Seventeen “Title Deciders” Remain:
In the days leading up to the match at the Etihad, many pundits billed it as a “title decider” between the league’s top two teams. Liverpool’s lead has in fact shrunk to four points, even with Guardiola’s men on goal difference, and there’s no arguing a Liverpool victory – and a resulting ten point gap - wouldn’t paint a dramatically different picture at this stage in the season.
Judging from recent history, however, it’s not this result between the holders and the leaders that will decide the title. As Andy Robertson reflected to LiverpoolFC.com after the match “they’ve closed the gap but it is all about how we react.”
Liverpool entered last Thursday’s match as the favourite to win the league in large part because of the consistency they’ve shown throughout the first twenty matches of the season, and despite this loss, Liverpool remain a damn good football team.
They remain a side that have won all fourteen matches against teams outside of the Top Six and they have earned three wins, three draws and a single loss against those Top Six, having played one more match away than at home and with both Manchester City matches in the rearview mirror. They’ve lost once in twenty-one matches - and have yet to be beaten at Anfield – and they’ve conceded less than a goal every other game. Liverpool’s mission must now be to maintain their form over the next seventeen matches. If they do that, they’ll be champions.
Defensive Acquisitions Prove their Worth yet Again:
Crucial to Liverpool’s mission will be the efforts of its league-leading defence, which again showed its quality in Manchester. The visitors were undone by two world-class finishes (as well as a few defensive mistakes – more on that below), but City’s goal tally could easily have been doubled if not for the interventions of Liverpool’s two defensive bedrocks, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker.
The Dutchman was everywhere Liverpool needed him to be in the first half, smartly tracking Sane’s central run to cut out David Silva’s cross inside the opening half hour, blocking the Spaniard’s close-range effort after Sterling’s layoff moments later and heading away Sterling’s chipped ball through towards David Silva shortly before the break.
There was nothing the Dutchman could do about Aguero’s opener and while he might have done well to step to Sterling and prompt a defensive shift to account for Sane on the game-winner, there was hardly a blemish on another sparkling performance from the Reds’ defensive lynchpin. Nearly every time City threatened, Van Dijk’s positioning and execution thwarted the attack to prevent the home side from testing Alisson.
Of course, test the Brazilian they did and he repeatedly rose to the challenge. While one might quibble that the keeper could have done more to get a piece of Aguero’s rocket inside the near post, there are few – if any – keepers in the world who could have done so, and many of the world’s finest would struggle to produce the pair of saves Alisson provided in the second half.
First, he was quick off his line to force Aguero wide after a through ball from Sterling, denying the Argentine’s low-angle show with a sprawling save. Then, he reacted brilliantly to deny Bernardo Silva’s close-range effort to keep Liverpool in the game in the 90th minute.
While he was unable to influence the attack as directly as he has done in recent matches, Alisson’s distribution was once again sharp, as he sought to set Liverpool on the front foot more often than not.
Robertson deserves a mention as well, as the Scotsman once again kept Sterling mostly quiet, stepping up to be counted on a number of one-on-one duels with the former Red. After conceding a paltry seven goals in the first half of the season, Liverpool’s defence will remain key to its title challenge, and on the basis of this performance, the key defensive acquisitions will be equal to the task, even against the most challenging opponents.
Depth Issues Remain:
In addition to the strength of Liverpool’s defence, many supporters – including yours truly – have cited our side’s increased depth as a key factor in our impressive start to the season. To be sure, the acquisitions of Fabinho, Shaqiri and Keita, the emergence of Joe Gomez and the improved consistency of Daniel Sturridge have all played a meaningful role in the Reds’ ascension.
However, the City match highlighted the gulf in depth that remains between Liverpool and Europe’s best. The home side coped with the long-term absence of Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph’s recent suspension by shifting the classy Aymeric Laporte to left-back, brought Danilo off the bench to spell the out-of-form Kyle Walker and was able to call upon Vincent Kompany and Jon Stones at centre back in Laporte’s absence.
Meanwhile, Guardiola was able to protect Kevin De Bruyne as he continues to recover from a long layoff, relying instead on David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho, while Ilkay Gundogan came in off the bench, as did speedy striker Gabriel Jesus.
Liverpool, on the other hand cannot boast the same embarrassment of riches. Weakened at centre back by injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, Liverpool have relied heavily on Lovren next to Virgil van Dijk. While the Croatian has been generally solid when called upon this season, he had a night to forget in Manchester, to add to a startling collection of poor performances in red.
He could have stuck more tightly to Aguero for the opener - which would admittedly have been difficult to stop – played Sterling onside and then failed to shift onto Aguero for the game-winner, headed the ball straight to Sterling to send the winger away on the break in the second half, played Aguero onside for his late breakaway, served up a potential insurance goal on a plate to Sterling late in the game and tossed away Liverpool’s last attacking chance with a woeful straight ball into the box.
