Liverpool’s unbeaten run came to an end at the Etihad on Thursday night as Man City ran out 2-1 winners, leaving the Reds top by four points.
Man City 2-1 Liverpool
Premier League, Etihad Stadium
January 3, 2018
Goals: Aguero 40′, Sane 72′; Firmino 64′
No Fabinho and a conservative approach
Jurgen Klopp was always likely to go with a 4-3-3 tonight, but perhaps the difference in approach from the Reds between the start of the game and the end signifies the Reds have reached the point he has been working toward: 4-2-3-1 is the more comfortable system.
A big part of that of late has been Fabinho, with the Brazilian destroyer showing good form with increasing regularity, yet he was left on the bench against City.
In principle that’s no issue, given the good performances in midfield of late by a variety of players.
But as the Reds were sat deep, looking to break up play in the centre of the park and hit City on the counter, perhaps it’s a choice Klopp would change in hindsight if given the chance.
Fabinho is arguably the best protector and ball-winner in the side and to opt for a conservative, deep-seated approach and not include him in the XI was a surprise.
On such fine margins…
The games between the top teams often come down to small details and instances, and this match at the Etihad was as close as could be.
Perhaps, on the ball, City were somewhat better—but not in terms of creating chances.
Liverpool hit the post, and the ball rolled out. City hit the post, and the ball rolled in.
Add to that, goal-line technology ruled out what could have been an opening goal for the Reds by a width of just 11mm, as John Stones just managed to clear—somehow right between Mo Salah‘s legs as he closed in.
The slightest touch, hesitation, deflection or angled bounce, and Liverpool were a goal up at that point—and the match would have taken on a very different pattern.
In the second half there were at least three instances, as the Reds chased a second equaliser, that City amassed three or four bodies on the goal-line to deflect away shots.
Fine margins—but the biggest one of all remains the gap of four points at the top.
Lovren’s calamitous night
It’s been a while since a Liverpool centre-back put in a particularly disastrous performance, but this was one from Dejan Lovren.
Indeed, after the excellent displays from Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Lovren himself this term, this was an awfully timed performance at the other end of the scale.
For Sergio Aguero’s opener, Lovren lost the initial ball into the box in the build-up, then lost sight of Aguero who stole in front of him and lashed in a near-post effort.
In the second half he was deepest of the defensive line to keep Raheem Sterling onside in the lead up to Leroy Sane’s goal, before he finished with a succession of poor decisions which gifted City further chances.
A poor header to lose possession, a missed challenge, a bad clearance in the box—all could have proven more costly, before his final contribution was a long, straight pass which was easy to defend deep in stoppage time.
Lovren needs a reaction after this game and perhaps Klopp might consider keeping him in the side for the FA Cup game against Wolves as a result.
Unbeaten run ended, City close the gap, first game of the season where two are conceded—nightmare, right?
Jurgen Klopp was visibly upbeat after the match, happy with the effort and the performance, and on another occasion this could easily have finished in a draw.
That, plus the Reds remaining four points clear, still leaves Liverpool in a very good shape to continue their title charge.
It’s also worth noting the improvement after Fabinho‘s entrance and the switch to 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1, while the subs were all positive actions and each contributed in turn.
The performance, though a little more timid than ideal, also showcased a lot of the team’s confidence: playing out from the back, comfortable on the ball under pressure, expectant that chances would come.
A defeat, perhaps, but only across 90 minutes, not an entire season.
So it’s the FA Cup next, away to Wolves, but the chances of many senior starters being included are minimal. It will be a game for reserves, young hopefuls and a few backups—and a well-deserved break for the regulars.
Then it’s five league games, each with at least four days’ rest between them, between FA Cup and Champions League.
Brighton, Palace, Leicester, West Ham, Bournemouth: Five games, each with their own set of challenges, but each of them also eminently winnable if the Reds show the same form and conviction as in December.
It’s not a question of watching and guessing where Spurs or City might drop points, only of ensuring that Liverpool don’t.
Win, and nobody can touch Jurgen’s Reds from one week to the next.
Onto the next challenge, and still with every reason for incredible optimism.