On the spectrum of possible outcomes for the first leg of Manchester’s City matchup against Liverpool, what actually happened was about the worst case scenario if your a City fan. Pep Guardiola’s team got crushed at Anfield from three first half Liverpool goals, and the City haters came out of their hiding places once they saw an opportunity to troll. This game made me upset enough by itself, but now I may also have to avoid large sections of the internet and friends for a week while I talk myself into the idea of City winning by three or more at the Etihad. It’s possible, City did beat Liverpool by five earlier in the season, but the fact that this is the position they are in after the first leg again, upsets me very much.
Anyway, how did this happen? How did arguably the best team in the history of the Premier League look so inept against a team they lead in the standings by 16 points? Well, Liverpool are certainly a poor matchup for City given their style and fearlessness. Jurgen Klopp also always seem to do well against Pep, I know that because the pre-game commentary team decided to spend a lot of time on that as if I wasn’t already stressed enough. I guess you could chalk it up to this and call it a day if you don’t want to think about it anymore. I’d prefer not to think about it anymore but here we are and let’s take a guess at what went wrong.
It seems like Pep may have tried a thing, as he tends to try things with his tactics, and that thing not only didn’t work but backfired horribly. He left Raheem Sterling on the bench for the most important game of the season to introduce Ilkay Gundogan into the starting lineup. He also kept Aymeric Laporte as his left back, or left center back depending on how nitpicky you want to get. City opened the game in what looked like a three-man backline with a four man midfield and a single winger on the left and a single wingback on the right. The midfield four were roughly structured in a box with Fernandinho and De Bruyne deep with David Silva and Gundogan forward. I’m guessing this asymmetry was designed to turn the field towards City’s left wing where the attack could run through Leroy Sane and pin Mo Salah back in defense.
Well, that’s all well and good and it seemed okay for the first ten minutes. Then City shot themselves in the foot on their own corner when Leroy Sane misplaced a pass. Corners are often a good countering opportunity for the opponent and this time was no different against one of the best countering teams in the world. Salah, the guy we were all worried about, got loose down the right and City’s transition defense was pretty terrible. The defense had a reasonable chance to clear the ball out of the box but decided to shoot themselves in the foot once more. Liverpool were quicker to pounce on the loose ball and Roberto Firmino found Salah right in front of goal for a fairly easy tap in.
Okay, down 1-0. That’s not too bad, we’ll be fine. That is what most City fans were thinking right about now. Not quite.
Pep changed his formation a little bit, going to more of a striker partnership up top with Sane and Gabriel Jesus while the midfield shifted into a diamond. Regardless of the structure, City’s usually smooth passing and comfortable possession was interrupted by Liverpool’s pressing and the game got chaotic. Liverpool were once again quicker to pick up the loose ball and City’s backline overcommitted, pulling Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi way out of position. Aymeric Laporte was caught worrying about Salah and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain found himself with a whole bunch of space in a central position right outside the box. To his credit, he produced a remarkable shot on goal that gave Ederson very little chance to stop.
Even down 2 goals, I still feel like we’re going to reconcile this. City can score a couple of goals with ease, shouldn’t be a problem. Again, not quite. Manchester City took that shotgun to their foot one more time for good measure, pretty sure it’s only a bloody stump at this point.
Pep tried to adjust once more, pushing Kyle Walker up into the midfield and going with what looked like a 3-2-4-1. Whatever they did, didn’t help. After a reckless dribble into the midfield from Otamendi that Liverpool turned over fairly easily, the ball found its way over to the right wing with Salah once again. Laporte literally shifted his body to allow Salah to get a clean cross to the back post after the first attempt was blocked. And somehow all three City center backs were on one side of the box, letting Sadio Mane get a clean header over Walker.
The rest of the game kind of progressed as if I was in a daze. Nothing felt real but everything feel all at the same time. I hoped and assumed an away goal would come but it never did. Pep tried to make changes that would help. He moved De Bruyne further forward and dropped Gundogan. He split Silva and De Bruyne wide. He brought on Sterling for Gundogan early in the second half. None of it produced a goal despite the fact that City did look better in final 45 minutes. The decision to go away from the script that has led the Sky Blues to domination all season is certainly a questionable one and we will always question how this game may have turned out differently had Sterling started.
Either way, the City defense was disorganized, poor, and unsure if it wanted to be a back four or back three. To be honest, I’m not sure what happened and I’m going to stop thinking about it now. It’s okay to be sad after what just happened but we shouldn’t forget how good this team is however. Coming back from this deficit certainly is improbable but if any team can do it, City can.