The nervous opening
You’re a fan. You’ve woken up in the morning and you have that feeling in your stomach that tonight’s game is a big one. You’re not alone.
If our greatest fears could be realised, we’ve just seen it before our eyes. The usually impeccable David Silva loses possession consistently, Sané tries take-ons which lead to blistering Liverpool counter-attacks, and Otamendi audaciously tries to play the ball out from the back, again losing the ball in our own territory. This can be nailed down as the worst first half of football that we’ve seen from City this season, and its not even close. It is as though the players have fallen for the trap of Anfield and been intimidated by the atmosphere of the home crowd. What once felt like 30 seconds on the ball has now become less than a second for each player as they frantically try to pick out a blue shirt and keep the play moving. The result – yet another Liverpool counter-attack.
It is safe to say that we aren’t used to seeing such performances this season, but maybe we can remember one – at Anfield. Liverpool score goals in quick succession, deflated City players look around for any excuse how they could have allowed this to happen – Yes, we have seen this before. Like me, I can imagine many fans watching this turn of events thinking ‘not again’ and I feel like this have been something that the players have struggled with. Anfield was the first time that someone had seriously rocked the boat this season, and the players wouldn’t have forgotten that performance. In complete honesty it would be fair to say that there is a fear factor that comes with playing away at Anfield, and it takes a very mentally tough team to block that out. Unfortunately we just haven’t seen that tonight.
Disappointing individual performances
To single out any specific players would be difficult, considering this has been a performance of nerves for the blues. That being said, a special mention can be made for both Walker and Otamendi who has been complacent on the ball, leading to multiple devastating counters by Liverpool. Not only has it been the complacency of losing the ball, but a lacklustre effort to retrieve it. Usually, when a player makes a mistake, they will do their utmost to regain possession – the Pep way, but today that philosophy somehow escapes them. It may be hard to believe, but City edged control of possession during the first half at 55%. What proves this stat to mean very little is Liverpool’s willingness to commit to the counter-attack, which has left the City team shell-shocked.
While those two have been named for their specific performances, Gündogan needs to also be identified. While it could be said that Gündogan is having a very bad game, it appears to be through misuse or wrong positioning rather than his overall game. A natural central midfielder, Gündogan has been itching to move into a more central role throughout the game, which has often left Walker to defend on his own. This positional decision follows the bold choice of dropping Sterling for the game. Personally, I think that this decision is two sides of a coin – it could work or it couldn’t, but it is worth a try. We have all witnessed Sterling’s frustration against Liverpool, specifically at Anfield, as their fans hurl scathing abuse from him the minute that he walks onto the pitch. However, Pep has later opted to try and remedy this issue by substituting Gündogan for Sterling early in the second half. Given his performances on the right, I think I would have liked to have seen Bernardo Silva start the game over Gündogan, if Pep wanted to commit to dropping Sterling.
As the game grew on, it became evident that Sané was not going to have one of his magical games. While attempting far too many take-ons, he consistently lost possession. Not to mention a sloppy pass which led to the initial counter-attack at the beginning of the game. These sloppy passes and ineffective pieces of play led to Gabriel Jesus being non-existent in the game. Pep had gotten his tactics wrong for this one.
The second half: Possession without purpose
Throughout the season we’ve all enjoyed some beautiful link-up plays and fantastic flowing football. This was all built from our possession. City’s possession has been something that the media have marvelled at. Not only because of the inconceivably high numbers that have been thrown around (84% possession away at Everton last week) but the fact that we have always made use of this possession in controlling the game and creating clear-cut chances. We haven’t seen that tonight. There was an air of predictability from the team tonight. Again and again, we see repeats of the inside overlap and one-two’s that are so obvious that possession is yet again lost. We have often been praised this season for always finding a way to score different types of goals, we have seen magical creativity this season. We haven’t seen any tonight, at least by the Blues.
While we were offered a small ray of hope from the possession we controlled during the second half, it is difficult to say whether that is because we have improved or that Liverpool are allowing us to play out now that they have taken a foothold on the tie. This type of second half performance evokes memories of something that will leave a bad taste in the mouth of the fans: Louis Van Gaal’s United. Now before there are any real overreactions, we can sleep tonight assured that we will never play such dull football under Pep Guardiola and this performance has not been that bad. I only highlight this point in the fact that it is one of the only times that we have seen such a tactical mis-match where we have been allowed possession due to the lack of fear instilled into the opposition’s defence. It must be noted that this is the first time that City have failed to register a shot on goal this season. This cannot be ignored, especially as we are facing a goalkeeper who is a known risk for his own team. We needed to exploit that, but we couldn’t. It must be said that we can all be disappointed about tonight’s result, and we should be. But we must leave this as a reminder that one game does not taint our fantastic season.
90 minutes left to play
So the away leg has come and gone. A City side well below par have been run around and beaten 3-0 by Liverpool. A disallowed goal means that we leave the game empty-handed for the second leg. No away goals means no leverage. Only a 3-0 win would keep us in the competition for longer than the standard allotted time. While we can think about what we have learned from this game, we must beg the question: What have we not learned from our last loss at Anfield? This game felt like déjà vu at times, and Liverpool look set to take something else from us this year. First our unbeaten league record, now our run in the elite competition of the Champion’s League. We are now facing a mountain to climb to win this tie, but we must first turn our attention to the Manchester derby on Saturday. There will always come a time when a team loses, but it is how they bounce back that will define their heart and desire.