Manchester City (14-5-2, 1st) traveled to Merseyside on Sunday for one of the Premier League’s most anticipated games this season. After an almost 18 year winless-streak at Anfield, the Citizens ended their curse, thrashing reigning champions Liverpool (11-7-5, 4th) 4-1. A brace from İlkay Gündoğan and goals from captain Raheem Sterling and rising-star Phil Foden secured all three points for City.
How it Happened:
Foden kicked things off for the Sky Blues, which played a very similar starting line-up to their game against Chelsea (11-6-6, 5th) last month. Manager Pep Guardiola made two changes from that game, replacing Zach Steffen with first-choice keeper Ederson and bringing on Riyad Mahrez in place of the injured Kevin De Bruyne. With City’s only available striker Gabriel Jesus on the bench, Pep went with Foden as a false-nine and Mahrez and Sterling on the wings.
On the other side of the pitch, Alisson returned to goal following an illness which saw him miss Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat to Brighton (5-10-8, 15th) on Wednesday. Winger Sadio Mane also started after missing a few games due to a muscle injury. With manager Jürgen Klopp’s two winter signings not ready to start at center back, the Reds’ skipper went with two midfielders to lead his backline, Fabihno, and captain Jordan Henderson.
The game started strong with both sides pressing aggressively on defense. Liverpool looked lively and physical early on, which led to Thiago picking up a yellow card for a poor tackle on Gündoğan. The clumsy tackle left Gündoğan writhing on the ground after Thiago rolled and twisted his ankle. Luckily for City fans, Gündoğan was able to get up after treatment and walk off the pain as the game moved on.
City’s press was the most effective of the two sides to start the game. The Citizens picked off every errant pass and pushed quickly towards Liverpool’s backline. On the other hand, the Reds didn’t look like themselves going forward. In previous seasons, Liverpool’s high-flying front three would relentlessly attack opponents’ backlines, however, Mohamed Salah was seen slowing the attack down multiple times. Not to mention, Sadio Mane drifted inside most of the game, failing to stretch the pitch to Liverpool’s advantage. The Reds’ lack of a true center back pairing and the fear of exposing their backline if they lose the ball are some of the contributing factors to their recent struggles.
The first big chance of the game came in the 24th minute for the hosts. Right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold cut past left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko and whipped in a cross to Mane. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the Senalgese international was unable to steer his header on target.
Five minutes later, Rúben Dias’ headed clearance landed at the feet of Robert Firmino, who timed his half-volley perfectly and fired a shot towards the top corner. Ederson was able to get himself behind the shot and push it wide for a corner. City cleared the corner, which launched a counter-attack led by Foden. Fellow youngster Curtis Jones did well to track back and dispossess Foden, who would have been clear on goal.
In the 36th minute, City had the best chance to score after Sterling earned his side a penalty. The City captain attacked Alexander-Arnold with pace, sliding past him and cutting around Fabinho with some skillful step-overs, who brought him down in the box. In the absence of Sergio Agüero and De Bruyne, Gündoğan stepped up to take the penalty. Reminiscent of Mahrez almost sending his penalty into Anfield Road at the other end of the pitch, Gündoğan blasted his shot over the crossbar and into the Kopp. Penalties have been one of City’s greatest weaknesses under Pep; the Manchester side is tied with Fulham (2-9-11, 18th) at three for the most missed penalty kicks in the league this season.
Heading into halftime, the Reds reacted well to giving away a penalty. Jones and Alexander-Arnold were Liverpool’s bright spots in the first half, with Trent’s influence on the game growing during the first 45 minutes. Even though Klopp’s side had the only shots on target during the half, they were unable to test Ederson.
City looked calm on the ball during the first half, even when they were trapped near their box as well as after Gündoğan’s penalty miss. Pep did not have to tweak much tactically during his halftime talk but he did need to get more out of his players. The Sky Blues have looked their best this season when they inject pace into their game, especially on the wings, which is something Pep would have reminded his players during the break.
Neither team made any changes during the break but they were treated to a fireworks show right at the start of the second half. This has not been an unusual event for City, who had to pause their 4th round FA Cup tie against League Two side Cheltenham (11-8-6, 8th, League Two) last month after a fireworks display was sent off outside of Whaddon Road stadium for a few minutes.
Just four minutes after the break, Gündoğan made up for his penalty miss to open up the scoring. Gliding past Alexander-Arnold on the left-wing, Sterling laid the ball off to Foden, who quickly hit a low shot at Alisson. The Brazilian keeper made an excellent save, parrying the ball away. To his misfortune, the ball landed in front of Gündoğan, who blasted the ball past the hopeless keeper to give City a 1-0 lead.
In the 63rd minute, Liverpool ended their 410 minute home scoring drought after Salah was brought down by Dias in the box, who received a yellow card for his offense. Although Salah exaggerated the contact, there was enough for referee Michael Oliver to award the penalty. Stepping up to the spot, Salah rifled his shot past Ederson, ending his 813-minute streak of not conceding, the third-longest streak in Premier League history. Unlike City, the Reds have converted their last 18 penalties.
