All talk of this Manchester City team being the greatest English side in history can end now. As dominant as they have been in the Premier League this season – they’re on the verge of breaking a series of records, from most points accumulated to most wins in a season – the way they were despatched yesterday at Anfield is testament to the qualities still lacking in Pep Guardiola’s side.
Take nothing away from Liverpool, however. They were simply brilliant in the opening 45 minutes at Anfield yesterday in the first leg of the all-England Champions League Quarter Final.
Within 20 minutes, they were two goals up. If this was a boxing match, we’d be discussing a first round knockout between two heavyweights. City couldn’t live with Liverpool and, what’s more, some of their players folded under the pressure and expectation.
All too often this season, teams have gone into battle with City and bent over, for want of a better description. Many have been beaten before the first whistle was blown, others have simply given up after going a goal down. The modus operandi for facing City this team has generally been to park the bus, defend deep and try and walk away with a goalless draw.
That tactic simply plays into the hands of Pep’s men, who thrive when in possession of the ball and recycle possession endlessly until they expose a gap or weakness in a backline and pounce. One famous description compared facing a Pep Guardiola team to being in a washing machine, such is the exhausting and dizzying effect of chasing the ball around the pitch.
Liverpool last night showed the world exactly how to combat this City team: take the game to them, press high and harry the midfield.
True, it is easier said than done, but twice now Liverpool have shown it is by far the best strategy to use against them. Bristol City, challenging for promotion in the Championship, also adopted such a tactic to much success during their recent League Cup encounter.
The front three of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firminho are built for such a game; they press, chase and disrupt defences as if its a craving, whilst also mixing some world class forward play to devastating effect.
Salah once again opened the scoring last night to take his tally this season to 42 for club and country. Perhaps he was offside during the build-up, and perhaps he was fortunate to have the ball ricochet to him in the box, but you make your own luck at this level and it was no more than Liverpool deserved in the opening stages of the game.
The goal of the night was undoubtedly Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s thunderbolt to make it 2-0. The best part of 25 yards out, the midfielder found himself in acres of space and decided to test Ederson from long range. By the time the City keeper reacted to Chamberlain’s arrow, the ball was in the back of the net. It was an effort fit for such an occasion and likely would’ve been a shoe-in for goal of the tournament were it not for Cristiano Ronaldo’s career-defining overhead kick the night before.
By half-time, City were 3-0 down and punch drunk. Pep Guardiola looked stunned. This wasn’t supposed to happen; the supposedly infallible Manchester City had been dismantled and embarrassed.
The first half yesterday showed that City still have glaring issues to resolve before they can challenge properly at the top table. Their defence hasn’t been questioned to this extent all season and they were deeply exposed yesterday.
For all his pace and brilliance in surging up the flanks to support attacks, Kyle Walker still hasn’t learned the art of defending at full-back, whilst Nicolas Otamendi reverted to the rash centre-back that has characterised his career in Europe. Vincent Kompany struggled to keep up with the pace of the game, owing to his twilight years, and if Aymeric Laporte is the second most expensive defender of all time, I’d be begging Athletic Bilbao for my money back.
True, the Spaniard-cum-Frenchman isn’t a left back, but he was exposed time and time again yesterday. He’s too slow on the turn and not yet ready for the wham-bam nature of English football.
It is wishful thinking to believe City are still in this tie as we head into the second-leg next Tuesday at The City of Manchester Stadium. Yes, they have more than enough in them to equal the three goals that Liverpool scored yesterday, but it is hard to believe that Liverpool won’t score next week.
City have no choice but to attack from the get-go in the second leg. That will leave huge space for Liverpool to counter and produce the kind of ‘heavy metal football’ that Jurgen Klopp craves. One goal for the reds and it’s all over; City would need 5 to progress and that seems highly unlikely.
One would hope Jose Mourinho was looking on yesterday and taking notes: this is how you play against Manchester City. No doubt however, he’s polishing the rims of his Manchester United bus this evening, ready to park it in front of his goal come Saturday evening, when the two Manchester sides face off for what could be a title-winning tussle for City.