The title is heading to Manchester City but Liverpool’s 4-3 win over the Premier League leaders reminded everyone that Pep Guardiola’s team are not invincible, writes Adam Bate.
Pep Guardiola will not panic. He was the man who seemed more certain than anyone else that this day would come sooner rather than later. Manchester City will not go through the Premier League season unbeaten but they still finish the week with a 15-point lead. A 4-3 defeat to an in-form Liverpool side at Anfield does not undo all of that good work.
But it was proof that City are beatable. There are weaknesses. Buttons to be pushed. Crystal Palace hinted at it, Bristol City provide a gentle nudge of their own. But it was Liverpool who exposed the flaws that had been masked by the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne. They were always there lurking below the surface. Guardiola will not want to see them again for a while.
In truth, he may well not. Jurgen Klopp suggested afterwards that this victory could prove “historic” as the only defeat Manchester City suffer this season. In his view, it took a super-human effort from his team. “We played pressing from another planet,” he told Sky Sports. “So it looked like they were insecure or whatever but that was all forced by us.”
The numbers backed him up. “This is the game where the opposition have won the ball highest,” said Gary Neville on commentary. “Manchester City have made more mistakes.” City played 33 incomplete passes in their own half against Liverpool on Sunday – 50 per cent more than in any other away game this season. They were put under extreme pressure.
“The plan was to defend as well as we can, chase them down and when we get the chance, attack,” Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain told Sky Sports. It was the former Arsenal midfielder who burst through to fire home the game’s opening goal but City’s fragility was really underlined during a second half in which Liverpool opened up a three-goal lead in quick time.
Klopp’s side scored three times in just 10 second-half minutes, during a period of the game in which Manchester City looked to have taken control of the contest. John Stones was outmuscled by Roberto Firmino for Liverpool’s second goal, Nicolas Otamendi allowed Sadio Mane to add a third and Ederson’s error let Mohamed Salah make it 4-1 to the home side.
All three City players have been praised this season. Ederson has been superb, while Stones and Otamendi appeared to have cut out the errors that had undermined the team’s efforts last season. But, according to Opta, in the space of seven minutes, City made as many errors leading to goals as they had in every previous away game of the campaign combined.
It was also the first time this season that City had conceded a second-half goal that put them behind in a Premier League game. The reaction was alarming. “We went from 1-1 to 4-1 and you have to learn from that because in football you can concede one goal but you have to be stable,” Guardiola told Sky Sports. “In that moment, we were not solid enough.”
Guardiola insisted that City must now retain their focus after defeat
On the touchline, he preached calm. Perhaps a fit and focused David Silva might have helped, although Ilkay Gundogan had a good game as his replacement. Maybe Sergio Aguero would have been sharper too had Gabriel Jesus been around to share the burden of leading the Manchester City line during a hectic period for the club in the cup competitions.
But take nothing away from Liverpool. One of the best hopes City have of avoiding this situation arising again is not necessarily to delve into the transfer market but to take comfort in the fixture list. It is Newcastle and West Brom next up in the Premier League. City will only return to Anfield this season if the Champions League draw demands it.
Bristol C vs Man City
January 23, 2018, 7:30pm
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That will be the concern for Guardiola. The possibility that for all of his team’s great football this season, there is still the chance that the control he craves – and the cups he craves – can be snatched away by a buoyant side backed by baying fans and playing to a plan. It has done for him in the Champions League before. It has done for him against Klopp before.
“You have to live these situations during a season,” said Guardiola. “We know how difficult it is at Anfield and the teams of Jurgen Klopp are so aggressive.” Others might be tempted to try. How successful they are is another matter. City are good enough to play through that press more often than not. They remain a great side. But they are no longer invincible.