Monday, June 17, 2024

Manchester City 4-1 Liverpool: Talking points as Premier League champions smash fiercest rivals to keep title race alive

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Manchester City faced a tough challenge to realistically remain in the race to defend their title as the Premier League champions this week, with last season’s runners-up Liverpool coming to the Etihad. The Merseysiders have been known to represent a thorn in Pep Guardiola’s side in the past, but this time the Catalan tactician and his men put forth their power to complete a huge victory over their fiercest rivals in the last couple of years.

Liverpool took the lead through Mohamed Salah in the 17th minute, but the home side struck back via Julian Alvarez 10 minutes later and turned the game around through Kevin De Bruyne within a minute after the break. It took Ilkay Gundogan another seven minutes to double his team’s lead, and it was Jack Grealish who set the final score in the 74th.

The game in numbers

Manchester City almost always dominate possession, against almost any opposition, and if there was one team down the years since Guardiola arrived that could go toe-to-toe with them in that aspect, it’s Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. The so-called “gegenpressing” which the Reds so successfully employed during their recent seasons of glory was something that gave Guardiola real problems.

This time, however, it simply wasn’t there, and it’s been a long time since Liverpool were reduced to just 31% possession. And it’s not as if City kept the ball for long spells without doing anything concrete – they never do. The home side took a total of 17 shots, eight on target (Liverpool just four, only Salah’s goal went on target). City attempted 754 passes with a stunning 91% accuracy, Liverpool had 350, with 82% finding the right man.

City committed less fouls (9-12), took notably more corners (7-1), and were even caught offside on fewer occasions (3-5). It’s fair to say that the defending champions got this victory in a way as comprehensive as it gets.

Mentality difference

Klopp and his chief assistant Pep Lijnders often spoke about mentality and intensity being the key ingredients in everything good their team have done since 2015, but neither the right mentality nor intensity were on show at the Etihad on Saturday, especially in the first half. The visitors did put up a fight in the first 45 minutes – even then they were inferior – but at least they tried. There’s no other way to describe their performance in the second half but woeful.

Every loose ball seemed to be finding a sky-blue shirt, and there were periods when Guardiola’s team didn’t allow their opponents more than a few seconds on it.

To put it simply, Manchester City played this game like a team that’s highly motivated to keep going and do whatever they can to retain the title, and make no mistake, they will keep pushing league leaders Arsenal down to the last whistle, as long as it remains theoretically possible.

As for Liverpool, their players have seemed drained of such motivation and desire for a while now. It was once their greatest quality to react powerfully to setbacks and come back strongly to win games. Now, once they concede, the game appears lost already. It’s quite clear a large rebuilding job is needed at Anfield, and luckily for Klopp and the red half of Merseyside, it’s just what reports are hinting at, as well as the German coach himself.

What Liverpool arguably miss the most is a true midfield general, a leader who can pull the strings and give his teammates an earful whenever they deserve one, a player who can not only dictate play from the middle of the park, but also grab a game by the scruff of the neck and win it. City obviously have such an influence in De Bruyne. Once upon a time, Liverpool had it in Steven Gerrard. Can Jude Bellingham be that kind of presence?

Probably, but it remains to be seen if the Reds manage to pull that transfer off, with City themselves, as well as Real Madrid, believed to be in the race for the Borussia Dortmund star.

Midfield keys

Speaking of De Bruyne and his ability to control a game from the middle of the park, this game was a perfect example. The Belgium international was completely in control of everything that went on, spraying passes with inch-perfect accuracy even from over 30 yards, not to mention making the right decisions, popping up in all the right places at the right moments, and doing his formidable best to get the best from his teammates. Gundogan also had that effect and contributed nearly as much in that aspect as De Bruyne.

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These two players were the ones that won the game for City in such an impressive manner, they were the two names that this team couldn’t have done this without.

Players like John Stones, who had a very interesting, roaming sort of role, Rodri, Alvarez, Riyad Mahrez and Grealish, they all played a great game and posed many problems that Liverpool couldn’t solve, but it was always De Bruyne and/or Gundogan who orchestrated their moves, in a way very reminiscent of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta once upon a time, when Guardiola was in charge at Barcelona and his team humiliated opponents on a regular basis.

