Well, nobody was quite expecting that. Not Jürgen Klopp; not the Liverpool players; not even the battalion of Scousers who carried out a beer-bombardment on the City bus as it chugged into the Anfield car park (much to Rio Ferdinand’s amusement).
To a man, the Liverpool players showed up. Almost to a man, City’s didn’t. Whilst Liverpool’s players deserve a huge amount of credit, however, this battle was won and lost in the dugout and the dressing room.
Let’s get into it.
There were no big surprises in the Liverpool lineup, which only saw two changes from the previous game in which they scrabbled ast Crystal Palace.
Lovren – a player revitalized since van Dijk’s arrival – came in for Matip. More tellingly, however, was Klopp’s preference for Oxlade-Chamberlain over Wijnaldum, who also started the first leg against Porto. Gini is certainly no slouch with the ball at his feet, but the Ox provides a different, thrusting presence from midfield. This was very much a statement of attacking intent from the manager.
Here we see very much the opposite to a statement of attacking intent!
Pep really out-Pep’d himself this time, opting to drop the in-form Sterling for a fourth central midfielder in Gündoğan. The German would nominally start as a right-mid, but – although he certainly has wonderful feet – he offers nowhere near the pace and one-on-one threat as Sterling, and therefore narrowed City’s attacking options by default.
Laporte retained his place at left-back, over both Danilo and Delph, again signalling Pep’s desire for solidity over cut-and-thrust aggression.
I really don’t wan’t to say that City’s players weren’t “up for” this game. This was a Champions League quarter final, after all, and you don’t unrelentingly dominate the Premier League for an entire season without a strong collective mentality. They simply seemed completely and utterly unprepared. It was as if they’d never seen Liverpool play before.
Liverpool love to begin games with an all-out blitz. That’s not a secret; except, apparently, to Manchester City. Liverpool carried out a frenzied press right from the start, catching City players in possession twice within the first two minutes. City’s only saving grace was that – if anything – Liverpool’s players seemed too amped up for the game, and were themselves unable to get the ball down and build any meaningful attacks in the early going.
City looked slightly more threatening in possession in the first ten minutes, although their midfielders were far from their fluid best. Immediately they started attacking down the left at every opportunity, looking to exploit everybody’s favourite pre-game weak link, Trent Alexander-Arnold.
And then, suddenly, Liverpool were in front. City had been camped just outside their box, when Sané misplaced a lazy, sideways pass. Within ten seconds, Liverpool were in City’s box. Firmino showed brilliant composure to control a difficult ball and get off a quick shot. Ederson parried, City’s defence were nowhere to be seen, and an incredibly wide-open Salah slotted home. A counter-attack with Salah and Firmino – whoever would have thought? Again, it was as if City had never seen Liverpool play.
If anything, the game became even more open after that. Acres of space opened up all over the pitch, into which players from each team gladly ran. City continued to try and work it down the left, and Sané – for his part – dutifully gave the ball away every time. He misplaced passes, he miscontrolled dribbles, he dragged shots wide – he really did it all!
When Liverpool had the ball, City’s players backed off and off obligingly. So obligingly, in fact, that Oxlade-Chamberlain – suddenly finding the ball at his feet with a clear radius of about 5 yards around him – took a couple of dribbles forward and simply let fly. The ball crashed into the back of the net, and just like that it was 2-0 with 20 minutes gone.
Clearly this would be the stage when City would tighten things up. Kompany would whip the defence into gear, and the midfielders would pull themselves together. Needless to say, none of those things happened. City’s players continued to grant their opposition plenty of room, and – 10 minutes later – Sadio Mané, that 5ft9 colossus, crashed in a more-or-less open header to make it 3-0.
None of City’s players should be spared criticism for that first half. Otamendi – a player whose inclusion at a top European club continues to baffle me – was particularly woeful, not just defensively, but with his frequent terrible attempts at long balls forward too. As for Leroy Sané… well, I’ve mentioned him already.