Hopefully Gomez and Matip will soon return to the fold, but until then, Liverpool appear forced to rely on Lovren.
Similarly, options are few and far between behind Lovren’s right-sided defensive partner Alexander-Arnold. The youngster had several bright moments – effectively quieting Sane for much of the match and setting up the equaliser with an incredible cross on his weaker left foot – and was given little help on the right, but he struggled at times against a flurry of City attackers and gave away the ball too cheaply at times. Like a few others in this Liverpool side, however, he can’t count on much of a rest, particularly given the fact that his top “backup” is both out injured and our second-best centre back, while his only true like-for-like deputy was just sent on loan for the season.
While there’s plenty of depth in midfield (more on that later), Klopp risks running a handful of key players – most notably Van Dijk, the fullbacks and the front three – into the ground, and an injury to any one of them could prove very costly. While we don’t appear likely to dip into the January transfer market – and have little need for upgrades to the First XI – backup options at fullback, centre back and/or a versatile attacker to deputise for the front three should be considered.
Too Conservative in Midfield:
To a chorus of groans from Reds supporters, Klopp selected a midfield three of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum, opting for experience and solidity and leaving Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri on the bench. Wijnaldum was a no-brainer after he built on an impressive run of form with a masterclass against Arsenal, and Henderson – in addition to offering leadership in a crucial away match – has shown improvement of late (often when played alongside Fabinho) and played Salah through against City for what would have been a late equaliser.
But the exclusion of the Brazilian was a surprising one, and he showed why he might have deserved the start, helping Liverpool gain control almost immediately upon his introduction. It’s clear Klopp trusts the veteran trio in the most challenging away matches, but defeats in Kiev, at PSG and City have revealed a lack of both control and dynamism in that unit. Liverpool have been at their most devastating with players breaking the lines between midfield and attack – as Salah himself notably did on to set up Mane’s early chance – and while Wijnaldum has the ability to do so, there’s no one in Thursday’s trio who truly thrives in that role.
It seems likely Klopp will revert to the 4-2-3-1 for many of the remaining matches, and while I won’t go as far as Jamie Carragher in suggesting the German completely ditch the 4-3-3 (which we may well see in Munich), a change in personnel is needed. Fabinho and Wijnaldum appear the most natural – and in-form – partnership, and while I trust Klopp has his reasons for keeping Keita out of the starting lineup, I hope the Guinean will soon earn his manager’s trust.
Keita made a name for himself in the Bundesliga making attacking runs from midfield and he could offer Liverpool an element they’ve lacked since Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury, whether on the outside of a three-man midfield or as the more adventurous of a pair. While necessity and Father Time may consign Milner to a role offering crucial cover at fullback, Henderson should continue to factor into the midfield rotation – albeit hopefully with different partners.
Moments of Brilliance – even in Defeat
All supporters – from Huddersfield to Madrid – know all too well the feeling of losing an important match to a rival, particularly when the match is decided on such fine margins. That this particular match ended an historic unbeaten run only adds to the harsh disappointment felt at the final whistle.
However, even in such a bitter defeat, our Reds gave us plenty to sing about, no least in this brilliant sequence for the equalising goal. An ocean away from the action, a now-familiar tune rang out from my favourite Liverpool pub in New York, the volume rising with each pass:
We’ve conquered all of Europe - Trent flicks forward to Mane, who slides the ball to Gini.
We’re never gonna stop - Gini and Fabinho take a single touch each, switching the ball wide to Robbo.
From Paris down to Turkey - Robbo back to Fabinho, who shifts inside and sprays the ball wide to Firmino.
We’ve won the fuckin’ lot – Bobby collects the pass, dribbles inside and lays off to Trent.
Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly – A pinpoint Crossfield pass from Trent to Robbo, who takes a touch, looks up and plays back to Fabinho.
The fields of Anfield Road – Fabinho shifts to Henderson, who sprays it back out to Trent.
We are loyal supporters – Trent fakes a cross on his right, takes a touch inside and lifts an inch-perfect ball to Robertson, waving his arm as he darts towards the far post.
And we come from Liverpool – Robbo chips the ball just over the head of Stones, to Bobby who finishes at the back post with a sprawling header.
Allez Allez Allez – Our players converge on Bobby and Robbo – then all together – to celebrate the goal, while our mad Jurgen reaches wildly for a water bottle on the bench before trying to explode it with all his strength.
And at a basement bar in the Financial District of Manhattan, a host of grown men and women jump, shout and sing wildly, filled with love for our Redmen and drunk on possibility, and filled with love for a side who, for the second time in a week had erased a 1-0 deficit against a fellow Top Six side.
To be sure, the atmosphere was quite different eight minutes later, and then at the final whistle. Losing will do that, of course. But in a season full of brilliant moments, Liverpool managed to produce a few more – albeit in defeat. We may no longer be Invincible, but we’re a damn good football team – and we’re going to be a lot of fun to watch over the next four months.