The battle for top spot heading into the International break. That was at stake at Anfield today as Liverpool played host to Manchester City, a team without a win on Merseyside since 2003. Both teams went into the Sunday afternoon kick-off on 19 points, one behind leaders Chelsea but with a game in hand.
A goalless game wasn’t one many expected but it was a fair result. Both remain unbeaten in the Premier League.
Jürgen Klopp had big decisions to make heading into the game after a poor performance away in Naples. The midfield three of Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner and captain Jordan Henderson all looked out of sorts in Italy but were named in the starting XI.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Daniel Sturridge had to settle for places on the bench while Dejan Lovren came in to replace Trent Alexander-Arnold in the only change from the team that started at Stamford Bridge last weekend.
Manchester City named an attacking team.
Benjamin Mendy recovered from injury to start at left-back while John Stones and Aymeric Laporte started at the heart of the defence, relegating Vincent Kompany to a place on the bench. Fernandinho anchored a midfield three with David Silva and his namesake Bernardo ahead of him. Sergio Agüero was flanked by one-time rumoured Liverpool transfer target Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling.
The first real talking point arrived after 20 minutes. Joe Gomez shanked a clearance and it fell to Agüero in the penalty area. Lovren swung a leg and seemed to connect with the Argentine forward but the referee waved play on. It was clumsy more than malicious but they have been given.
Not much else happened in the opening 45 minutes as both teams looked to feel one another out. It was a tactical battle as opposed to a heavyweight one that fans witnessed last season.
City burst into life around the hour mark with Mahrez having two efforts in quick succession. This spurred Liverpool, and the home crowd into life. Mohamed Salah curled an effort into the hands of Ederson before the Reds won a free-kick just outside the area after the Egyptian was fouled by a retreating Mendy.
The away side carved out chances but Alisson was equal to Mahrez’s efforts. Gabriel Jesus, who replaced Agüero, then went down under a challenge from Lovren in the area but the referee didn’t deem it to be a foul.
He did point to the spot in the 84th minute when Virgil van Dijk, flawless until that point, caught Leroy Sané in the penalty area. Mahrez stepped up and ballooned it over the bar.
Here are five things we learned from an intriguing match at Anfield.
Big call by Klopp
There were rumours ahead of the official teams being announced that Lovren would be named in the starting XI ahead of Alexander-Arnold, with Joe Gomez pushing over to play at right-back. It turned out to be true.
In the biggest game of the season so far, Klopp had made the decision to switch up a rock-solid centre-back pairing. Not only that, he risked making Liverpool predictable by nullifying the threat down the right-hand side. Gomez is a supremely talented centre-back, and he can do a job at full-back, but he can’t replicate Alexander-Arnold’s threat.
It was a defensive move on Klopp’s part and not one Liverpool fans are used to their manager making. City are one of the best-attacking teams in the world, but the German tactician isn’t usually a manager who makes such a big change to his team to combat the opposition.
Is he adapting or was he genuinely worried by the damage the champions could do? The answer may be somewhere in the middle. The Reds weren’t as aggressive as they have been in the past but they still played an attacking game.
Pep goes all in
The City boss looked to fight fire with fire. After being blitzed by Liverpool in two of the last three matches, Guardiola went with perhaps his most attacking XI currently available for selection. Mendy has no interest in defending and is basically a winger.
Laporte and Stones are both ball-playing, progressive centre-backs who wouldn’t look out of place at the base of some midfield units, exactly where the latter played during the midweek, while Walker has the ability to play as part of a back three or as a frustrated winger.
The Silvas are attacking midfielders turned into centre-midfielders due to the team’s dominance of the ball. Mahrez and Sterling are different types of goal threats while Aguero is in the form of his life.
It’s a stacked City team and it’s obvious why Guardiola went with it. He and his players have a point to prove after the capitulation at Anfield. They have demons to vanquish and the best way to go about it is by going what a Guardiola team does best – total domination.
But it didn’t pan out like that. It was an even first half with the home side perhaps edging it. Instead, Guardiola’s full-backs played in a conservative way and looked to limit the opportunities for Liverpool to hit them on the break.
Liverpool lack legs in midfield
The Reds made their best start to a Premier League season ever by winning their opening six matches. However, with the games now coming thick and fast it is becoming evidently clear that the squad, which was bolstered this summer, is still lacking depth in key areas.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is injured and Naby Keïta still hasn’t acclimatised to the rigorous demands of a Klopp system meaning the Liverpool midfield currently looks a little flat. There’s no dynamic man in the middle third able to drive at the opposition, there’s nobody there to beat a man to creating space for others. What you see is what you get with James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum.
There’s more graft than craft. They all put in a shift but they’re predictable. They’re easier to smother and Klopp currently lacks an x-factor in that part of the pitch. Shaqiri gives Liverpool that something different but as evidenced against Southampton he isn’t ready to carry out the manager’s instructions, yet.
Keiïta ended up replacing the injured Milner after 28 minutes. The RB Leipzig man still looks off the pace in midfield but did look to try to take the game to the away side on a few occasions, picking the ball up deep and looking to carry it foward. Those moments were few and far between but it was a glimpse at why the Reds signed him.
Battle of the Brazilian ‘keepers
Ederson and Alisson faced off in a Premier League match for the first time and it was the former who looked more assured. The Liverpool shot-stopper looked a bit uneasy at times in possession, understandable with City looking to press high, but he quick off his line to shut down a few attacks.
Ederson, on the other hand, looked calm, composed and confident despite playing at a ground he conceded seven goals on last term. His kicking seemed to be less rash, too.
The roles, however, changed after the break, though. Liverpool started to press higher and the City shot-stopper wasn’t given as much time or space on the ball. Alisson’s shot-stopping ability was tested in the second half and he stood up to the test against Mahrez on multiple occasions.
Who is the best left-back in the league?
This wasn’t just first vs second. It wasn’t just a match to help decide which forward line was the best in the Premier League. It was also a chance to help settle a debate. Who is the best left-back in the league?
In the red corner, you had Andrew Robertson. In the blue it was Mendy. Guardiola tweaked his system to get the French flyer back into the team, he benched the in-form Leroy Sané to bring the former Monaco man in at left-back.
He’s an attacking weapon and already has four assists to his name this term despite only playing four matches. Yet an Anfield he looked a bit withdrawn. Perhaps due to this being his first appearance after returning from injury. Perhaps because of Liverpool’s decision to field Gomez at right-back. Whatever the reason, he didn’t influence the game as much as many had envisaged.
Robertson was the brighter of the two but even his involvement in the attacking third was limited due to Guardiola’s decision to use Kyle Walker as an auxiliary centre-back. Both managers tweaked their teams in an attempt to nullify the threats the left-backs posed. It worked and, unfortunately for many, the question remains unanswered.