How Manchester City stifled Liverpool – and themselves – in unlikely Anfield stalemate

The fourth and final 2018 instalment of Liverpool and City‘s burgeoning rivalry proved the poorest of all four 

Mark Critchley
Anfield
Sunday 07 October 2018 18:44
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Manchester City 2018/19 Premier League profile

Did you see that? Did that just happen? Did English football’s two paragons of attacking football, responsible for three of the best games of this calendar year so far, this season’s ‘Challengers and Champions’ no less, just serve up a bowl of cold sick?

This fourth and final 2018 instalment of Liverpool and Manchester City‘s burgeoning rivalry proved the poorest of all four by some margin, with two normally cavalier teams cancelling each other out, to the point where this smouldering rivalry became something of a Cold War.

Riyad Mahrez registered the afternoon’s first shot on target in the 62nd minute. Another followed from Mohamed Salah seconds later. The contest then opened up slightly – not because of any great quality, but because of a series of cheap fouls, broken counter-attacks and the drama of Mahrez’s late penalty, blazed high over the crossbar.

Otherwise, the ding-dong many anticipated simply did not arrive. Few had considered this would be so stiff and rigid while previewing the game, but perhaps it should not come as so much of a surprise.

For Liverpool, this was almost too important. The onus was on Jurgen Klopp‘s side to state their credentials and Anfield crackled with expectancy in dominant opening spell, when City struggled to settle.

Attacks would break down but the ball would be recovered quickly, and the home support would applaud in excited encouragement. But Liverpool’s explosive frontline of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané appeared to have been strangely defused.

For City, though, this was a reunion with their tormentors in chief. What they wanted was a pain-free afternoon with a positive result at the end of it, even if that meant that the points ultimately had to be shared.

Guardiola denied that he would alter his approach in his Friday press conference. “I never understood going in the bigger stages like that and try to just defend,” he said. “That is not going to happen. We are not going to defend.”

Both managers are known for their attacking play

This insistence on attacking play would be qualified, though. City would defend, Guardiola said, but at the right times, specifically when Liverpool are “better”. For an ideologue like him, this was as close as he could come to admitting that yes,

“They scare me,” Guardiola candidly admitted to his former assistant Domenec Torrent while discussing Liverpool’s front three last season. City’s approach was by no mean defined by this fear of Salah, Firmino and Mané’s abilities, but it was informed and inhibited by it.

Guardiola will have thought he could stay true to his Cryuffian principles and still play a little safer. He might argue that the core concepts of juego de posicion can be applied just as well while moving the ball a little slower. This is what City did, particularly in a stiff, terse and sadly dull first half.

It worked though, preventing City from falling prey to the short, intense spells of poor play that scuppered them against Liverpool last season. Back in January, Klopp’s side scored three in nine minutes to take the game away from them. In April, for the Champions League semi-final, it was three goals in 19 minutes.

This is a common theme for Guardiola. Leicester City inflicted one of the worst defeats of his first season in charge by scoring three in 17 minutes. Even Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United – not generally associated with the word ‘explosive’ – scored three in 16 to inflict their only league defeat at the Etihad last season.

If City have a weakness, it is this tendency to lose track of themselves. That did not happen here, thanks to their ever-so slightly more conservative approach. If Mahrez had aimed his spot-kick a little lower, City would have won this game.

But did the approach that prevented kept the misfiring Salah, Mané and Firmino quiet also inhibit City’s own attack? There were points, in the closing stages, where an increasingly ragged Liverpool looked there to be taken, and not merely from the penalty spot.

City pressed a little more, but always held something back. The fear of being caught out themselves, by those tormentors in chief, meant they let a little behind. They stifled Liverpool and, simultaneously, themselves. An important point, but Guardiola might wonder if it could have been three.

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