16 Conclusions: Manchester City 2-2 Liverpool

Date published: Sunday 10th April 2022 9:51 - Matthew Stead

Raheem Sterling reacts to his goal being disallowed

Man City made Liverpool look so vulnerable, yet that inability to properly put them down could hand the advantage back. It remains poised.

 

1) There are many ways to skin a cat. It just so happens that the preferred method deployed by managers in Premier League matches bestowed the moniker of ‘title decider’ was slow, meticulous and often painfully conservative. So many of the most fondly remembered such games in the modern history of England’s top flight – Manchester City against Manchester United in April 2012, Manchester United versus Arsenal in March 1998 and Liverpool at home to Chelsea in April 2014, to name a few examples – were characterised by at least one but often both teams striving not to lose rather than trying to win. It often came at the expense of genuine viewing entertainment but that was never the risk-averse priority with trophies on the line.

The shift from that to the current adventurous era has been stark. Liverpool are the common denominator: 2-2 draws against Manchester City at Anfield and the Etihad, to match the same result at Chelsea in early January when the Blues were second, have exposed their weaknesses yet accentuated their strengths. Two teams confident enough in their own ability to win, so assured of their approach that they refuse to intrinsically change it.

Perhaps there is a lack of needle between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola that prevents this from being categorised as an authentic feud, but it is historical all the same – and something that will only be fully appreciated once both have left their dynasties in far better condition than when they found them. Do not take for granted how fulfilling, refreshing and ultimately rewarding it is to have these games so consistently live up to the billing. It used to be considerably different and the coaching perpetrators of those former crimes against footballing humanity would have been squirming at the fearlessness.

 

2) After all the build-up, the geography-based conspiratorial fury over officials, the bait-drenched and contextually ignorant combined XIs, the subjective deconstruction of pure rivalry and whether it can exist without projectile pizza, sliding tackles that would reduce VAR to a quivering wreck and coerced piggyback attempts, the tiresome void of an undercard finally gave way to the main event. The deferential coaches had exchanged niceties once more and the players were poised to deliver on days and weeks of rising suspense.

Then Jordan Henderson played the kick-off straight back to Joel Matip, who lumped it to the left flank and out of touch. That was the first of three consecutive Manchester City throw-ins, each gaining more territory to the point they found themselves adjacent to the Liverpool box within the opening minute. It came to nothing but it was a joy to see this generation-defining fixture between two elite sides at the absolute peak of their powers instantly reduced to bare Sunday League basics.

 

3) One common thread ran through Liverpool’s last three Premier League victories over Manchester City. In a 1-0 win at Anfield in December 2016, it took them eight minutes. That became nine for their 4-1 home humbling of Guardiola’s side in January 2018. Then in November 2019, the Reds set a new personal best when Fabinho scored after six minutes. It is far easier said than done but the early burst out of the blocks was a specific tactic upon which they had found success against this particular team, stopping them from settling into a rhythm while simultaneously landing a sizeable mental blow. But it was notable how rarely Manchester City had managed to turn the tables. Guardiola’s side have faced Klopp’s 14 times in the Premier and Champions League, but only once did their opening goal come before the 20th minute – and that was in an eventual 2-1 European quarter-final defeat. Even when beating them 5-0 and 4-0 in recent years, Manchester City scored their first goals in the 24th and 25th minutes respectively.

It was a surprise, therefore, to see how rapidly they began. Liverpool had no chance to establish themselves and find their footing. They looked uncomfortable, panicked, rushed. Alisson saved excellently from a low Gabriel Jesus cross but Liverpool failed to clear their lines. Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane had opportunities to relieve the pressure but neither proved capable and the Reds, so often the ones riding the crests of waves, were submerged.

De Bruyne’s effort from range was deflected past Alisson by the leg of Joel Matip, yet two teammates can claim an understated combined assist. Kyle Walker’s determination and footwork was crucial in winning first possession and then a free-kick; Bernardo Silva overrode the system to take it quickly, from a promising position but well before Liverpool could return to their shape. De Bruyne will take the credit but both actions that preceded his were vital and without either, Liverpool might have withstood the initial barrage.

 

4) The defending from Liverpool was amateurish, exacerbated by Manchester City’s urgency and directness. Fabinho conceded the free-kick by dangling a lazy leg at Walker, then jogged back and allowed De Bruyne to ghost past him into a fine shooting position on the edge of the area. Jordan Henderson, meanwhile, was too busy remonstrating with the referee to block a quick pass into the unmarked Belgian. The Liverpool captain was completely switched off and considering the standard of Sadio Mane’s first-half performance, it felt fitting that it was actually his awful touch from Henderson’s pass as the foul was called that gave Silva the ball. The Portuguese placed a hand on it to reset the move, played it to De Bruyne under no pressure and Manchester City led six seconds later. Liverpool’s rank incompetence and uncharacteristic lack of street smarts undid them as much as anything else in that moment.

