In what many saw as a potential Premier League title decider, even though we’ve only just entered October, Liverpool and Manchester City shared the points between them at Anfield on Sunday. Sadio Mane opened the scoring just before the hour-mark, and Phil Foden set it back level 10 minutes later. In the 76th, Mohamed Salah produced a piece of real magic to get the Merseysiders ahead again, but a deflected Kevin De Bruyne effort cheated Alisson Becker with less than 10 minutes to go, setting the final score at 2-2.
The Salah brilliance
Some are saying that Mo Salah is the best player in the world at the moment, and even though the term is obviously open to interpretation and various degrees of subjectivity, they may not be 100% right beyond any doubt, but they’re certainly not far wrong. The days when that title was an object of the exclusive battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo appear to be over, and Robert Lewandowski is probably the only player on the planet who can objectively challenge Salah for the throne right now.
But that aside, the defenders who wore the City shirt at Anfield on Sunday will long remember this match, and not too fondly. It goes especially for Joao Cancelo, who managed to keep the Egyptian relatively quiet in the first half, but saw the second turn into a proper nightmare. The reason? Salah had shifted up a gear or two.
The contest was finely balanced and though both sides showed attacking intent, they also paid heed to the defensive side of things, rarely giving anything away, when Salah decided it was time to do something about it. He fleeced Cancelo with a superb chip on the right wing, cut inside and produced a perfectly weighed pass into the path of Mane who had timed his run and finished past Ederson Moraes impeccably.
As for the goal Salah scored himself, it needs to be seen to be believed. Cancelo was again left in the dust, and Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden had to track back to cover for the left-back. That, however, was no problem for the Liverpool forward, who first dribbled the Portuguese midfielder onto his backside and evaded the young England international easily, then threw off Aymeric Laporte with a nice dummy. Ruben Dias and Rodri weren’t able to get across in time to help their teammates, and Salah smacked the ball with his weaker right foot off the far post and into the net. And it certainly wasn’t the first time we’ve seen the Egyptian do this.
The right-back problem
Trent Alexander-Arnold has been splitting the football public in England greatly in the last couple of years, but not many can question his role in Jurgen Klopp’s system at Liverpool. Raised as a midfielder and reassigned to the right defensive role as a senior, the 22-year-old boasts exactly the skillset required by the German tactician to complement his team from the flanks, showing a great understanding with Salah on the right. Liverpool’s problem at the moment is that they have no suitable replacement for him, and they may want to consider addressing it in the coming transfer windows.
It says a lot about Neco Williams and the (lack of) faith Klopp has in his designated backup right-back that he actually prefers James Milner, a 35-year-old midfielder formerly of City, or Joe Gomez, a natural centre-back, in a league game there than the Welsh international. It was the case again on Sunday, with Alexander-Arnold absent through an adductor problem.
You have to admire Milner for everything he’s done over his long, illustrious career. The way he goes out to the pitch and performs literally any role he is given, showing great levels of professionalism, strength of character, tactical versatility and fitness at his age, is worthy of every respect.
However, there are matches when putting him on a defensive flank seems risky, especially if the opposition have an extremely fast winger – Manchester City have a host of them. This time, Foden played on City’s left for a majority of the match, and Milner had a hard time against the pacey 21-year-old. He earned a yellow card early on and could have easily got a second later, and he appears to have failed to read the intention of Gabriel Jesus who assisted Foden for City’s first goal, which left him positioned too narrowly and desperately late to close the youngster down.
Milner was later replaced by Gomez, but Gomez wasn’t much more effective and the second equalizer can be mostly put to his own account. He got naively conned trying to catch Raheem Sterling offside when Foden was running in behind his back. Having caught up, he wasn’t decisive enough in stopping Foden’s low cross which eventually found its way to De Bruyne.
To sum up, both City goals came down Liverpool’s right flank, quite apart from several other potentially dangerous moments throughout the match.
The City resilience
Under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City have grown a reputation for being an extremely ruthless team when they open the game as they want, and in nine cases out of 10, or 19 out of 20 more likely, they do. But they also tend to struggle on the rare occasion when it doesn’t start so well for them.
