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04th Aug 2019

The Community Shield, a wonderfully ludicrous apéritif for the new Premier League season

Kyle Picknell

Ah, the Community Shield. The curtain-raiser. The ‘nice day out for the family’. The ‘corporate shill of an event’. The ‘little more than a pre-season friendly’. The ‘there is a trophy at stake, though’

Show me a football fan that knows what to make of the Community Shield and I will show you a liar. I mean, Liverpool were playing their strongest possible starting eleven bar the inclusion of Divock Origi instead of Sadio Mane, due to the latter’s extended involvement at AFCON.

But then again, given Origi’s recent exploits during the proverbial big games, the Champions League semi-final second leg and the final itself, his name on the team sheet was as sure a sign as any that Jürgen Klopp was taking this pseudo-trophy just about as seriously as his perma-smile would allow.

Manchester City, meanwhile, were playing Claudio Bravo in goal so… different lineups… for different needs.

The game started as scrappily as actual finals usually do, with messy, careless passing and Roberto Firmino bustling around with his usual relentlessness, chomping at the heels of City’s defence and midfield.

Rodri, in particular, was handed a few ‘welcome to English football’ bumps off the ball in the first half by the Brazilian, but otherwise looked appropriately unhurried at the base of Pep Guardiola’s midfield, if a little unadventurous.

Fortunately, that is never too much of a problem when you have Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Bernardo Silva in your immediate vicinity.

Within 10 minutes, however, Bayern Munich target Leroy Sane was hobbling off to be replaced by Gabriel Jesus, much to the chagrin of Niko Kovac, and City went ahead after a deep free-kick was worked towards Zinchenko’s late run to the far post.

He nodded it into David Silva, who did that thing David Silva usually does, which is produce the most uniquely perfect touch available in any given situation, in this instance a sort of reverse side-foot kung-fu spin kick up and over his own head.

It landed straight to Raheem Sterling who side-footed home, Alisson pawing at the shot as convincingly as a new-born kitten patting a ball of string.

The rest of the half fell into two distinct patterns; Liverpool attempting to respond through Mo Salah exploiting Oleksandr ‘Still not really a left-back whatever Pep says’ Zinchenko’s haphazard defending only to miss the resultant chances and Man City successfully attacking the chasm of space between Andrew Robertson and Virgil van Dijk (partly due to Origi’s reluctance and/or cluelessness when tracking back, constantly leaving a three on two) but also failing to capitalise.

On the other Liverpool flank, Trent Alexander-Arnold wasn’t faring much better, either, treating any high, floated ball with an uncertain reverence like it was a UFO sailing overhead rather than a Mitre size five.

Kevin De Bruyne was a constant threat, popping up in dangerous advanced positions all over the pitch and looking very much the player the Premier League fell in love with and then just kinda forgot about thanks to his teammate Bernardo.

Elsewhere, Claudio Bravo was offering his typical ungodly mix of ‘competent sweeper-keeping’ and ‘just booting clearances straight up in the air for no reason at all’ and Clive Tyldesley was keeping all the Community Shield bingo cards ticking over at home.

‘Showpiece’, ‘Destiny of the shield’, ‘Putting on a show’ and ‘Very entertaining’ were all marked off by the end of half-time.

After the break, City threatened to put the game to bed as David Silva volleyed narrowly over before setting Sterling free behind a daringly high Liverpool line. The England international could only hit the post with a curling effort beyond Alisson, but replays showed he was a fraction offside regardless.

It was then that Liverpool sprung back into life, with Salah continuing to devour the hopes and dreams of Zinchenko, producing yet another twirl of impeccable footwork to escape a trio of defenders before firing onto the outside of the post for the second time in the match.

Virgil van Dijk hit the bar with a left-foot half-volley whilst being marked by Sterling on a corner, for some reason. That was a thing that happened.

Drink it in, folks. Pure, unadulterated Community Shield.

Kyle Walker, seemingly the only competent fullback on the pitch even despite being the first user of the FaceApp ageing filter to have its effects carry over into real life, almost created a second goal after robbing Origi deep in his own half, receiving the ball back off Stones and then haring through an array of traffic cones disguised as Liverpool’s midfield.

With van Dijk on an island, both physically isolated and also mentally still drinking daiquiris on a tropical beach somewhere, Walker had the easy task of playing Sterling in on goal.

He did so but then, because he is Kyle Walker, sprinted after him so he had the option of a FIFA-style tap-in.

This only served to confuse Sterling who, whatever his goal record might suggest, remains a less than clinical one-on-one finisher when he has a thick Yorkshire accent screaming shapes at him from a few yards behind. Van Dijk snapped out of his daydream and got back to snuff out the chance after all the dilly-dallying.

Liverpool got the equaliser they probably deserved after van Dijk, now fully engaged and screaming “CAN HARRY MAGUIRE DO THIS? HUH? CAN HE?”, cushioned an exquisite side-foot cross into the path of Matip, who lapped up the header. Yep, you always knew it’d be those two combining to get the Reds a goal.

Then Xherdan Shaqiri, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all came on, Naby Keita fired straight at Bravo from the edge of the area and the Community Shield looked for all the world it would be ending with penalties. As is its destiny.

There was still time for Sterling to produce a couple more half-chances that were erased by the searing recovery pace of Gomez and Salah almost dinked a header over the scrambling Otamendi, Stones and Bravo only for that man Walker to bicycle kick the ball off the goal-line. Pep brought Phil Foden on, the best player he has ever worked with, remember, for approximately 24 seconds.

It’s difficult to know exactly how you can liquidise the Community Shield for intravenous purposes, but it felt like a necessity at full-time.

And then penalties. Bravo saved from Wijnaldum (“BRAVO!” said Tyldesley) whilst everyone else smacked their spot-kick into a corner like the pressure of the Shield meant absolutely nothing to them at all. Everyone apart from Zinchenko, of course, who squeezed his in under Alisson and will go home tonight and have a little cry to his mother about what happened with the older boy today at school.

After Jesus stutter-stepped and slotted the winning penalty, the City players did a fine job of celebrating. They looked like they cared at least a little bit, that those 90 minutes of chaos were worth something as the appropriate ratio of players running to congratulate the winning taker compared to players running to the goalkeeper who made the save.

Pep looked nonplussed but he always does and the Liverpool players didn’t look too upset by the defeat. This is the first of seven trophies they will challenge for this season, it isn’t hard to work out why.

But then, this was a deliriously fun occasion and a game, despite being played by two of the best teams in Europe, that was entertaining for all its urgent clumsiness, the repeated bungling of chances and the teetering and tottering of usually stalwart defences. This was two teams very much still searching for the familiar grooves and patterns that only come after a few weeks at full intensity.

With the debate currently raging over whether less football will equal better football, it’s worth taking into account just how rarely we get to see two world-class sides, positionally and tactically drilled to within an inch of their lives, play so openly and sloppily and carelessly. Towards the end, it had the same feel that ‘next goal wins’ does, in the park with your mates playing out a 12-11 thriller before the light fades and your mom texts to tell you dinner is on the table.

There was a kind of beauty in the madness and whatever the Community Shield actually is, pointless waste of everybody’s time or glorified preseason friendly or, more likely, a strong apéritif to stimulate your hunger for the return of the Premier League, if that even is a thing that is required, it’d feel empty without it here; the messy starting lights of a Grand Prix, the two favourites on the grid banging into each other round the very first corner.

The football is back. Football is back. The football. Is back.