Don’t believe the hype.
Billed as a New Year’s Eve contest that would boast goals and tactical intrigue, Liverpool instead edged out a 1-0 win over visiting Manchester City on the foundations of uncharacteristic water-tight defending.
Georginio Wijnaldum’s towering 8th-minute header was enough to take all the spoils, taking the aggregate scoreline in the last three matches between these northern powerhouses to 8-1 in the Scousers’ favour. Even with Sergio Aguero returning from a four-match suspension, City had very little in response.
While it’s hasty to deem the 10 points between City and table-topping Chelsea as too big a gap to bridge, Pep Guardiola’s men offered minimum evidence to suggest otherwise. Liverpool, meanwhile, stays six points behind Antonio Conte’s lot and is shoring up the backline after some shaky performances there for much of the opening half of the campaign.
Here are three takeaways from Liverpool’s narrow beating of City:
City’s attack kept quiet with minimum fuss
What defensive issues for Liverpool?
Raheem Sterling is unable the silence fans of the club he left under acrimonious circumstances in 2015. He began with the bobbled first touches of a nervous player, showed indiscipline before the break (particularly during a bit of handbags with James Milner), and then proceeded to try to do too much to overcome the Anfield boo boys.
When City was chasing the game in the second period, his beautifully executed stepover was followed by Sterling falling over his own feet. The home support was delighted.
It wasn’t the first occasion he’d failed to turn up against Liverpool: he was ineffectual in a 4-1 home loss in November 2015, and was substituted at half-time against the Reds three-and-a-half months later. He was lucky to not be shamefully hauled off in this outing.
Elsewhere, you could’ve missed Aguero’s return due to his stifling from the disciplined Liverpool back four, and Kevin De Bruyne harried but to little avail, clustered out by a narrow grouping of red shirts.
The fact that this result was carved out in the absence of Joel Matip and through the solidness of the previously maligned Ragnar Klavan will be pleasing for Jurgen Klopp, while Guardiola will be harassing the appropriate paper pushers to get international clearance for Gabriel Jesus’ move as quickly as possible.
Firmino digs in
Philippe Coutinho dazzled until he sustained his ankle ligament injury, and Sadio Mane’s sprightliness will be missed when he heads out to represent Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations, but Roberto Firmino has been superb throughout 2016-17.
A Brazilian that has benefited from the rough and tumble of the Bundesliga, the ex-Hoffenheim forward has improved at a remarkable rate under Klopp, scoring six goals and adding three assists but, most importantly, proving a selfless member of his manager’s first XI.
He didn’t manage a shot in the 90 minutes, but the way he’s embraced the gegenpressing and dirty work – winning two tackles, five aerial duels, making four interceptions, and even belting out a clearance – has made him invaluable even when he’s not involved in the goals.
Even with tallies have temporarily dried up, Firmino, and Wijnaldum’s excellent recycling of possession, energy, and work on the half-turn, are vital components of Klopp’s designs.
Defender a must if City is to challenge
Nicolas Otamendi has been dribbled around more than Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit calendar for 2016. His insistence on diving into tackles and his ball-watching constantly leaves gaps in City’s already vulnerable backline, and he’s been bypassed by a player more times (13) than any other Premier League defender this season.
This time, however, it was Aleksandar Kolarov who was at fault for the goal. Never a natural defender – more of a marauding, blast-an-early-cross kind of full-back – the Serb was bettered by Wijnaldum in the air because the Liverpool player had the hunger and belief to win it. Kolarov was the only one marking a red shirt, but for the anonymity of his defending he should’ve just offered the Dutchman a leg-up.
A move for Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk, a nemesis in the air and wonderfully cultured centre-half, appears to be off, but that doesn’t mean Guardiola shouldn’t dip into the January sales. Failing that, it’s time to give a youngster like Tosin Adarabioyo a sustained run in the side, or to drop back Yaya Toure into the back four, just as he did under Guardiola at Barcelona.