Jordan Henderson and Anthony Taylor

 

5) But their character is ludicrous – Liverpool are the most durable, hard-wearing team in Europe – and after resisting a potential penalty claim when Jesus provided the filling to a Van Dijk and Alisson sandwich, the visitors jerked from their slumber to strike. In a variation of the coveted full-back to full-back goal, Andy Robertson salvaged a loose ball in space and clipped it to the far post for Trent Alexander-Arnold. His presence of mind not to try and lash it across goal but to cut it back first time to the roaming Diogo Jota was sumptuous and Liverpool had an equaliser from their first meaningful foray beyond the halfway line.

And there can be no doubt that Alexander-Arnold meant that pass. As Robertson’s cross came in, it was so weird to see Jota, coming back from an offside position after an earlier delivery, stand rooted to the spot with no defender taking notice. The forward watched the ball curl from left to right, only reacting when he noticed the attack unfold with Alexander-Arnold’s advancing run in his peripheral vision. The Liverpool right-back did not have a straightforward afternoon but it is unusual for his forward-thinking in one area not to outweigh his defensive fragility in the other and this game was no different.

 

6) Some of those passes, particularly in the first half, really were remarkable. An incisive centre from Robertson almost concurrently played in one or both of Mane and Mo Salah; Thiago’s ludicrous, press-mocking switch to Alexander-Arnold was the basis of the equaliser; Silva threaded one sublime through ball into the path of Walker; John Stones homed in on a Joao Cancelo run to create a De Bruyne chance. The combinations varied in personnel each time but the quality was never compromised, whether it was a centre-half finding a right-back or a left-back seeking a wide forward.

There was space to be exploited behind both defences but it required precision in the execution of the pass, as well as awareness and movement in the timing of the run. In the innocent brilliance of that period before half-time, it was striking to see how many of those high-margin moves came off for both teams, before those sensible fellas in the dugout deemed that our fun was had and the pitch had to be shrunk somewhat.

 

7) It is possible to sympathise with Joe Hart – “It was a two-hour conversation that kind of ended with him saying ‘I can’t see this working’. I said ‘I don’t agree with you’. He said ‘I’ll be the first person to be proved wrong but what I see in you isn’t what I want from my goalkeeper’. I was like ‘It’s only fair I be given the opportunity’. He said ‘of course you’ll be given the opportunity, but…’. As soon as there are any ‘buts’ at the end you know there’s a decision. I wanted the opportunity to be coached by one of the best at it. Of course I didn’t know how to do it, why would I know how to do something that I’d never been asked to do or taught to do? I suppose he was right, I couldn’t do it, he couldn’t just drop me into a team to play like he wanted to at that moment in time” – while both understanding Guardiola’s point of view and laughing uproariously at the idea of the current Celtic starter moonwalking across a tightrope with his eyes closed quite like Ederson did in the 23rd minute.

Condemning Liverpool to a spot of shadow-chasing, Manchester City passed the ball around the back and waited for the next pocket to appear. Walker rolled it towards his goalkeeper, justifiably without a thought for what might transpire next. But as Jota closed the lane to Silva, Ederson took a touch that only slightly delayed the ball’s path towards goal. Whether what unfolded then was a dummy or a course correction after deducing that his pass would be risky given he was stretching, the Brazilian calmly slid it over to Aymeric Laporte and nonchalantly strolled away from the scene of his self-inflicted goal-line clearance. Keepers are a different breed; Ederson is a whole new organism. And he will be the toughest component of this team to replace.

 

8) Liverpool had almost forced a vital mistake but their pressing was actually quite disjointed early on. The duress came entirely from Manchester City, whose work off the ball was exemplary. Alexander-Arnold and Mane were caught more than once on the ball in their own defensive third. Fabinho was flat. Virgil van Dijk was not explicitly snared by any of the pressing traps but so many of his passes put teammates in jeopardy. Liverpool were making some peculiar, often downright terrible decisions in possession.

The worst of those, however, curtailed an ostensible counter-attack. De Bruyne drew a foul and a booking from Robertson after yet another diagonal was launched into the left-back’s area, but the subsequent free-kick committed the cardinal sin of failing to clear the first man. Salah played a quick pass into Alexander-Arnold as the two raided towards and beyond the halfway line. But as the Egyptian continued a run that would surely take him beyond the defence and through on goal, Alexander-Arnold shot from the centre circle. It didn’t help that he slipped at the same time, giving Ederson a save so simple that it was a surprise not to see a Rene Higuita tribute. Yet it was precisely the sort of choice Liverpool could hardly afford to make and are usually too proficient to even consider. That effort might have best summed up how uncomfortable Manchester City made them.

 

9) A few minutes later, Liverpool were given the harshest possible lesson in turning such slivers of opportunities against this team into chances. Manchester City’s first and second goals bore no immediate similarities in either conception or implementation, but they were both built within one solid framework: a sustained series of attacks that rely on incredible rest defence to engender a sense of team-wide panic and an increasing number of ordinarily avoidable but completely inevitable mistakes until a goal is scored. Again, it is far easier said than done but one hell of a cycle to lock an opponent in, turning even the very best sides into haphazard fodder.