Harvey Elliott, still to turn 20 and a player for the future of Liverpool, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, who perfectly embody this season’s Liverpool, bereft of proper motivation, desire and focus, were simply no match. And unless the performances of the latter two do not improve between now and the end of the season, they’ll likely be reduced to squad roles when young Stefan Bajcetic returns next term and players of higher quality come in to replace the likes of Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Controversy exaggerations

In the 33rd minute, Rodri committed a deliberate foul from behind and picked up a thoroughly deserved booking. Very soon afterwards, the Spain international repeated the offence in practically the same way, but referee Simon Hooper decided to speak to him in warning tones, rather than flash the yellow card again and follow it up with the red.

Naturally, his decision caused dissatisfaction with Liverpool players, who surrounded the official and demanded to see Rodri punished properly.

Club affinities aside, it’s very often in football that referees choose to do what Hooper did in the first half, and the referee’s decision is actually quite understandable. Had Rodri done anything like that from that point on, that would probably have been too much and Hooper would have no choice, but Rodri is experienced enough to avoid such an outcome.

Five minutes before Rodri’s booking, Liverpool substitutes Kostas Tsimikas and Arthur Melo were just walking through City’s technical area when Alvarez scored the equalizer. Guardiola was ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the Liverpool pair, which prompted pundit Rio Ferdinand, as well as other representatives of the media, to classify his actions as disrespectful.

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I don’t know how Tsimikas hasn’t pushed the opposing manager Pep Guardiola out of the way,” the former Manchester United defender said.

Naturally, Guardiola was asked to explain his actions in his post-match press conference, and he denied the allegations.

I was happy and I said how nice our goal was. That’s all,” he said, and apologized for any apparent disrespect he might have inadvertently shown to the Liverpool players. 

All in all, the City boss definitely didn’t cross the line there and even Liverpool fans, the majority of them at least, don’t hold it against him, and claim there’s no need for the media to create something out of nothing. If anything, Guardiola has always been respectful towards Liverpool and Klopp (and vice versa), and even now, when the Reds aren’t at their usual level, he sees them as City’s greatest rival and insists he won’t change his opinion based on one lousy season.

Vile chants and busses targeted

On the other hand, the vile chants a large number of Manchester City supporters have grown accustomed to singing whenever their team hosts Liverpool were heard on this occasion as well, despite the best efforts of clubs and official fan associations to teach those responsible better.

The chants refer to the infamous 1989 Hillborough disaster in which 97 Liverpool fans lost their lives, and they still cause trauma for the families of the victims as well as the survivors. Mocking death has no place in football, and Manchester City were again forced to issue a public apology for the behavour of some of their supporters in the Etihad stands.

Also, Liverpool’s team coach was damaged by objects thrown at it as it was leaving the venue, which is just as unacceptable. A number of City fans will refer to the events of 2018, when their team’s coach was attacked in a similar manner outside Anfield ahead of the clash between the two clubs in the Champions League quarterfinals, as justification, but this kind of “whataboutery” certainly doesn’t help in these manners. It was unacceptable then, it’s unacceptable now.

“Manchester City FC has been made aware that Liverpool FC’s coach sustained damage on its return journey following today’s game,” City’s official statement reads.

“We understand an object was thrown towards the coach in a residential area.

“Incidents of this kind are totally unacceptable, and we strongly condemn the actions of the individual(s) responsible.

“We will fully support Greater Manchester Police’s investigation into this incident in any way we can.

“Additionally, the Club is disappointed to have heard inappropriate chants from home fans during the game today.

“We regret any offence these chants may have caused and will continue to work with supporter groups and officials from both clubs to eradicate hateful chanting from this fixture.”

Table standings

Following the results of the matches played on Saturday, Manchester City remain five points adrift of Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table. Arsenal won their clash against Leeds United at the Emirates, also by 4-1, to keep the advantage the same. There’s obviously a long way to go yet and the Gunners have the race in their hands, but City will do whatever it takes to stay in it.

As for Liverpool, their hopes of finishing inside the top four haven’t exactly diminished after this match, at least not in terms of points lost. No realistic supporter would’ve expected this Liverpool side to get anything from the Etihad, and they will be more disappointed by the manner of the defeat than the defeat itself.

Be that as is may, Liverpool are now eighth with 42 points. Brighton and Hove Albion and Brentford took advantage of their Etihad crash to get ahead by a point each after their exhilarating 3-3 draw, Newcastle in fifth are on 47, and Tottenham Hotspur in fourth, who play their game away to Everton on Monday, are on 49. Nothing is lost for Klopp’s men; all these teams have their own issues and overtaking them, as hard as it is, isn’t a mission impossible just yet.

On the other hand, in order for that to happen Liverpool need to improve and they need to improve straight away, given that they face Chelsea and Arsenal in the next two fixtures.

 

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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