A breathtaking game at the Etihad highlights the flaws that Guardiola and Klopp need to address
It was the weaknesses that made it special, the flaws that allowed the talent to shine.
A game that finished with a predictable result took a spectacular route to get there. This was the Premier League in a nutshell; thrills, spills and frenetic energy and at the end of it all neither Manchester City nor Liverpool had exactly what they wanted but both were left with a clear idea of what they need.
This was not a game for managers, the tactical control that such a position demands was never possible, but it should be one for those who will help Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp shape their summer transfer plans. The information that both Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football, and Michael Edwards, will glean from this single fixture might not tell them anything that they did not already know but it should make it easier for the right decisions to be made simply because the shortcomings that both must address are so glaringly obvious.
For Liverpool, the addition of a proven goalscorer capable of taking the kind of chances that Adam Lallana, glaringly, and Roberto Firmino, not quite so, failed to would make them a so much more formidable proposition. Of the teams contesting the top four – Chelsea, City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton – Liverpool are the only ones who do not have a forward who scores regularly enough to be considered prolific. As a wide attacker, Sadio Mane’s goalscoring output is more than respectful, but with Daniel Sturridge now seemingly in convalescence prior to his anticipated summer departure, the need for a finisher to make the most of their ability to open up opposition defences is all too obvious.
Guardiola has one of those at his disposal of course and while Sergio Aguero was not at his ruthless best on this occasion his predatory instincts still allowed him to score a typically well taken equaliser which ensured City took a point. In a league in which the defensive art appears to have been lost by most of its participants, a striker like Aguero can decide games which makes it all the more strange that the possibility continues to loom that he could become surplus to requirements at City. As good as Gabriel Jesus unquestionably is, the difference that players like Aguero can make was once again apparent here, in a positive sense for City and a negative one for Liverpool.
What should trouble Begiristain is that on this and other evidence there is not a great deal between the team he has helped produce and the one fielded by Klopp. Liverpool’s defence, put together at a collective cost of around a third of what City paid for John Stones, is nowhere near as superior, if at all, as their outlay should make it. Nicolas Otamendi, a player with a physique like He Man’s Man At Arms but who runs as if connected to an open parachute, is their defensive symbol – hugely expensive but terribly flawed. The sight of the Argentine repeatedly chasing Sadio Mane was evocative of a Labrador pursuing his own tail, he knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to achieve it but no matter how hard he tried nature would defy him.
A weakness like that cannot be fixed through coaching and the need for City to sign a competent, commanding centre back to compliment John Stones is as clear as Liverpool’s requirement for a marksman. As it stands, City have no defensive base to work from, an issue which is compounded by Yaya Toure declining, physically and mentally, in front of their back four. With Toure now so immobile that opponents, like Liverpool’s Emre Can in one eye-catching incident during the second half, now view the Ivorian as they would a training ground traffic cone and simply surge past him. On this occasion it took two substitutions for Guardiola to address this situation – Bacary Sagna for Toure and Fernando for Leroy Sane – but the move that matters most will surely be the one that comes in the transfer market when City sign a player capable of protecting their defence.
As is the way in the Premier League, with the obvious exception of Chelsea, City’s blessing was that they are far from being the only ones who have weaknesses for others to take advantage of. Guardiola had identified the main one in advance, targeting the left back position from the outset and discovering, as expected, that this was an area where Liverpool remain vulnerable regardless of James Milner’s unswerving willingness to plug a gap that he did not create. Had Raheem Sterling performed as he is capable of instead of how he tends to against his former club, City could have taken advantage of this approach long before they did. As it was, it took Kevin De Bruyne to produce a brilliant delivery from the right for Aguero to cancel out Milner’s expertly taken penalty.
Chances continued to flow, almost with the regularity of penalty appeals, but neither side was able to take one that would have made the difference. By the time Aguero ballooned a volley over the crossbar in the closing stages, almost all of the players had run themselves to a standstill. In effort, execution, drama and incident, this was the Premier League in all its unmissable glory but it was also another damning indictment of why English football continues to fall short in Europe. As ever, the solution to the problems on display will be sought in the transfer market and City and Liverpool will have a clearer idea than most of the problems that they need to address.
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