Guardiola wrong from start in choice of ageing full-backs
Who won the touchline duel between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola? James Ducker reports
Pep Guardiola wants to sign two new full-backs. Until then, the Manchester City manager must contend with what he has and his decision to start with Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov here against Liverpool’s dynamic pairing of Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané was perplexing. Both looked slow, old and ponderous against incisive, penetrative opponents, and while Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy hardly have youth on their side, they offer greater mobility and energy, which is what Guardiola needed both defensively and going forward.
Guardiola’s persistence with Kolarov is all the harder to fathom given how the Serb has regressed as the season has progressed. James Milner left City because he wanted regular football and a central midfield berth. He has ended up as a left-back under Jürgen Klopp (left) at Liverpool but he was the best full-back on show and deserved more from a stunning inswinging pass that put Roberto Firmino through only for the forward’s control to let him down. Milner positively revelled in his duel with City winger Raheem Sterling, the former Liverpool winger whose every touch was mercilessly booed by the natives.
There were a couple of moments in quick succession in the opening period that summed up what this Liverpool side are about under Klopp. With his team pressed high up the pitch and Firmino closing down the space around Claudio Bravo, the City goalkeeper was forced to go long. A minute later, Bravo, Zabaleta and John Stones found themselves boxed in with nowhere to go as Lallana, Firmino and Emre Can hunted as a pack. Key to Liverpool’s first-half supremacy was the speed with which they closed down the space around David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as well as lone striker Sergio Agüero.
City improved after the interval when they stopped squandering pressure so needlessly, pushed higher upfield and De Bruyne and Silva began to interchange position more. It left them more open to Liverpool counterattacking but they could not continue as they were doing. Guardiola has worked specifically in training over the past fortnight on winning second balls but his team remain too passive at times and lack the aggression of Klopp’s Liverpool.
Liverpool started the game sharper, faster, hungrier, everything Klopp would have wanted and expected. City, by contrast, conceded for the sixth time inside 15 minutes in the Premier League this season and now have just four clean sheets in 19 league outings. Guardiola is renowned for demanding total focus and concentration from his players so why are they routinely starting matches so sleepily, so half-baked and leaving themselves with an uphill task?
Guardiola will have known his team needed to get off to a strong start. They had won once at Anfield since 1981. City had also not won any of the previous 92 Premier League away games in which they trailed at halftime, dating back to April 1995. City have won just one of 14 matches against the league’s top eight this term but Guardiola appears to be struggling to address those big-game shortcomings – City have 10 points from 21 against the top eight this season and now been beaten by Liverpool as well as Chelsea and Tottenham – and the intensity with which they began the season has dropped markedly. By contrast, Liverpool, unfazed and undaunted, are rising to the big occasion under Klopp. Having such a vociferous home crowd must aid that process, though.
Klopp’s hand was forced in the 64th minute when Jordan Henderson, who had been excellent in central midfield alongside Georginio Wijnaldum and Can, succumbed to injury. The Liverpool manager opted to drop Lallana into midfield from his position on the left and introduce Divock Origi up front. Lallana made the change seamlessly while Origi provided another pacy outlet in attack alongside Mané and Firmino. The surprise was Guardiola (right) waited until the final five minutes to change things. The City manager was not exactly blessed with options from the bench but given the difficulties his side were having trying to bypass Milner and Nathaniel Clyne, Jesús Navas’s pace could have been a useful asset earlier in the second half while Agüero, who had missed the previous four matches through suspension, had tired badly and Kelechi Iheanacho might have provided some more impetus going forward. Both were introduced too late.