Fatigue? What fatigue?
It’s common wisdom that playing midweek in the Europa League leaves sides struggling over the weekend. If 90 minutes causes problems, the 120 minutes and penalties on Thursday in Turkey had many sensibly writing Liverpool off for the match against Manchester City. Facing the oil-wealth-funded defending champions is hard enough without added hurdles.
Yet it was Pellegrini’s City, not Rodgers’ Liverpool, that looked leaden legged – the Reds taking the match 2 – 1. Liverpool’s full-field press was highly effective in disrupting City’s game, and the team in blue struggled to string passes together through the match. Eleven goal attempts to five makes poor reading for City fans, but it gets worse on closer inspection: City managed just one on target to Liverpool’s five. The Manchester side had their moments – Aguero had two good chances: a free header as the second half began and a mazy run and flash across goal on 78 minutes – but each of Sterling, Coutinho and Lallana also spurned excellent chances.
Transfers coming good
With Lovern, Lallana, Markovic, Moreno and Can all starting and contributing to the victory, a Champions League slot is looking increasingly possible for Liverpool. Rodgers came in for stick at the end of 2014, the summer transfers not performing well being a key reason; but, since the turn of the year, Liverpool have taken more points than any other side, with Arsenal second. Astonishingly, Liverpool have gained more points against top-seven sides than any of the other top-seven sides this season, a record they will hope to maintain against Manchester United at the end of March. If the sides meet with the current two-point gap in place, it could be one of the clashes of the season.
One of the features of Rodgers’ tenure is the flexibility he demands of players. Markovic is a natural winger, as is Jordan Ibe, but both have played at wing-back this season. When Markovic came off on 75 minutes, Lallana moved to right wing-back to accommodate Sturridge; when Moreno came off for Kolo Toure on 82 minutes, Lallana moved to left wing-back and Can moved to right wing-back. The willingness of the players to play a variety of roles gives Rodgers the ability to make substitutions without being forced to make like-for-like swaps – something which has proven, and will continue to prove, a real tactical advantage.
It is a testament to Rodgers’ determination to stick to his principles that Balotelli didn’t make it off the bench to face his former side. It seems that, no matter how talented the Italian is, Rodgers will not play him until he learns to carry his weight defensively.
When Barcelona beat City on Tuesday, Pellegrini was criticised for playing a 4-4-2 (Dzeko and Aguero up front) and ceding the midfield to the Catalan club. The manager has already received blame for persisting with the formation for this match. Graeme Souness lambasted Pellegrini in his post-match comments, saying that playing a 4-4-2 against a 3-4-3 – a system designed to provide an extra man in midfield – was foolish. Yet, while the system may have been at fault, so too were the players. Yaya Toure, despite passing beautifully throughout the match, fell short in his defensive duties and permitted Lallana and Coutinho too much time between the midfield and defence. Kompany, who is looking increasingly shaky at the back, was too ready to step into midfield and left his side exposed a number of times. If Chelsea open a possible eight-point gap against West Ham on Wednesday, it is hard to see City overhauling them, and yesterday’s result may well be the death knell for City’s title defence.
The average age of Liverpool’s starting eleven was 23; the average age of City’s was 28. The future looks bright for Liverpool, and players like Coutinho (22), Sterling (20), Markovic (20) and Moreno (22) are only going to get better. City, on the other hand, face a crisis as their expensive stars peak then begin to decline, if they haven’t already (see Kompany). In the era of Financial Fair Play, purchasing another stable of superstars on sky-high wages is unlikely to be feasible and, despite City’s investment in youth facilities, their younger squad members don’t seem to be making the side. The next transfer window will be critical for City; if they fail to bring in two or three young potential world beaters, it’s hard to see them continuing to challenge for the title in the long-term.