Save the date. It has finally happened.
Pep Guardiola’s relentless, high-flying and slick Manchester City have finally tasted defeat in the English Premier League, nearly 300 days after their last league defeat. Football fans can be forgiven for forgetting the previous instance, for it happened so long ago — against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Yes, Manchester City did lose a game in the Champions League this season, but it was actually their reserve team which lost to Shakhtar Donetsk in a dead rubber (it was the last fixture of the CL group stage).
When City were setting the league ablaze and disappearing out of their rivals’ sight, racking up one impressive victory after another, there were obvious comparisons to Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ team of 2003-04, which remained unbeaten over the course of the entire league season (and then some more); but even that outfit drew 12 times on their way to a Premier League medal.
Of course, it can be argued that a 90-point tally is impressive in itself, but the team wasn’t as relentless in its pursuit as, say, the Chelsea team from next season (eight draws, one defeat, and 95 points). Up until this defeat, Guardiola’s team had dropped points in just two fixtures (against Everton and Crystal Palace), played some of the most thrilling football in the Premier League, scored the most goals and conceded the least. Yet, it could be argued that the manner of this defeat, though some time in the making, will be hard to emulate for City’s future opponents in the league (more on this later).
Even after emerging victors in this high-octane fixture, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are 15 points off the pace in the Premier League. Plus, after losing Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona recently, they needed to make a statement on the pitch. The ensuing game followed the recent Liverpool template to a T —producing loads of goals, but remaining vulnerable at the back. After all, they have the highest number of goals scored (barring City) and second highest goals conceded tally in the top seven (behind Arsenal). Ultimately, they didn’t need the services of their recent defensive acquisition — Virgil van Dijk, who missed a game due to a tight hamstring — as their well-oiled attack scored more than their bungling defence.
Both teams took the pitch in Anfield with four at the back, rather than opting for the flavour-of-the-season 3-4-3 formation. Klopp threw his weight behind the German Loris Karius (who also played against Everton in the FA Cup), ahead of Simon Mignolet in goal. With no van Dijk, the defence read Joseph Gomez, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Andrew Robertson to face off against City’s attacking trident of Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero and old boy Raheem Sterling. In midfield, Liverpool preferred an attacking trio of their own in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, with Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum providing the ballast. Roberto Firmino played as the lone striker up front.
Manchester City played a powerful first team comprising of their regulars: first-choice defensive choices of John Stones, Kyle Walker and Nicolas Otamendi lined up with Fabian Delph at the back; Fernandinho, Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan were the midfield schemers hoping to supply the forward line with their chances. Though this set-up looked ripe for maintaining possession, there were lingering doubts if it could withstand the pressure from Liverpool’s relentless pressing and haranguing. Then again, Manchester City do not have a pure, authoritative defensive midfielder type who could have stamped his authority on a game like this.
Not many have doubted the Manchester City attack this season, but there were muted whispers about how Pep Guardiola’s team might withstand a barrage directed against them — how would they face a team that would take the attack to them? This performance has given a glimpse into their frailties and will no doubt embolden their rivals. City, this season, have swept across their major rivals, regardless of the venue, with their neat passing triangles, fluid attack, passing and movement before delivering the knockout blow; but the other claimants to the Premier League throne have also been guilty of sitting back and giving them an open canvas to paint with both hands.
Instead, Liverpool went for a high-pressing, high-risk, high-reward approach in going toe-to-toe with the sky blue team from Manchester. This looked like a throwback to some of the Guardiola-Klopp matchups in Bundesliga when an effervescent Dortmund team took on the giant from Munich to produce pulsating encounters.
On Sunday, most of the goals were produced off Manchester City mistakes in their defensive half, when they crumbled against the sustained pressure generated by the buzzing Liverpool forwards.
Delph lost his individual tussle with Firmino, and Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up the loose ball, drove past Fernandinho and let loose a brilliant long shot across the face of goal. One nil. At the other end, parity was restored by Sane, when he expertly cushioned a high ball, took the right back out of the game and unleashed a powerful shot at the near post. With better positioning by the goalkeeper, both these openers could perhaps have been avoided.
Later, in a spell of nine minutes, City lost the plot and the match. Firmino ran on to a Chamberlain throughball, shrugged off and outmuscled Stones (who was probably fouled in this tussle) and scored with a delectable chip. This should have set off the warning bells for City. Instead, undeterred, they continued to play their way out of trouble in their own half, which proved to be their undoing; Otamendi’s misplaced-pass-cum-clearance led to a rebound which fell kindly to Salah, who laid the ball onto an onrushing Mane’s path, who finished with aplomb. And in the 68th minute, Ederson’s clearance of a Salah throughball fell right back at the Egyptian’s feet; his exquisite first touch and subsequent shot didn’t let him down as he put the Reds three goals up.
City were rattled, and Sterling was taken off wisely after a rash challenge — he looked destined for a sending off. But City almost clawed their way back in the last few minutes, when Bernardo Silva and Gundogan reduced the deficit; it would have been thoroughly undeserved if City had managed to score one more, but Aguero strayed offside for the final chance. Pep will also wonder what might have happened if Otamendi had scored instead of rattling the bar at 1-1.
City’s opponents would have taken note of this performance, but whether the league opponents will be able to take advantage of their errors in the same manner is another matter. Nonetheless, sooner or later, City will have to find answers when they come up against more mature sides in Europe, who are not as vulnerable at the back as Liverpool. Also, City’s passing and control is not yet in the same league as Barcelona and Bayern, and an opponent’s performance like this will put them under greater pressure than previous Guardiola sides.
No doubt, Liverpool fully deserve the credit for taking the fight to City and going for the jugular. Simply put, these stunts were performed by professionals and trying to repeat them without similar personnel will surely lead to disastrous results. Liverpool have indeed shown the way, but it is a bit early to call it the “How to beat City” template.
Updated Date: Jan 15, 2018 12:18:57 IST