* There is a running joke about 1-1 draws between the three of us at Football365. These are the least desirable results, because it makes it harder to ‘conclude’ anything beyond the remit of the 90 minutes. You can’t make sweeping statements when neither side has won and neither lost.
This was the exception to that rule. There were enough highlights in one match to fill a whole website, and enough points of interest to write a book. Both Manchester City and Liverpool might have been desperate for a late winner, but the game was not. It would have been ludicrous for either side to lose it and ludicrous for either to win it. As a mark of respect, they both did their very best not to.
From fine saves, the woodwork being struck, horrendous misses, controversial incidents and beautiful through balls, this was a 90-minute, shambolic romp of a football match – and I mean that as the strongest possible compliment. The phrase ‘best league in the world’ is now used purely as sarcastic cliche as a stick with which to beat the Premier League, but this season has produced some sensational matches, in terms of excitement if not necessarily quality.
Newsflash: People doing things badly is just as entertaining as people doing things well, and people doing both unexpectedly and repeatedly is just about the most fun you can have on a Sunday afternoon without getting a stitch. We watched on captivated, mouths opening wider with each lurch into the bizarre.
* Forget immovable object against unstoppable force, this was a pair of movable objects daring each other to score goals at will. Manchester City and Liverpool’s strengths and weaknesses are so obvious they barely warrant repeating, but it is fair to say that both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp will be buying defenders this summer.
Yet the premise of this match was a game between two exceptional attacks and two weak defences. This was the day that the former group demonstrated that they could be equally unreliable. Nobody wanted to miss out on the slapstick.
If David Silva started us off by blazing wide when calmness would surely have allowed City to take the lead, it was the sixth or seventh worst miss by the time Michael Oliver blew the final whistle. Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho and Kevin de Bruyne might have thought that they had filled the medal spots, only for Adam Lallana to produce something worthy of a lengthy introduction from Danny Baker or Nick Hancock calling him a pillock.
Quite how the Liverpool midfielder made no contact four yards out only he will know, but by then the officials were checking for magnetic fields around the goals and ball. As if to spare his embarrassment, Aguero waited for a high cross to find him eight yards from goal, set himself perfectly and then volleyed the ball 35 rows back into the blue seats. By then we were left giggling at what was unfolding.
Guardiola was less enthralled by the catalogue of comedy misses as the rest of us. “We have clear chances and we don’t score goals,” he said after the match. “That’s why we can’t compete with the top teams. I’ve thought many times what I can do to help my players score goals but for me it is not easy.”
More double shooting sessions in training this week? Make them fetch the ball from the nettle patch if they miss? Or stingers for every shot off target?
* So here’s the thing about a winter break. I understand that it would be a good idea if we want England to achieve international success, because the non-stop intensity and pace of the Premier League between August and May is not ideal preparation for a four-week tournament often played in hot weather.
I understand too that some elite-level managers would prefer one, when their employment is judged at least partly on their team’s performances in Europe and they face opposition on an unequal playing field in the spring. I sympathise with them on that issue.
Yet I can’t get on board with it, and not just because Christmas without football is not something I want to even imagine. As I said above, mistakes can be as entertaining as excellence, and sometimes more so. The last 20 minutes between City and Liverpool, when both teams were chronically low on energy, were some of the most entertaining of the entire season. Fatigue forces mistakes, but also allows players to have extra time on the ball.
If we truly are making a decision between England or exciting domestic fare (and it clearly is far more nuanced that that), it is a moot point. The Premier League, the bread and butter and the cash cow, will always win out. After games such as these, it’s easy to get on board.
* I don’t want to talk about officiating decisions throughout this piece, but the game did flare up when Yaya Toure caught Emre Can on the shoulder with his boot and was awarded a yellow card.
Plenty will consider it worthy of a red (and it did lie in classic ‘orange’ territory), but Toure was saved by the fact his boot was not high off the ground, as both players were lying on the floor at the time. Add in the wet weather and slippy conditions, and you can understand why referee Oliver went for yellow.