A cynical tackle from Fabinho on Foden, who burst past the defender, resulted in a yellow card and free-kick for City with 20 minutes left in the half. Hovering over the ball, Gündoğan laid the ball off to Foden, who whipped a ball into John Stones. The English defender thought he had regained the lead for City but the assistant referee’s flag went up immediately for offsides.
Two minutes after the offside call, Jesus came on for Mahrez, who could not really get himself into the game. With Jesus coming on as a natural striker, Foden shifted out wide as a winger. Pep’s tactical change kicked into action just a minute later as Foden capitalized on a double-error from Alisson. Intercepting Alisson’s errant pass, Foden did well to fight off contact in the box and find Gündoğan. Smashing the ball into the top of the net, he gave the Sky Blues a 2-1 lead and picked up a brace from the combined distance of about six yards out. Since his first Premier League goal this season in December, no player has scored more than Gündoğan’s nine.
It only took the Citizens three minutes to double their lead after another shocker from Alisson. Trying to pass the ball out from the back, Alisson gave the ball straight to Bernardo Silva. Instead of trying to take a shot immediately, Silva slowed down play and chipped the ball over Alisson. Diving in at the back post, Sterling headed in City’s third goal against his former team. Sterling’s goal was his 100th goal under Pep; he’s only the third player to do so under the Catalonian manager.
In the 83rd minute, Foden topped off a brilliant performance with an amazing goal. Jesus opened up the Reds’ defense with a beautiful pass to Foden on the other side of the box. Drifting across the box, Foden fired a vicious strike past Alisson to seal a 4-1 victory.
Post Game Reflection:
Sunday’s win was City’s 14th on the bounce and 21st straight game unbeaten. The Sky Blues’ incredible run of form has seen them set numerous records along the way. Two of the most notable were nine wins in all competitions last month, the most by a team in the top four tiers of English football in a single month, in addition to matching Preston North End and Arsenal’s record of 14 wins in a row in all competitions against Liverpool.
City took advantage of Manchester United’s (13-6-4, 2nd) last-second collapse against Everton (11-4-6, 7th) Saturday afternoon to increase their lead in the Premier League to five points with a game in hand. The Sky Blues’ grip on the title race is getting tighter and tighter as the weeks go, but they have an extremely difficult run of fixtures ahead of them.
In the next 26 days, City travel to Swansea City (15-8-4, 3rd, EFL Championship) for the 5th round of the FA Cup, host Tottenham (10-6-6, 8th), visit Everton, travel to Arsenal (9-4-10, 10th), travel for their Champions League Round of 16 first leg match against Borussia Mönchengladbach (8-8-4, 7th, Bundesliga), host West Ham (11-6-6, 6th), and host the Manchester Derby. These next six games will be vital for City, who are looking to regain their domestic domination and lift their first Champions League trophy. The biggest challenge for City moving forward is to bounce back from adversity, which will come when they do ultimately lose, as quickly as possible.
After the game, Pep emphasized that “if any group of players deserved to break [the Anfield curse], it was this group of players. We started very well, especially with a lot of passes.” Unlike Liverpool, “we can not play like them in transition; we need to play in a slow rhythm.” Playing their own game and not falling into Liverpool’s trap helped them secure all three points.
Man of the Match:
An exceptional 90 minutes from City youngster Phil Foden was clearly the performance of the game. The England international scored a beauty, assisted Gündoğan’s second goal, and took the shot that led to City’s opener. His ability to glide effortlessly past defenders is something most players his age simply dream of. It is no surprise that he has nine goal involvements in his last ten starts for City. Sunday’s performance will give England manager Gareth Southgate, who was watching from the stands, something to think about before choosing his squad for this summer’s European Championship.
Although many critics believed Foden would not get playing time at City, and should have left on loan to develop as a player, he has stayed at City and proved critics wrong. Under the mentorship of Pep and City-legend David Silva, Foden has turned into one of the world’s best talents.
Foden showed his growth and maturity as a player in his post-game interview, focusing on the team as a whole instead of his individual performance. Even though he said he “struck [the ball] perfectly” on his goal, he was “just happy to see it go in and help [his] team.” When speaking about the importance of Sunday’s win, Foden mentioned that “when you beat the champions, everyone’s confidence goes sky high, [and that they’re] just happy to win.”
Pep lauded his young star, highlighting his ability on the ball and aggressiveness. Despite his performance, Pep emphasized that Foden “is still young so he gets distracted [with his positioning], but he has a lot of room to grow.”
FA Cup 5th Round Preview:
On Wednesday, City head to Swansea City for their FA Cup tie after a late comeback against Cheltenham Town in the last round. City will look to book their spot in the Quarter-Finals next month against a strong EFL Championship side.
The Swans are known for their defense, boasting the best defensive record in the Championship. This season Swansea have had 15 clean sheets in the league and are unbeaten in their last 10 games, winning eight. On Friday, Swansea defeated league leaders Norwich City (16-7-5, 1st, EFL Championship) comfortably. The Welsh side currently sits in third, two points behind Norwich with a game in hand.
It will be hard to break down manager Steve Cooper’s side but City should be up for the task, riding the high off their victory against Liverpool.
Swansea City’s Form: W/W/D/W/W
City’s Form: W/W/W/W/W
Prediction: 3-0 City