Sports

16 Conclusions on Guardiola, Klopp, Steffen and…


Pep Guardiola messed up with his team selection but perhaps he had to. Jurgen Klopp remarkably keeps those Liverpool plates spinning.

 

1) Finally, another one to add to the set. In the six years since Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp took their respective posts at Manchester City and Liverpool, the two teams had played each other 15 times. There had been scorelines of 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 3-0, 3-1, 4-0, 4-1, 4-3 and 5-0. Both sides had won five meetings. The average goals scored per game was 3.2.

A five-goal thriller was apropos for one of their biggest games. In terms of immediate high stakes, Guardiola and Klopp have rarely clashed in such an important match during their times in England. But that barely seemed to impact upon their general approach against each other: focus on their own considerable strengths and expect them to outweigh any underlying weaknesses. Manchester City raise the standard of Liverpool and vice versa, with no Machiavellian thought of trying to cancel anyone out.

Events earlier in the week made these two managers the current longest-serving in the Premier League. This was a riotous 90-minute festival of recognition for such dynastical brilliance that should still have at least a couple more years left to go.

 

2) But this game perhaps best underlined the difference between a 3-1 Champions League advantage that could be carried into a home game against Benfica, and a 1-0 lead that had to be defended at Atletico Madrid. Both Liverpool and Manchester City made seven changes; the former to a makeshift team and the latter to a full-strength one. That was the telling contrast.

More instructive was that Manchester City made five alterations from the previous Liverpool game – Zack Steffen for Ederson, Nathan Ake for Aymeric Laporte, Oleksandr Zinchenko for Kyle Walker, Fernandinho for Rodri and Jack Grealish for Kevin De Bruyne – while Liverpool swapped only Joel Matip for Ibrahima Konate, Jordan Henderson for Naby Keita and Luis Diaz for Diogo Jota in terms of last Sunday’s line-ups.

When the substitutes are then factored in and Liverpool’s ability to bring on four fresh, high-level replacements in comparison to Guardiola surveying a knackered bench and only considering Riyad Mahrez worth risking for the final seven minutes, the pre-match favourites were the victors.

 

3) That is a crass and decontextualised reduction of an enthralling match. But it should be said that the general quality did not weigh up to their Premier League game. The mistakes were far more frequent, spread throughout both teams and directly influential to the result. Some of the play was naturally phenomenal – Liverpool’s third goal was as good as anything either side produced a week ago – yet overall it was less technically impressive.

That could be put down to the removal of a safety net that league football with many fixtures remaining offers. Competitive knockout games are often more fraught and the jeopardy is higher. But the key is more likely in how these sides – gilded as they are – have already been stretched close to their absolute limits this season. It is foolish to expect flawlessness three times a week, even if that is the natural instinct of the mortal fan. Klopp managing his squad better than Guardiola was the precursor to this victory but again, circumstance allowed that to happen.

 

4) Those who disrupted the minute’s silence for Hillsborough before the match should be utterly ashamed of themselves. Chanting through that is despicable, embarrassing and indefensible. It is impossible to understand any mindset that considered it an appropriate response to the remembrance of the 97 souls lost and hundreds of thousands more affected by unpunished horrors that 33 years cannot hope to heal. Poking at those wounds is contemptible cowardice.

Credit to Michael Oliver for having the wherewithal to cut it short and prevent anything more heinous. Well done to Manchester City for releasing an apology detailing how they were ‘extremely disappointed with the actions of some City supporters’. There can be rivalry. There can be needle. But don’t be such deplorable c***s.

 

5) Steffen’s first touch was to nervously lift a relatively routine ball to Zinchenko out for a throw-in under absolutely no pressure after two minutes; it felt like a mistake at the time but was actually a tactic he might have contemplated revisiting.

Guardiola will defend his decision to rotate goalkeepers and it should be noted that it only came undone against a team that won a trophy a couple of months ago by almost exclusively using their back-up shot-stopper. But outcome bias is inevitable with such a big call and both he and Steffen messed up. It is a point made numerous times before but worth reiterating because it really was emphasised just how difficult to replace Ederson is in this team.

 

Manchester City goalkeeper Zach Steffen concedes against Liverpool

 

6) Guardiola made an almost celebratory reference to how Manchester City restricted Liverpool to a solitary corner after their last meeting. It came in the 77th minute and was headed clear by John Stones as the country’s most effective team from attacking set-pieces had one of their key weapons disabled. It was one of the most impressive aspects of an excellent performance.