* The first penalty shout came for Liverpool, with Sadio Mane and Nicolas Otamendi colliding in the area. Firstly, Otamendi’s lack of speed is embarrassing when he comes up against a quick wide forward. As Mane surged past him, Otamendi looked like the man in the diver’s suit in the London marathon sprinting down the Mall.
As for the incident itself, you can hardly blame Oliver for not giving the penalty. It looked on extremely close inspection like Mane kicked Otamendi’s leg when trying to strike his shot. It was messy, but the right decision.
* It initially looked like a dreadful miss, but Liverpool actually got incredibly fortunate during the incident from which City should have taken the lead. Leroy Sane’s cross was missed by Sterling and Fernandinho should have scored at the back post, but replays showed that there were two fouls.
Firstly, Ragnar Klavan pulled back Aguero and stopped him from getting to the ball. A penalty should have been awarded and Klavan sent off because he made no attempt to play the ball. Secondly, James Milner’s studs connected with Sterling’s ankle before the ball arrived. A penalty should have been awarded and a yellow card given to Milner, who we can reasonably estimate was attempting to play the ball.
* I do think Sterling is and will continue to be an excellent winger, but he really does have to watch his tendency to drift offside. There were seven offsides in the first half, and Sterling accounted for four. These are the moments that annoy supporters and stick in their minds.
Sterling’s habit stems from a hunger to impress – and disprove the critics – and that was merely exacerbated against his former side. But it is particularly frustrating considering his speed. When faced with Milner, the last thing he needs to do is go early; play it safe and make sure.
* As if to continue the theme of the first half, the opening goal came from a penalty and contained plenty of controversy. Many – including Gary Neville – defended Gael Clichy, stating that the left-back got a touch on the ball, but that fails to take into account that the rule on high feet doesn’t make mention of the ball. It was clumsy enough that a penalty was an understandable call.
More important was just how badly Clichy dealt with the danger. He was slow to react to Can’s pass, forced into turning quickly towards his own goal. It was a pain Steven Gerrard has felt before; the subsequent slip was caused by the initial error.
Having lost his balance and allowed Roberto Firmino time and space in the penalty area, Clichy compounded his error by clumsily attempting to thwart danger rather than running past his opponent and attempting to block the shot. His presence in the back four continues to be an emphatic indictment of City’s spending on defenders over the last three years.
Also, well done Milner for scoring your penalty, and a big ‘come on now’ to those booing him. Just because someone played for your club and doesn’t any more, doesn’t mean he is now your enemy.
* When Aguero first got a chance to impress Guardiola after Gabriel Jesus’ injury, it was against Monaco in the Champions League last-16 first leg and he was superb. Aguero hassled and harried and made 29% of his tackles for the season. I praised him for that increased effort and also his ability to hold the ball up. I spoke too soon.
Guardiola’s style dictates that his centre forward has to hold up the ball. The typical Guardiola attack is for the ball to be played to the feet of the striker, who brings the No. 10 into play. The No. 10 then feeds one of the wingers. The winger beats his full-back and plays the ball across goal for the striker, or pulls it back to where the No. 10 is now standing.
At Bayern Munich, Robert Lewandowski was the perfect option. He started moves, allowed Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben to do their thing and then finished beautifully. Aguero has all of the ability – apart from holding up the ball. Too often he lost it in that first challenge with a central defender, before moaning that he had been fouled.
If that sounds ultra-harsh given Aguero’s ability, this is not a character assassination. But every striker has to have both sufficient ability and the game to match the manager’s system; Aguero matches only one of the two criteria. Being dangerous when defenders are tiring, as he was against Liverpool, doesn’t make you a likely starter but the perfect impact substitute.
* One of my criticisms of Guardiola after the defeat to Monaco was the lack of support for Fernandinho in central midfield, with Toure absent. On the evidence of Sunday, we can see why.
