Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Manchester City 2-2 Liverpool: Talking points as defending champions maintain minimal advantage in Premier League title race

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Anyone who expected things to be clearer when it comes to the title race in the Premier League after the clash between table toppers Manchester City and second-place Liverpool at the Etihad on Sunday is likely disappointed, but anyone who was hoping for an exciting football contest between two top teams was probably thrilled.

Kevin De Bruyne put the hosts in front with less than five minutes gone after his shot caught a deflection off Joel Matip, flew past Alisson Becker and bounced off the post into the net. It took Diogo Jota, frequently Liverpool’s go-to man, another eight minutes to set the score back level as Trent Alexander-Arnold returned Andy Robertson’s cross into the middle of the box for him to finish off. Gabriel Jesus took advantage of a moment’s indecision from the Liverpool defence and Alisson to make sure his team went to the break with a lead, but less than a minute was enough for Sadio Mane to get on the end of a brilliant cross from Mohamed Salah to equalize again.

The race, the rivalry

The contest between Manchester City and Liverpool these days goes arguably past anything we’ve seen in the recent history of English football. Since Chelsea won the Premier League title in 2016-17 under Antonio Conte, no team other than City and Liverpool ever came close to lifting the trophy.

In 2017-18, City won rather convincingly, but they were on course for an unbeaten season before they came to Anfield, where Liverpool ruined that hope. The Reds also smashed City in the Champions League quarterfinals, winning both legs and reaching the final. The most intense run-in they’ve had so far was the final stretch of 2018-19, when City needed all of their 98 points to win, given that Liverpool managed 97. But Liverpool actually won the Champions League that time, the only trophy which Pep Guardiola’s team still lack. The season of 2019-20 saw Liverpool end their 30-year wait and lift the Premier League title, leaving City far behind. The Merseysiders endured an injury-plagued 2020-21, and City took full advantage of their problems to run away with the title again.

And as things stand at the moment, we seem to be heading towards a finish similar to the one of 2018-19. The title is again City’s to lose. Will Liverpool be able to keep up the challenge right to the final round? And if they do, will City be able to beat them off again? Those are the questions that will be answered over the upcoming seven rounds.

Quite apart from the Premier League, the two teams are set to face each other this week in the FA Cup semifinal, and they’re both hoping for glory in the Champions League, where they’ve both come very close to securing a place in the semis too. Liverpool are one step ahead in one way – they’ve already won the Carabao Cup this season.

There is, of course, a great rivalry (and great respect) between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. No manager has beaten Guardiola as many times as Klopp has; no manager has beaten Klopp as many times as Guardiola has.

City may not have history as rich as Liverpool; after all, the Merseysiders have been crowned English champions 19 times, City seven. Liverpool have six Champions League trophies to their name, City have none. But there can be no doubt about City being the most successful English club in the last decade, a fact which has become absolutely indisputable since Guardiola took over in 2016. There can also be very little doubt that Liverpool have been breathing down their necks since their resurgence under Klopp, and that every football fan that enjoys the game for what it is should be feeling blessed to witness this extraordinary rivalry.

The game

Looking at it from start to finish, City were undoubtedly the dominant team in this match and they’ll be disappointed with the outcome. They took an early lead and could have increased it, they could have even taken it earlier but for a sublime save by Alisson to deny Sterling, and they certainly could have scored a third goal after Liverpool’s second.

Guardiola’s men had 56% possession, they took 11 shots overall of which five went on target (Liverpool six, four on target), took four corners while Liverpool took one, and Liverpool’s defenders had a lot more to do than their City counterparts.

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To be fair to the visitors, they certainly improved after the break, given how poor some of the aspects of their game were in the first half. Both goals they conceded came as a result of an obvious lack of focus (with a bit of luck going De Bruyne’s way for the opener). They should have stopped City taking the free-kick that preceded it quickly, but their minds seemed to be elsewhere, just as they were for Jesus’s goal later when Matip appeared a bit lazy in moving with the rest of the line and allowing the City forward to remain onside as Cancelo’s cross came in. Alisson probably could have saved his skin had he been quick enough to rush out, but he was obviously undecisive for a split-second and the damage was done. Credit should still go to Jesus for his well-timed run and a fine finish.