For all their attacking verve, Liverpool’s success in that first half was built on the rock-solid foundation of Henderson and Milner. They made City’s all-world, league-consuming midfield look helpless, staying tight to their men and never allowing them any time or space to get the ball down and play. I haven’t always been Henderson’s biggest fan, but the defensive instincts he showed in the first half (and throughout the game, in fact) – the timing, the positioning, the precision of his tackles – were simply phenomenal.
Just as the first half seemed to simply disappear, the second dragged severely. Liverpool – in a most un-Liverpool-like fashion – opted to sit back and defend their sizable lead. At the time I considered this an extremely risky tactic; this is a team with comfortably the worst defensive record in the Premier League’s top five, after all. In actuality, however, they executed it brilliantly. Henderson and Milner continued to provide a formidable screen, but – even when the ball did get through to the back line – the defence invariably held firm.
City looked utterly toothless. It was hard to believe we were watching the same side who’ve averaged a ludicrous 2.8 goals per game in the Prem this season. De Bruyne buzzed around the pitch as is his wont, poking and prodding but to no avail. Again and again they tried to work it down the left, but – through a combination of Sané having a ‘mare and Alexander-Arnold having the game of his life – this proved fruitless. Sterling came on for Gündoğan after 57 minutes – Pep finally admitting his selection mistake – but City didn’t find any joy down the right either.
Whilst light on action, the second half was an absolute defensive masterclass from Liverpool… a sentence I never thought I would say or type. In the end, the scoreline didn’t flatter them in the least. They were the better team in every department, and – barring a stunning second-leg comeback – can thoroughly look forward to getting demolished by Barça, Bayern or Real in the semi-finals.
Karius – Twiddled his thumbs. Completed a couple of Sudokus. Finished off his tax returns (I’m joking of course – he’s a footballer). Didn’t make a single save, or… do much of anything. –
Alexander-Arnold – Was an absolute monster all night, demolishing Sane and proving all of the doubters (including yours truly) wrong. Tackled brilliantly, and used his pace well to recover when necessary. His best game in a Liverpool shirt. 9
Lovren – A world removed from the absolute mess he was last season. 8
Van Dijk – It’s a sobering thought that 75 million used to get you a Ronaldo. Now it gets you a Lukaku or a van Dijk. That said, however, I know which of those two I’d rather have. Van Dijk has transformed Liverpool’s shaky defence, and was a commanding, calming presence at the back all night. 9
Robertson – Had surprisingly little to do, with City focusing most of their efforts down the left, but stood tall when called upon. Made a couple of nice runs in the first half too. 8
Oxlade-Chamberlain – Connected the midfield and attack well in the first half. Drove forwards purposefully with the ball, and worked hard without it. Cracking goal. Influence faded in the second half with the change of tactics. 8
Henderson – An absolute rock. His constant breakup of play was arguably the key to the game for Liverpool. 9
Milner – A typically energetic, well-rounded performance. Helped Henderson to keep City’s midfielders quiet, and covered well for Robertson when necessary. 8
Salah – A constant menace on counter-attacks and inside the box. Took his goal with typical composure. Liverpool will hope desperately that the injury he picked up in the second half proves minor. 8
Mané – Nice goal, but not the flashiest performance from the Senegalese. 7
Firmino – Did brilliantly in the buildup to the first goal, and linked Liverpool’s attack together seamlessly as usual. 8
Wijnaldum (58) – Replaced the injured Salah, and worked industriously in the midfield. 6
Solanke (71) – A strange replacement for Firmino, but held the ball up well on the rare occasion he got it, and tracked back dutifully. 6
Moreno (85) – Brought on far too late to blow the game for Liverpool. –
Ederson – Should have done better with Firmino’s initial, fairly weak shot for the first goal, which he pushed straight back into play. Couldn’t really be faulted for either of the other two. 5
Walker – A quiet night – didn’t make many mistakes, but didn’t contribute much either. Baffling as to why Guardiola didn’t get him involved more going forward. 6
