Manchester City walked through a storm at Anfield, one where others would have crumbled


“Sooner or later with this stadium, you have 15 or 20 minutes and it looks like a tsunami, coming for everybody who has the ball,” Pep Guardiola said after Manchester City’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Anfield.

Imagine conceding a throw-in near the halfway line after about eight minutes and having the crowd, especially the thousands of people now shouting in your face, stand up and rally like it is a last-minute corner in the biggest game of the season.

In fact, imagine trying to see out two last-minute corners in the biggest game of the season (so far).

This is what it means to play at Anfield when Liverpool are fighting you for the title and, if City can hope for one thing from future title races, it will be that things might not be quite so intense in the post-Jurgen Klopp era.

City have become better equipped to deal with that tsunami over the past few years but even in the good moments, they were playing at a pace they never really wanted to.

But what else is true is that everything City did at Anfield on Sunday, the good and the bad, shone a light on just how much pressure there is on players in these scenarios, that every action, almost every touch, could either create a goal or cost you a goal, depending on how well you execute it.

That is why you need to play with huge personality in these matches, as Guardiola confirms.

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City’s Stefan Ortega is charged down by Harvey Elliott (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

“Otherwise, no chance,” he says. “And we tried it, huh? We talked just about that. Just keep the ball. Keep it and provoke fouls. Keep it, keep it. But sometimes you can’t because they are really good. They are the best team I ever seen in the high pressing.”

And that, more or less, summed up Sunday afternoon’s 1-1 draw. Nathan Ake’s underhit backpass just after half-time and Ederson’s frenzied reaction to it were the complete antithesis of what you should do at Anfield and allowed Liverpool not just an equaliser but what seemed, for those 15-20 minutes, like a route to a second goal and maybe a third.

City were uncharacteristically rattled after that penalty and it was especially surprising because they have learned to become more and more comfortable playing here over the years.

They used to avoid playing the ball into the middle of the pitch, an area they dubbed “the mouth of the wolf”, because they knew Liverpool wanted them to put it there and then jump in, press and win the ball back.

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These days, City keep it in there for as long as possible and try to whisk the ball away just as the pressure arrives, creating spaces behind those pressing players to spring into.

If there is bravery on a football pitch, beyond diving into a 50-50 with your head, it is taking four or five touches on the edge of your own box at Anfield to wait for one or even two players to close in, and then playing the right ball at the right time so your team can race up the other end.

City did that so well in the opening 15 minutes that they created four fast breaks from their own possessions. Rodri, John Stones, Manuel Akanji and Ederson — highlighting that you can be cool for the most part, but not always — were comfortable taking those extra touches, the ones that “move the structure”, as Guardiola said after his men did the same at Luton in the FA Cup a fortnight ago.

But even that was not enough to keep a lid on the game and it was a far more open affair than Guardiola intended for it to be.

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Generally, in these big matches, especially with big crowds, he sets out for ‘1,000 passes’, but while their start was composed, it was more ‘1,000 touches’ — keeping the ball under pressure and then racing into the spaces afterwards, creating a game that is direct, end-to-end and difficult to control.

So imagine it when it really unravelled, with Mohamed Salah on and Ake’s mind quite possibly swimming after his error.

But things did get better.

“After, when Mateo (Kovacic) came in, you can make extra passes. That was the target (at the start),” Guardiola said. “Not because we didn’t want it but because they are very strong in pressing and counter-pressing, and in this stadium it is not easy.

“We never stopped trying to play and with Mateo and John and Phil (Foden) and Rodri inside, we had the quality to keep the ball like we couldn’t keep it before. They have their chances, we have our chances, and at the end, the game is what happened.”

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Kovacic’s introduction helped calm City somewhat (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

It is why it is difficult for either team to know what they should be content with afterwards. Liverpool had their chances in that ‘tsunami’ period, particularly the two from Luis Diaz which came directly after Julian Alvarez, one City player who particularly struggled on the day, gave up easy possession in the Liverpool third. He would have watched on as the red shirts raced the other way and should have, in reality, scored.

But City did get better after Kovacic came on. They never fully got control and they never seemed likely to, but by the end, they looked far more assured than during the lifetime after the Liverpool equaliser. They might have even nicked it themselves, with Jeremy Doku hitting the post in the 89th minute and others not keeping their heads when opportunities came their way. On another day, with another referee, Doku might have conceded a penalty and ensured that City did not see out those two late corners so well.

And so City were not perfect by any means and while the highs and lows of Ederson, Kyle Walker, Ake, Rodri (who gave away a few balls himself) and especially Alvarez do not fit neatly into a particular box, and cannot be held up as examples of spotless, title-winning performances, they do highlight the demands of a game like this and the character required to play them.

(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)





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