LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – It had to end sooner or later for Manchester City.
None had proved more formidable than Pep Guardiola’s side in their march to the title, but a sleeper-like hold over the Premier League is officially over with Sunday’s 4-3 loss to Liverpool at Anfield. Nine minutes was the difference between infallibility and mere mortality.
Headless-ness took hold as City surrendered a game where they had appeared well-placed to reclaim, with 10 points previously garnered from losing positions this term. They will continue to stroll to an end-of-season coronation, but it is no longer a glorified procession.
Few would deny that they will be worthy champions, held in the same esteem as their illustrious predecessors, but their quest for record-breaking perfection has taken an early detour. Arsenal’s record 49-game unbeaten streak is safe for another campaign at least.
Seeing out the remainder of this season without tasting defeat was always an unrealistic ask, even by Guardiola’s admission. If the Catalan had a choice to call time on his side’s run, losing another battle of wills with Jurgen Klopp – his sixth in total – was a perfect storm.
“Football is unpredictable,” Guardiola stated post-match.
“Of course you lose today against a fantastic team and you have to be sure to win the next one and see until the end, fighting to win the Premier League.
“But you have to live [these moments]. During the season, today in the real world, it’s not expected, especially in that league with a lot of games with a tough two months in the past with four competitions, to maintain against good teams to not lose every time.
“These kinds of things must happen and now, we analyze tactically the reasons why and be positive, thinking of Newcastle. That is only what we can do.”
But defeat sees Guardiola discovering a new-found level of challenge in a career where mercurial abilities had allowed him to breeze through at the highest level of football.
The warning signs had been there earlier in the week, when a late strike by Sergio Aguero saw off Championship outfit Bristol City in the League Cup semifinal. As a player and coach, Guardiola knew the pitfalls of playing at Anfield. Uncharacteristically, he saw his players allowing themselves to succumb to the stadium’s emotionally-charged atmosphere.
“After that we lost a little bit of our control,” Guardiola admitted.
“We were involved in the environment from Anfield for many, many reasons.
“You have to try and be stable, especially as good lessons for the knock-out games in the Champions League. We can concede a goal but you cannot lose – we lost that a little bit.
“But we were still fighting, still trying and we found two goals, and that’s all
“It was our first defeat. You need to live [through] that kind of situations to realize what we have done so far and are expecting for the future.”
Off the field, too, he is encountering uncharted territory. Rarely has the former Barcelona manager missed out on targets, but a reunion with Alexis Sanchez threatens to be his most notable, with the previously foregone conclusion in signing the Arsenal forward now appearing potentially ominous in the face of Manchester United’s newly-formed interest.
Life after Philippe Coutinho, meanwhile, continues apace for Liverpool.
The “Fab Four” may have disbanded but a “Big Three” remains in its place as Klopp elected to fight fire with fire rather than bow to the conservatism. By the end here, his side was hunting in packs with even Andrew Robertson joining the action as a marauding left-back.
“It sent out the right statement,” Klopp admitted.
“It’s not that I said in the meeting ‘boys, by the way it would help a lot if you could win tonight and nobody speaks about Philippe Coutinho anymore.’ We like talking about him, actually, and he is probably still jumping in his new living room in Barcelona and happy about the win tonight.
“But of course, for us, it’s important that we show that it’s possible to play without him – and we did that. It’s a very important statement, absolutely, but that’s all.
“We knew before the game, we can only get three points and we got them, how I think, in a very important moment as well so it feels good for tonight.
“Now we have another long week to prepare for the Swansea game so we should use that.”
Attention has already turned to the identity of the Brazilian’s replacement, but risk and reward are traditionally at odds when the Reds have attempted to replace what they have lost. In recent years, they have parted with some of their most exquisite players in a generation while allowing sub-par alternatives to take their places.
Klopp’s utopian vision is at odds with that recent transfer policy. He prefers to cultivate a side that cannot be disrupted or picked apart rather than poorly replacing like-for-like. The latter has been easier said than done. The German is all too aware of the pressures of continuity when a star departs; his final years with Borussia Dortmund were dominated by the theme.
In the Liverpool manager’s eyes, direct solutions primarily appear from within and never was that truer than in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance on Sunday, both as the architect of both his side’s opener and a key influence in their two goals thereafter. In just 20 games at Anfield, the England international has scored the same number of goals as in three seasons with Arsenal.
“It’s so nice to see how much he adapted. It’s just good and I am happy,” Klopp said.
“I could not have had kind of an idea of what a good guy he is, to be honest. If you asked me what is better, the football player or the person, I would have to think a little bit about it.
“He is on a good way and enjoys it. He can still play the wing, which is really important, [but] using the speed more and more in a midfield role.
“He needs to adapt a little bit and the midfield role was more of a dream for him than a reality because he didn’t play there often.
“But he is in a really good way.”
Flaws still exist, however, with Liverpool’s goalkeeping situation brought into sharp focus again with the passing of Tommy Lawrence, the original last line of defence in Bill Shankly’s heyday, earlier this week. The current incumbents continued the debate over suitability as Loris Karius failed to leave the writing on the wall for Simon Mignolet.
Beaten comfortably at his near post by Leroy Sane for City’s equalizer told a familiar take for the German stopper. Far too often Karius has been a victim of his previous success, having arrived with a reputation of being second in the Bundesliga to Manuel Neuer only.
Mignolet’s own previously unassailable presence had undermined the club’s once ruthless succession policy. At the first signs of even slight susceptibility, the likes of Sander Westerveld, Jerzy Dudek and Pepe Reina were all moved on by those in Anfield’s corridors of power.
An inability to follow through that philosophy is part of the reason why Liverpool can currently only hold their own against the likes of City over 90 minutes rather than an entire season.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Anfield stadium.