Three goals, and one off the woodwork.
In a phenomenal eight minutes midway through the second-half at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool inflicted more damage on Manchester City and the Pep Guardiola way than the rest of their Premier League rivals put together this season.
They scored and scored and scored again. They could have scored more, in fact, had Sadio Mane not driven a curling shot against the left post after 61 minutes.
Most importantly, they delivered a blueprint. This is how you do it. This is how you worry them. Manchester United, Chelsea, all those teams that have been made to look strictly second best by City this season should be a little red-faced after this.
Nobody has taken it to City as Liverpool did on Sunday; nobody has pressed them like this. By the end, players that have conceded just five games away from home in this Premier League campaign were made to look skittish and physically soft again. Weaknesses it was thought had been shaken off since last summer returned. Frailties surfaced and were exploited perfectly. John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi, Ederson Moraes, the backbone of City’s defensive resurgence were all bullied and harassed into mistakes. It was a stunning display by Jurgen Klopp’s team.
‘We’ve won it five times,’ the locals like to sing of the European triumphs – and that is coincidentally the number of times Klopp has now defeated Guardiola. One more than Mourinho, despite playing in different leagues for much of his coaching career.
The speed of the press and the emphasis on lightning counter attack are the heart of it – qualities Guardiola instils in his own players, too. Maybe that is why no other team has emulated Liverpool’a achievement this season: they simply haven’t the players to do it. Klopp has moulded a team to play this way. Here was the epitome of his performance aims.
So: those three goals. The ones that stopped what was shaping up to be an invincible season in its tracks. The first came on the hour. Ederson had already made two excellent saves in the half – one from Mohamed Salah, the next from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – but he was powerless here. Oxlade-Chamberlain played the ball through to Roberto Firmino and he outmuscled Stones on the run, before lifting a fabulous finish past Ederson and in, one bounce, off the far post.
Within two minutes, the lead increased. Otamendi, appearing increasingly nervous, was caught in possession by Salah just outside the penalty area, the ball fed square to Mane. He sized up the target and hit a fabulous shot which defeated Ederson at his near post. Surely it couldn’t get better than this? It could.
Salah overhit a through pass which Ederson collected, but instead of dispatching it with his usual calm, he delivered it back to the sender. Salah, seeing the goalkeeper stranded, simply lifted it over his head and into the empty net. Anfield was in rapture
Bernardo Silva pulled one back for City with six minutes remaining, and then Ilkay Gundogan made it 4-3 in injury time to conjure thoughts of a famous comeback, but it was no enough. The best team won. Not the best team in the league, because that hasn’t changed, but the best team on the day certainly.
It wasn’t really the best day for Arsenal before this, but it seemed to get a lot worse nine minutes in. That was when the excellent Roberto Firmino won a tussle with Fabian Delph through sheer persistence, and fed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain some 40 yards from goal.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was a controversial choice by Jurgen Klopp, not because he hasn’t been in good nick lately, but because his selection relegated Adam Lallana to the substitutes bench, so soon after a handy display against Everton in the FA Cup. Klopp’s call was vindicated, however, by what happened next.
Oxlade-Chamberlain drove forward, past Fernandinho and unleashed a low shot from 25 yards out that flew across goalkeeper Ederson and in at the far post. Why was this bad news for Arsenal? The numbers.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has scored as many goals in his last 20 Premier League matches for Liverpool, as he did in his last 71 for Arsenal. Without doubt, he has improved under Klopp. Without doubt, he has found a position. Think back to his final months at Arsenal when there was so much delight about his reinvention as a right wing-back. It is fair to say this is preferable.
The lead didn’t make it to half-time of course, but Liverpool certainly made a statement with their first-half display. Their pressing game, particularly the forwards, was magnificent, and they carved out several decent chances. In the 15th minute, Firmino fed Mohamed Salah whose intricate footwork found a way through to Ederson, but his shot was off balance and tame.
Oxlade-Chamberlain and Firmino combined again after 31 minutes when the former Arsenal man his a near post cross that Firmino failed to turn in with his head. Yet just as admirably as the chances they were creating, so Liverpool were restricting Manchester City’s attacking threat.
Indeed, it took them 20 minutes to create a chance, a lovely cross from Kevin De Bruyne that Sergio Aguero just couldn’t get a touch on in the six yard box. Leroy Sane and Fernandinho both had shots go wide but when City equalised after 41 minutes, it was about as near to ‘against the run of play’ as any City goal has been this season.
Raheem Sterling, booed constantly as usual, fed the ball back to Kyle Walker who hit a lovely crossfield pass from the right back position. It found Sane perfectly and he did the rest, cutting inside a bamboozled Joe Gomez before finishing smartly past Loris Karius. Should he have done better? It was one hell of a shot.
City lost Delph after 31 minutes, a leg trapped underneath him, stretching for a tackle, but Danilo was the replacement and that famous Pep Guardiola shape remained intact.