Before that match, Guardiola admitted his side simply had to “accept” that “threat” because Liverpool’s players were “taller”. Watching 6ft 4ins Ibrahima Konate saunter past his nominal 5ft 9ins marker Gabriel Jesus, then thoroughly outjump the equally unimposing 5ft 11ins Nathan Ake to score the first goal, you could see the Spaniard’s point. Aymeric Laporte and Rodri, both at 6ft 3ins, are not only figuratively huge absences in this team.

 

7) The exultant release of a flare from the delirious Liverpool supporters actually afforded fans and viewers a sort of glimpse into the Manchester City psyche. For the subsequent few minutes after the goal, the pitch was covered in a red smoke that neatly reflected the brain fog of the team in blue.

Both teams essentially reversed their starts from six days prior. Liverpool were the aggressors, pressing high and pursuing the opposition relentlessly. Manchester City stumbled out of the blocks, each touch laced with a mild panic. As robotic as they can often seem, it was striking to watch so many passes played a couple of yards too short or long. That would barely be a mistake for any other team but for these players it disrupted their rhythm and slowed things down.

Liverpool forced a couple of turnovers in Manchester City’s defensive third in the opening five minutes, with Naby Keita a particularly difficult obstacle to clear. John Stones attempted one lofted pass out to the right that was horribly short. Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus had one touch each in the first ten minutes but most alarming was Bernardo Silva, whose pass accuracy in that same period was 43%. Manchester City were maddeningly incoherent early on and the sluggishness of an improvised team can only account for some of that. They did not seem prepared.

 

8) The Liverpool midfield exacerbated that. The absurd balance afforded by Fabinho’s rest defence, positioning and sweeping, Naby Keita’s press triggers and work-rate and Thiago’s variance would have dominated any side’s centre, not least an overloaded Silva and deteriorating Fernandinho.

Keita was so good in the first half and the fitness of the 27-year-old and Thiago, two brittle but potentially game-changing components of this Liverpool machine, will be crucial in the closing weeks. The Guinean brings something that Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Curtis Jones and those other options cannot: an energy, urgency and ability to effectively man mark, which he did so well against Silva.

 

9) As alluded to, Steffen’s anxiety could immediately be sensed through the screen, so Liverpool’s players must have noticed a weak spot that was worth prodding. By the 17th minute, a series of passes around the Manchester City defence ended with Stones rolling the ball back to the goalkeeper, whose first touch killed it dead and effectively undid him. The Ederson situation last week seemed more obviously hazardous but the key difference was in how the Brazilian’s first touch played the ball into the open space and away from pressure, giving him more breathing space and room for error; Steffen’s did the opposite. The ball was still under the American’s feet by the time Sadio Mane was sliding in and his hands were in his head before he even touched the ground.

It is worth noting that Alisson’s kicking was also strangely chaotic, with a few in the first half failing to reach their intended target. Yet he atoned by doing two things Steffen did not: makings sure the ball was only ever turned over at least 30 yards from his net; and saving subsequent shots when he really ought not to have. Steffen continued to exude fear and was caught completely flat-footed for Mane’s second goal.

 

10) But oh, that goal. Good lord. The Trent Alexander-Arnold switch, which is tantamount to a cheat code in terms of accuracy, difficulty to defend against and how normalised the brilliance of those wide forwards in controlling 50-yard high balls out of a bright sky has become. The ability of Luis Diaz and Andy Robertson to keep the move going as defenders started to crowd the space. The finish of Mane, who silently drifted into an unmanned area on the other side like a trained assassin. Every aspect was glorious; Thiago’s input was absolutely, p*ss-takingly stunning.

He offered Robertson a passing option when nothing seemed on. He stretched to get a ball played slightly ahead of him as Grealish and Bernardo pressed from back and front respectively. He poked it through the slightest of gaps to Alexander-Arnold, who officially Had No Right To Be There, centrally and on the edge of the area. He glided between both Manchester City markers. He clipped the ball into Mane. He barely broke into a stride at any point to ultimately decide the tie. It was impeccable.

Liverpool have only lost one game Thiago has started in the last 409 days. His start in England was relatively slow and undermined by injuries – both his and those of the rest of the squad, causing upheaval to the rest of the team. In a settled side he has proven just how remarkable he is.

 

11) While Liverpool accurately played Manchester City’s previous role by underpinning a quick start with a well-taken goal, Guardiola’s side gave a fine impression of Klopp’s with an immediate response after half-time. They carelessly forgot the part about scoring an equaliser in the first half and only trailing by one instead of three at the break, but points for trying. And points to Guardiola for not allowing vibes to overrule sports science and resisting the quintuple substitution.