Otamendi – His apparently unshakable hold on a starting place in this lineup is one of the biggest mysteries in football to me. Gave the ball away constantly, made clumsy tackles and is incapable of defending one-on-one. 3
Kompany – You have to respect Big Vin for everything he’s achieved, and for the way he conducts himself, but he simply looked past it here. Made uncharacteristic mistakes, and was unable to cope with the speed and precision of Liverpool’s attack. 4
Laporte – Extremely solid defensively, making a particularly gorgeous sliding tackle on a runaway Ox in the first half, and containing Salah well. Didn’t contribute offensively… but he is a center-back, not a wing-back. 7
Fernandinho – Sloppy game from the Brazilian. Was caught upfield on numerous occasions in the first half, offering no cover at all to his defence. Showed obvious frustration in second half with a series of speculative, hopeless long range shots. 5
Silva – Suffered more than anyone from Henderson and Milner’s outstanding defensive play. Tried to help Sané on the left flank in the second half, but to little effect. 5
De Bruyne – A strangely loose and ineffective performance. Roamed around the midfield as usual, but didn’t use the ball smartly, pumping a number of random crosses into the box with only Jesus to aim at. Was also nullified by the Henderson/Milner axis. 5
Gündoğan – Offered next to nothing in the first half, and was an obvious sacrifice in the second. 5
Sané – The young German has all the talent in the world, but you wouldn’t have guessed it tonight. Was unable to make any headway down the left, and – on the rare occasion he did threaten Liverpool’s box – was constantly wasteful with the ball. 4
Jesus – Marked out of the game, and received no service from City’s constricted midfield. Showed obvious, understandable frustration in the second half. 5
Sterling (57) – Should have started from a tactical perspective, but contributed nothing when he did come on. His comical accidental dispossession of Gabriel Jesus in injury time perfectly encapsulated City’s night. That’s one contribution, I suppose. 5
I don’t want to take anything away from Liverpool’s players, but – in truth – this came down to the managers. Whilst Klopp did coach a perfect game, City had lost this match before it even began in two main ways.
Firstly, they weren’t mentally prepared. Liverpool have been blitzing their opponents out of the gates for years now (here’s a particularly painful example, from a personal perspective, from 2014), and yet City clearly weren’t ready for that aggression. They were second to every ball, weaker in every challenge, and simply showed no fight.
Secondly, we have the respective team selections. One side chose a lineup that augmented their natural attacking tendencies. The other eschewed their own natural attacking tendencies in favour of a perceived solidity… and look how that turned out.
Starting Gündoğan instead of Sterling was a statement of intent in all the wrong ways. Pep clearly thought City would get enough attacking joy out of their left flank – going at the double-barreled duo of AOC and TAA – to excuse not attacking at all down the right. He also thought City would be able to get the ball down and play in typical fashion, in which case Gündoğan would have been a useful inclusion. Again, however, this didn’t take into account Liverpool’s tendency to press and push back midfielders early.
Pep’s use of his full-backs was also baffling. They didn’t overlap at all – not just the natural CB Laporte, but Walker too – which blunted City’s attacks and meant they came mostly through the center, where they were invariably snuffed out by Liverpool’s burly midfield duo. He was presumably wary of Liverpool’s counter attacking prowess… but they still got countered and scored upon in the first half even with these precautions! From a manger who’s used attacking full-backs to devastating effect for much of his career, this was a baffling choice.
Klopp, on the other hand, got every single decision right. His lineup was perfect, and his in-game management – including the switch from an attacking 4-3-3 in the first half to a 4-4-2 in the second (which, whilst defensive, still offered the threat of a counter-attack to keep City from committing too much forwards) – was flawless.
Will Liverpool be able to sustain their newfound defensive solitude for an entire 90 minutes at the Etihad? Will Pep think “Screw it, I’m 3-0 down anyway,” and finally just realize his dream of playing 11 midfielders? We’ll find out next Tuesday.