late flags for obvious offsides which so infuriate fans contributing to a rising atmosphere of toxicity.
But a lot of it was just down to the usual lenient management of a big game which eventually descends into players kicking each other as they try and determine quite where the disciplinary threshold is. Those niggling tackles built up to a crescendo of Henderson squaring up to Akanji for a disgraceful slight graze of the midfielder’s back at a free-kick. The situation could have been avoided if yellow cards had been given out for infringements worthy of a booking but yet again, in trying to control a difficult game a referee achieved the precise opposite.
That contributed to the pace of the match being slowed down, the nadir confirmed with the uttering of one simple phrase: “Let’s just bring in Peter Walton quickly.” Noooooooooo.
10) The game was nicely poised by half-time, if leaning a little uncomfortably in favour of the home side. Liverpool had been undone by one lapse in focus but there was no real hint of a collapse, even if Manchester City were clearly superior. Klopp’s side just needed a fast start.
Within 52 seconds of the restart, the hosts were ahead. A stunning switch from Alvarez, a great delivery from Mahrez and a simple finish for De Bruyne gave Manchester City a lead they were never going to relinquish.
Liverpool, yet again, tripped over their own shoelaces coming out of the blocks for the second half of an away game in the Premier League. Against Man Utd in August, they conceded the second goal of a 2-1 defeat in the 53rd minute. Against Nottingham Forest in October, they conceded the only goal of a 1-0 defeat in the 55th minute. Against Brighton in January, they conceded the first and second goals of a 3-0 defeat in the 46th and 53rd minutes. Against Manchester City in April, they conceded the second and third goals of a 4-1 defeat in the 46th and 53rd minutes.
No club has a worse record from the 41st minute to the 50th in away Premier League games this season than Liverpool’s 1-6. A remarkably caveated stat though that is, it indicates an underlying issue in approach and preparation.
11) With the earliest goal Liverpool had conceded in the second half of a Premier League game since January 2011, came more blame to distribute. The shape of their backline was already disastrous by the time Alvarez picked up the ball and turned: Ibrahima Konate at right-back, Van Dijk close to him and Robertson 20 yards or so to the Dutchman’s left, trying to play De Bruyne offside without realising Mahrez was lurking behind. The left-back then frantically tried to recover while imploring Alisson to rush out for a ball the keeper would not have been certain to reach first, and Manchester City were left with a second simple tap-in.
Liverpool at their Klopp peak would have taken it on the chin and dusted themselves off – if indeed they would have ever found themselves in such a position of bafflingly self-inflicted vulnerability in the first place. This version is trying to apportion guilt even before goals are actually conceded. Their mental fortitude is shot.
12) But that defence is being so thoroughly undressed with alarming frequency because of failures in midfield. Henderson, Elliott and Fabinho have their uses but at no stage did they exert even a semblance of authority over this game. The Liverpool goal specifically bypassed that area of the pitch, much like the four Manchester City subsequently scored.
The fading spectre of Jude Bellingham should not distract from the overwhelming idea that Liverpool need an entire new selection of midfielders rather than placing everything on one fix-all solution, because Graeme Souness or Roy Keane alone at the crest of their respective powers would struggle to drag anything coherent out of that area of the pitch in this team.
13) The third and fourth goals emphasised that. Liverpool were summarily dismantled in the second half, reduced to dummies in a 45-minute training exercise. At their brilliant best, Manchester City simultaneously stretch the pitch and apply a stranglehold, playing quick passes to wide players stationed on the touchlines while introducing runners from deep and relying on an outstanding rest defence to keep pressure constantly applied. Facing Guardiola’s side at any time is physically and mentally exhausting but that must be a particularly dehumanising experience. Liverpool certainly made it look so; they retreated deeper, were passive, excruciatingly slow and offered almost no response. Gakpo’s deflected effort in the 55th minute was their first and last of an awful second period.
14) As the quote, most often attributed to central defensive deity Paolo Maldini, goes: “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”
Van Dijk made four tackles, at least twice as many as any other player for either side. He has already made more tackles so far this Premier League season (21) than in the entirety of last campaign (16). That languid style really does make such abysmal defending look worse, even if the issues are as much systemic as they are individual.
One thing is clear: Liverpool can no longer consistently rely on the 31-year-old, nor build a successful tactic around his strengths. Van Dijk is no longer quite good enough to warrant it and is unlikely to get better now.
15) That quadruple substitution in the 70th minute might have been the most damning aspect of this defeat. Robertson, Salah, Jota and Elliott made way for largely untrusted deputy left-back Kostas Tsimikas, the departing Roberto Firmino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Darwin Nunez, who really ought to have started when taking the relative susceptibility of Manchester City’s high defensive line into account.
Liverpool were trailing 3-1 at the time and needing to cultivate some hope, Klopp could only deal with what his bench provided. James Milner replacing Gakpo soon after underlined the lack of care this stale squad has been subjected to, and the sheer amount of work needed to sort it.
16) Manchester City winning a fourth consecutive Premier League game for the first time this season – and dropping just two points in their last seven matches – feels foreboding. The previous two occasions on which they won the title by a point under Guardiola – coincidentally both against Liverpool – featured run-ins that demanded and received something close to perfection. They closed 2018/19 with 14 straight wins and held on in 2021/22 by only dropping six points in their last 12 fixtures.
Arsenal have a healthy advantage and are themselves in sensational form, which might not be a coincidence when they know Manchester City are in specifically the sort of mood to punish any and all slip-ups. Whether or not that is enough in the Premier League, it at least bodes well in Europe – before their inevitable and inexplicable exit.