It was a fine goal, Fernandinho sliding a pass just out of Virgil van Dijk’s reach, Jesus turning Fabinho in the area and centring for Grealish to score. Manchester City lacked those three components – someone carrying the ball through midfield, someone linking up the attack and someone finishing it – for the previous 45 minutes. But the point remains that this is the first time Grealish has ever not beaten Liverpool in an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Tim Sherwood is happy to hand out some tips if needed.

 

12) Grealish, despite the predictable backlash from the many hundred Stefan Savic supporters desperate to overlook his positive attributes, played well. He took his goal excellently and created two more chances with really bright first-time touches after dropping deep to find incisive runs. He should not be crucified for the wastefulness of Jesus.

The structure failed Grealish more than anything else early on, so lacking in fluidity and clarity was the Manchester City attack. With that said, he should have done far better when Joao Cancelo found him in the Liverpool area after three minutes, only for the subsequent shot to be blocked.

That he was comfortably one of the best Manchester City players does, however, highlight just how brilliant De Bruyne is. The Belgian dictated this match from a similar position against the same opposition so recently, albeit with a slightly better quality of teammate. The one thing Grealish sorely lacked in comparison were those progressive carries, which is strange considering that was one of his main strengths at Aston Villa.

 

13) Jesus was the architect of the Grealish goal but his shortcomings as a striker were painfully exposed thereafter. Put through by Raheem Sterling in the 54th minute, he was pushed wide by Van Dijk and could not beat Alisson. Slid in by Grealish in the 70th after a Konate mistake, the Liverpool keeper dominated his compatriot by quickly advancing from his line and closing the angle. Guardiola is a disciple of Jesus but will be the first to accept that Manchester City have to sacrifice a modicum of his work-rate for an exponential improvement in clinical finishing.

 

14) Those in the Alexander-Arnold supporters camp had a fine day. His contribution to the clinching goal was crucial but most notable was in how well he defended. Manchester City created a single chance down his flank – and that is a generous description of the blocked Grealish effort in the third minute. That opportunity came about from a glorious Fernandinho switch into the space behind the full-back as it seemed Guardiola’s side would exploit the tactic they had used so successfully against Liverpool before, yet never again did they find such joy.

Alexander-Arnold had no shots and one key pass but was the joint-leader for tackles with four in a rare example of the blanket covering his feet instead of his head. Liverpool needed him to completely shut that right-hand side down and he achieved it with relative ease. As thrilling and gifted as he is going forward, it was refreshing to see him focus on the defensive aspects of his role.

 

15) The Silva stoppage-time goal and onslaught that followed injected some frantic spirit and captured the charmingly imperfect essence of the game. Liverpool had domineered their way into a three-goal advantage but were suddenly throwing themselves in the way of shots and hacking at clearances. Manchester City had shambolically slipped into an unfamiliarly large deficit yet showed the mental fortitude to recover and almost complete an unthinkable comeback.

The Reds had chances on the break, wasted by Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah, while Fernandinho, Mahrez and Sterling all rushed efforts in injury time.

Manchester City coming so close to a recovery was more important than one might think for their season. Losing 3-0 with seven Premier League games left and a difficult Champions League semi-final still to play would have been demoralising and potentially derailing. Those two goals were in vain at Wembley but could have a sort of galvanising effect until May, wrestling back just enough of the momentum.

The Quadruple was scuppered long before it could even become a thing and the Treble was effectively laid to rest at half-time in front of a stunned Wembley. Manchester City spent the next 45 minutes resuscitating a campaign that looked like it might end in the most glorious failure possible. The Premier League and Champions League could still slip from their collective grasp but that looks considerably less likely at 2-3 than it did 0-3.

 

16) In mid-April, Liverpool are now favourites to win two cup competitions to add to the one they have already lifted this season. They are a point behind in a Premier League title race many still feel will sway their way. They could end this campaign with one trophy – that was their lowest priority in August – or an unprecedented four. The margins are so breathtakingly slender at this stage that it is extraordinary to think there will be people out there who will consider this team to be failures or bottlers even if they only add the FA Cup to the League Cup; it is barely worth even contemplating the response if they don’t even manage that.

As Klopp said after the game when asked about the Quadruple: “I think a game like today shows even more how unlikely it is to do something like that.” The fact it is not a laughable idea – never mind an actual possibility – with no more than 11 games left is legitimately among his greatest achievements.




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