However, they completely got over that particular problem at Anfield. Liverpool dominated the first 15 minutes, keeping the play mostly closer to Ederson’s goal than that of Alisson, but then City managed to grab control of the ball and push the hosts back. Liverpool raised their game after the break, and City found fresh ways to hurt them as the second half went on.
The two goalscorers, De Bruyne and Foden, can be said to have stood out from the rest with sheer class, but others did their bit as well and the whole team showed that in a game like this, going a goal down doesn’t mean the end of the world.
Foden’s repeated torment of Milner and later Gomez has already been mentioned, and his goal was well-deserved. De Bruyne started the move leading up to the second equalizer with a superb pass, before finishing it off himself with a little bit of deserved luck.
Nonetheless, Jesus did very well to assist Foden in the 69th minute as he cut inside from the right, evading Andy Roberson, dancing through the press of Curtis Jones and Fabinho, and escaping the vigilance of Virgil van Dijk before passing the ball on to Foden. Sterling played a big part for both goals too, merely by positioning himself so as to draw wrong reactions from the Liverpool defence. He was there as an option for Jesus before the ball found Foden, splitting the attention of Milner, and he was the one Gomez tried to catch offside when Foden made his run behind his back.
All in all, City have shown great ability to readjust and raise their game when they need to, which wasn’t always the case in the past. It’s a good sign for Guardiola’s team, with the Premier League title race set to be extremely exciting. There will be other matches when the opposition starts better, and they will need to be brought under control.
The winger roster
Manchester City are known as a club that has no financial issues. Guardiola used to speak about the ongoing pandemic hitting them as hard as any other, but despite all his words about how they could not afford a striker this summer, they spent £100 million on Jack Grealish and offered more than that for Tottenham Hotspur star Harry Kane.
In the absence of a recognized striker, Guardiola has reverted to a system similar to the one he used to employ back in his Barcelona days, where fast, technically strong players keep shifting around and pulling defenders out of position. And though he obviously doesn’t have Lionel Messi in his ranks this time, the list of high-quality players in the attacking positions is quite extensive. The importance of such players for the way he wants his team to drive the opposition into the ground clearly puts the significance of that list into the light. Grealish, Jesus, Foden, Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, and even Bernardo Silva who plays more in midfield these days; these are all players of very high class, and Guardiola has made sure he has the ability to always name a strong attacking trio, regardless of an injury or two, or a bout of poor form from one or two of them.
It was also important in this match. Grealish started in a central role, with Foden on the left and Jesus on the right, and he barely contributed to anything at all. Maybe it was a bit harsh from the manager to put him in a hardly familiar role for such a big game, but replacing him with Sterling in the 66th minute – the only substitution Guardiola made all game – was certainly the right one. So if Grealish doesn’t do something to impact the game, Sterling will. Or Foden. Or Mahrez. Or Silva. Or Jesus.
The City boss certainly has great luxury in that area, even though there is no Messi, Ronaldo, Salah, Kane, Haaland, Lewnadowski or Mbappe in their ranks.
Still the teams to beat
Manchester City won the Premier League title in three of the last four seasons. The only time they failed to do so, they were outdone by Liverpool, who also ran City extremely close the previous season while winning the Champions League at the same time.
Much has been done at Manchester United and Chelsea since. With Thomas Tuchel in charge, the Londoners have managed to get their hands on the Champions League trophy themselves (beating City in the final), and much like City they’ve loaded the squad with high-quality attacking players. And unlike City, they have a recognized top-class striker as well.
United spent big money on Jadon Sancho and Ronaldo, emulating City and Chelsea in adding to their attacking quality, and they strengthened at the back through the arrival of Raphael Varane from Real Madrid.
But looking at the way all these teams play, it seems Manchester City and Liverpool are still the benchmark, still the two teams to beat, still the two teams in the prime of their glory when it comes to English football. This encounter was therefore awaited with great excitement even by the neutrals, and it delivered on the promise.
As for the other two, Chelsea seem closer to entering that bracket than United, perhaps not so much due to their squad being superior, but due to the fact that Tuchel seems to know exactly what he wants from his players on the pitch and has complete control over them, which isn’t always the case with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
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