City’s unbeaten run ended by rampant Liverpool
City’s unbeaten run was always going to end eventually. At least for Guardiola, as well as their players and fans, it was in a game that exemplified everything there is to love about football. By Jamie Braidwood
If you would have asked Pep Guardiola his preferred way of losing an unbeaten run, he probably would have described a game like this. For the first time this season, Manchester City lost a domestic fixture, but not without a fight. They weren’t cheated, they weren’t unlucky, they were simply blown away by a Liverpool performance that was so aggressive, so combative and, especially, so fitting of a special Anfield atmosphere
Manchester City will win the league this season, that is obvious, and Sunday’s result won’t change that. They are an outrageously good football team and they showed as much in large parts of the game. “We did a good performance”, Guardiola told Sky Sports afterwards, “apart from a few minutes”. It was in those few minutes that Liverpool scored three goals, as City lost what they crave most; control. But as they have done so often this season, they almost found a way back.
Beforehand this was described by some as City’s biggest game of the season. They had already faced Chelsea and Manchester United away from home, and won, but this did feel more significant. Perhaps it was because of the memories of last season, where Liverpool edged City 1-0 on New Years Eve, maybe it was because of City’s horrific record at Anfield, a ground where they last won in 2003, but this definitely seemed to be the sternest test of a so-far unbeaten season.
From the start, you could tell City were in for a game. There was no way that the 50,000- strong Anfield crowd would accept the sort of passive, defensive approach that so many Premier League sides have deployed against City this season. With the opportunity of ending City’s run there for the taking, they were fired up, creating an electric, intimidating atmosphere that would set the tone for an enthralling match.
At the heart of the aggression was Liverpool’s midfield. They arguably had the hardest task of the day but they did everything right. Emre Can was robust, Georginio Wijnaldum was everywhere, but it was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who delivered the game’s first moment of spectacular quality. The void left by Philippe Coutinho’s £140 million transfer to Barcelona is one that Oxlade-Chamberlain is desperate to prove that he can fill and when the ball broke to him 30 yards from goal he took his chance, bursting into the space that had invitingly opened up in front of him and powering a low drive past Ederson.
The visitors responded the way you would expect of a team who, until recently, had won 18 Premier League games in a row. Despite Liverpool’s frantic press, City had the majority of the ball. Their use of space, combined with their technical quality and collective belief in what they were trying to do, helped them establish control. Liverpool though still remained the better team and looked to be going into the break in front until Leroy Sane capitalized on a Joe Gomez error to fire his team level.
As quickly as that, the match was turned on its head and for all of their hard work, Liverpool were back where they’d started. City then came out for the second-half and almost caught Liverpool out, with Nicolas Otamendi clipping the top of the crossbar with a looping header from a corner.
For Liverpool’s game plan to work they needed big performances from all over the pitch. It is helpful, therefore, that in Roberto Firmino they have perhaps the hardest-working technically-gifted striker in world football. The Brazilian was in his element on Sunday, working tirelessly for his team off the ball, but he is more than just a worker. His goal to put Liverpool back in front displayed all of his qualities, the intelligence of the run behind City’s back-line, the determination and strength to outmuscle John Stones and reach the through-pass, as well as the skill to lift the ball over the onrushing Ederson.
Anfield erupted again and City were suddenly struck with being behind for the second time. They were rattled and Liverpool, sensing blood, were galvanised by the noise of the crowd and the opportunity that was now in reach. This was Klopp’s Liverpool at their rampant best, the on-field embodiment of their energetic, gurning, fist-pumping manager.
It cannot be overstated how important Anfield was in all of this. On nights such as Sunday it becomes more than a stadium, it transforms into a powerful force of defiance and will which creates an atmosphere that is almost impossible for opponents to play in. This was why a visit to Liverpool represented City’s sternest test of the season and explains just how Guardiola’s team lost control.
It seems ridiculous that Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have yet to be mentioned in all of this. Throughout the match their speed on the break represented Liverpool’s biggest threat, and they were central to the ten-minute Liverpool blitz which followed Firmino’s goal. Mane struck the post with a curling effort before he was presented with another opportunity two minutes later, as Salah won the ball back high up the pitch.
This time he made sure, and in some style, firing an unstoppable, rising shot into the top-left corner. Liverpool were running away with it, and the confidence in which Salah then took their fourth goal not only illustrated his own amazing form, but the feeling inside the ground. As the Egyptian intercepted Ederson’s clearance 40 yards from goal, there was absolutely no doubt that he would find the net from improbable range.
This was turning out to be another horrid afternoon at Anfield for Raheem Sterling, who had lost on both his previous return visits to his former club. Sterling has been one of league’s best players this season but on Sunday he was not only up against a difficult home crowd, who jeered his every touch, but a ruthless Andy Robertson, who clearly knew how important it was for him to win his battle against such an unpopular figure. Robertson’s performance was so dominant and gritty that Sterling was forced to be withdrawn at 4-1 down, while the left-back was having his name sung by the Kop. He was as good, if not better, than any other Liverpool player on the day.
Ultimately, Liverpool’s dominance wasn’t reflected in the final scoreline. City have rescued so many games late on this season and on Sunday you could see why. They make the pitch so big and simply wear teams down by moving them around. By 80 minutes Liverpool were dead on their feet and by stoppage time City were back in the game, only a goal down. It led to some extremely nervous moments but in the end Liverpool had just done enough.
It was a landmark win, and one that signifies that, although City won’t face any competition in the league this season, Liverpool may be their closest challengers in 12 months time – especially with Naby Keita and a fully-fit and integrated Virgil Van Dijk to come. It also reiterates that despite the doom and gloom which followed Coutinho’s departure, Liverpool are a serious side under Jurgen Klopp. They have the potential to go deep in both the Champions League and FA Cup this season and now have the belief that they can beat anyone on their day, especially with the power of Anfield behind them.
For City, this result just puts into perspective how good their run has been. The absence of any bitterness surrounding the defeat is refreshing, but not too surprising given their insurmountable lead at the top of the Premier League table. Their unbeaten run was always going to end eventually. At least for Guardiola, as well as their players and fans, it was in a game that exemplified everything there is to love about football.