There was a poor kick from Alisson. Then a low De Bruyne cross with no-one in the vicinity that Matip felt obliged to tap behind for a corner. That was cleared only as far as Cancelo, who whipped a delivery back in to Jesus at the far post for a fine finish. Alexander-Arnold had played the Brazilian onside then and Cancelo for the concession of another corner a minute earlier as those errors were compounded to an inescapable crescendo. Liverpool have had these moments of vulnerability strangely often recently, but never to this extent and often unpunished. It takes a special team to do it to them twice in one half.

 

10) Jesus scoring from a cross around Easter was good fun. It was pretty much his archetypal display: justifying his surprise inclusion with impeccable work-rate and a goal, yet also proving that faith to be unjust with some foolish decisions. The Brazilian’s first start since New Year’s Day should have been a cause for more celebration but two moments in the second half underpinned his display with frustration. He should have released the ball far sooner when De Bruyne was running through around the hour mark, but delayed the pass and was fouled by Thiago – who was weirdly not booked. A little later, De Bruyne returned a favour he never received by slipping Jesus in on the right but instead of completing the one-two and pulling it back for his teammate on the penalty spot, the Brazilian fired into the side-netting.

In between, Jesus wriggled into a shooting position after skipping past two players, but even then he should have squared it to one of the players waiting in more favourable areas. There are times when he feels like the perfect Guardiola forward – and he absolutely still has a place in this squad – but there is no squinting required to see why he is not fully trusted.

 

11) The momentum was with Manchester City by half-time. They had opened the scoring in 22 previous Premier League games this season and won each time. Liverpool had not trailed at the break for exactly a year, so were in unfamiliar territory at a ground they had not won in in a domestic match since November 2015. The hosts had been far better than the visitors, who looked overwhelmed and unlikely to rebound again.

Yet one thing did count against Manchester City. Six of the 19 goals they had conceded in the Premier League this campaign came between the 46th and 60th minutes. If games were broken down into 15-minute segments then that is the only one Guardiola’s side did not have an eight-goal advantage in. That was a possible chink in this otherwise imperious armour.

Klopp probably didn’t lead on that in his half-time team talk but Liverpool scoring 47 seconds after the restart was no coincidence. The Reds transposed those aforementioned quick starts against Manchester City to spring a surprise and draw level when the prior 46 minutes barely warranted it. They will hope to have uncovered a possible weak spot for future opponents to explore.

 

12) Salah and Mane had been anonymous and atrocious to that point; they were onymous and ominous for the goal. The former collected an Alexander-Arnold pass, turned and released the latter within three touches as Walker desperately tried to recover lost ground. The assist and finish were both perfect, particularly considering the dreadful displays the perpetrators of both had turned out before then.

Klopp was immediately rewarded for his biggest decision of the game: choosing to make no decisions. He would have been excused for changing the players, the system or both after the first half yet the German persisted with a plan he would have devised for this game long ago and it paid off. Discussing substitutions is almost exclusively based on outcome bias but in this instance, Klopp making no changes until the 70th minute was a masterstroke that highlighted his faith in these players and their personalities.

 

13) The forward play from both teams was obviously the most eye-catching aspect of this game but some of the defending was spectacular. Van Dijk ushering Raheem Sterling away from danger like a lost child when De Bruyne released the Manchester City winger into acres of space. Laporte sliding in to prevent Jota from shooting or passing when a goal looked certain late in the first half. Matip standing firm to tackle Jack Grealish and keep another swarm at bay, before potentially getting a touch on that late Riyad Mahrez chip. A 2-2 draw never usually reflects well on the backline of either team but in this instance, keeping it down to four goals was testament to both defences.

 

 

14) Manchester City‘s finest achievement in this game might be in their response to Liverpool’s second equaliser. It came at the worst possible time yet the hosts only conceded three more shots in the rest of the game, preventing that flow and thrust that so often follows a goal for the Reds. Ederson saved from Jota soon after Mane’s goal, Salah curled an effort just wide after a deflection off Laporte – and weirdly no corner – and Henderson tried to channel 2015 with an xG-ridiculing shot from outside the area. That, with 13 minutes and injury time remaining, was Liverpool’s last attempt, and absolutely not for the want of trying considering Luis Diaz, Naby Keita and Roberto Firmino were all introduced.

The hosts had their moments: Sterling’s offside goal, Jesus having his effort blocked by Van Dijk near the line and Mahrez hitting the post from a free-kick. But Guardiola must be pleased with just how well his side contained the best attack in the country.

 

15) The five substitutes that came on were signed for a combined £278.75m. That is daft.

 

16) Both teams will be content with the result. Manchester City remain in control with that point advantage, as well as a run-in that looks kinder. Liverpool maintain their most familiar role: chasers and underdogs. The hosts might feel they landed a psychological hit by making their rivals look so mortal; the visitors may believe that an inability to land that proper decisive blow gives them the advantage. The Treble and the Quadruple persist into mid-April at the latest, with seven Premier League games that offer varying degrees of treacherousness and jeopardy and Champions League hopes still in the offing. As phenomenal as this match was, it lacked one thing which their next meeting guarantees: a clear winner and a definitive loser. Wembley will be fun.

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