The second half can be described as a fine balance of power, restored probably by Mane’s quick goal. From that point on, both sides had periods of significant possession in the opposition half, and given their usual superiority over the rest of the league, neither seemed to know exactly how to deal with it.

Liverpool will be having mixed feelings about this outcome. They’ll certainly be happy with the point given everything that went on, and a point at the Etihad is never to be scowled at. But on the other hand, the result leaves the title race in City’s hands, and that’s not exactly a promising sign, even though City have been known to drop points quite unexpectedly in the last two months.

The tactics

Both teams were deployed in their usual 4-3-3 shapes.

Guardiola named the trio of Rodri, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne as his midfield, and each of them had a clearly defined task to perform, which they did more or less to perfection.

As always, Rodri was there to protect his back line, fight for second balls and do whatever necessary to prevent the opposition from performing an effective counterattack. That, coupled with Silva relentlessly working to close down the sublime passing ability of Thiago Alcantara, was the reason why Liverpool never managed to create anything through the middle.

De Bruyne, as might have been expected, was the man pulling the strings and organizing play when in possession, on top of his defensive responsibility which mostly meant pressing high and trying to win the ball as close to the opposition goal as possible. That frequently made City’s shape become more of a 4-2-3-1, than 4-3-3.

Therefore, it’s not to be wondered at that the Belgian was the one who wanted the ball passed to him quickly from that fifth-minute free-kick and having received it, charged forward intent on making an impact. And an impact he made alright.

Another aspect of the game which Guardiola obviously felt he needed to control was the battle in the wide areas. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are two of the league’s three best assist-providers and if City were to stop the visitors from continuously causing them harm, they had to stop these two players. Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo were up to the task most of the time; the only situation they failed in was the one that preceded Liverpool’s first goal. That alone is enough to show how dangerous it is to lower your guard against Liverpool’s wide men even for a second.

On the other hand, it was hard in the first half to judge if any of the three Liverpool midfielders had any specific tasks; they probably had, but City were so dominant in that period that one thing was obvious from Liverpool’s perspective – whatever it was, it wasn’t working.

The only one who did appear to be doing something useful there was Jordan Henderson. Not that he did anything sparkly – that’s not quite what he does – but at least his head wasn’t spinning as much as those of his teammates were after the early shock of De Bruyne’s opener. It was his job to trigger high press and he did that well enough, with the players around him quick to pick up the signal and join the hunt. They did force moments of panic and uncertainty from the City back line a few times, most notably when Ederson almost allowed the ball to trickle across the goal-line in the first half, but ultimately it made no effect on the scoreline.

The system was obviously working well for City and not for Liverpool – that, after all, was the main difference that made the home team look dominant, but the individual characteristics of some of the visitors were still impossible to deal with; the imagination of the two fullbacks and Jota’s sense of space for the first goal, the creative ability of Salah along with Mane’s pace and finishing for the second.

A brief look forward

The two teams have a small break from each other in the form of the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals, with City traveling to Madrid to face Atletico and try to complete the job after a 1-0 win at home, and Liverpool hosting Benfica at Anfield having won in Lisbon by 1-3. Then the the FA Cup semifinal awaits on Saturday, face-to-face again.

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As for the Premier League title race, City appear to have perhaps the easier run-in, at least on paper, on top of the one-point advantage. They face Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Molineux (the date is yet to be confirmed), Brighton and Hove Albion at home, Watford at home, Leeds United at Elland Road, Newcastle at home, West Ham at the London Stadium, and eventually Aston Villa at home on the final day of the season.

On the other hand, Liverpool first face arch-rivals Manchester United at home, then city rivals Everton also at home, Newcastle at St. James Park, Tottenham Hotspur at home, Aston Villa at Villa Park, Southampton at St. Mary’s, and Wolverhampton Wanderers at home.

There is will most likely be the final stretch of the Champions League to think about. If they complete the work they’ve started against Atletico, City will likely face Real Madrid in the semis unless Chelsea make an incredible comeback, while Liverpool have the prospect of playing against either Villarreal or Bayern Munich.

All in all, an epic final between Manchester City and Liverpool cannot be ruled out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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