Toure remains excellent in moments, but no longer has the energy to drive a midfield in a match against formidable opponents. That is not a criticism of his ability, but his struggle to last or be useful beyond the 65-minute mark means that an early substitution will always be necessary. When Guardiola has a shortage of useful central midfielders (with Ilkay Gundogan injured), that becomes a serious issue.
* Although Guardiola will be disappointed not to have won the match, his system of passing out from the back actually worked well under scrutiny. The pre-match suspicion was that Liverpool’s high press combined with City’s insistence on the goalkeeper passing to his central defenders and then into central midfield could go hideously wrong for the home side. City did indeed suffer a couple of hairy moments during the first half, but were aware that Liverpool’s energy levels would have to drop as the game progressed.
Otamendi continues to look like a competition winner when he is turned and forced to face his own goal, but this was one of John Stones’ best performances since arriving from Everton. The defender made two superb blocks, and there were far fewer wasted seconds with the ball at his feet when neither a pass nor stride forward comes. Those are the seconds that invite pressure.
Fernandinho also dealt well with the dual role Guardiola asked of him, although predictably looked better in central midfield after Bacary Sagna’s introduction. No player in the match made more interceptions.
* Gini Wijnaldum was again excellent for Liverpool in the box-to-box role and looks totally revitalised, but I have to pass comment again on Lallana’s energy. The horrific miss may cloud his Sunday evening, but the move was started by yet another bursting run from midfield. What’s new?
Lallana covered 13.51km against City, the most on the pitch by almost 1.5km, and he also sprinted 11 times more than any other player with 90. These are quite ludicrous energy levels.
* One anomaly from the match was how close to goal the many, many shots came. Has someone been swotting up on expected goals statistics and putting the air conditioning on?
Of the 26 shots in the match, the only one from outside the area came in the final minute, when Aguero shot over. That percentage of 96% from inside the area is comfortably the highest in any Premier League game since the start of last season.
The previous highest this season was 85%, so the gap between first and second is the same as between second and 15th on that list. That it came during a game involving Toure and Philippe Coutinho is, to me at least, remarkable.
* For all the frustration at his own side’s misses, Klopp will surely be mightily pleased with a point and another unbeaten match against one of the best teams in the league. Liverpool now lead a mini-league between the top six with 20 points, with Chelsea second on 13. That speaks volumes about their ability to press and effectively counter attack those teams who like to dominate possession.
The flipside to that is Liverpool’s tendency to struggle against the lesser sides in the league, which is why Klopp was so enthused by the home win over Burnley. Liverpool will need to keep that up to achieve a top-four place that is far from secure, but the manager cannot accuse his players of flaking on the big occasions. It’s a handy stage on which to find resilience, quality and form.
* The other question to Klopp might be why his side looked as tired as Manchester City given the gap in their workloads this season? Guardiola’s team played 90 minutes on Wednesday against Monaco in a tie that went down to the wire. This was also their 45th match of the season.
In contrast, this was Liverpool’s 38th match of the season and they had enjoyed a full week off. Perhaps it demonstrates the lack of the depth in Klopp’s squad and therefore difficulty in effective rotation, or it exposes the physical demands of the German’s pressing strategy. But it was really interesting – and obvious – to see when both sides hit their wall. For City it came after 55 minutes, for Liverpool soon after Aguero’s equaliser.
The assumption was that, given City’s midweek assignment, Liverpool would be stronger over the last 20 minutes. In reality it turned into the 11th and 12th rounds of a heavyweight boxing bout, both throwing punches but unable to hold up their arms in defence. Great fun to watch as a spectator, less fun to watch as a manager.
* A quick final point, but an important one. Anyone who left that game before the end for reasons other than medical emergency should be banned for life or forced to write out 100,000 times ‘That game was sodding mental so who cares about the bloody traffic?’.
If you’re so busy that you need to leave a match like that four minutes early to beat the queues, you aren’t planning your time appropriately. Have a long look at yourselves.
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