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Back With A Bang

The streets of Argentina may still be emptying and yet, somehow, we’re back kicking a ball in anger in Europe already. Such is the lightning speed at which the football world is moving these days. We’d be forgiven if somehow we’d memory-holed everything that had come before the World Cup started so City and Liverpool jumped right through the gears to remind everyone just what is at stake again.

In a game that has become the norm for these two sides, the pace was frantic, the chances kept piling up and the game hung on a knife’s edge for most of it. In the end, City’s constant pressure and the superior crossing abilities of Kevin De Bruyne won the day. As everyone now takes a collective breath to enjoy Christmas, here are some quick takeaways from the match:

1. Defence remains an issue

The match had a funny energy for the first 15 or so minutes, with so many wide-open passes and chances being given, especially by the Liverpool defence. At times, it almost felt like a friendly as the lack of pressure and pressing seemed to give City license to do as they pleased. It was no surprise that Haaland ended up getting his goal as he appeared to go almost unmarked at times in the box. The partnership of Gomez and Matip seemed like they hadn’t yet returned from holiday and Liverpool were repeatedly made to pay with poor marking and clearances. It certainly seemed liked whatever second training camp work that was made to steel the leakiness of the back line is still a work in progress. When Virgil, Alisson, Konate and Trent are re-integrated, perhaps things will solidify but this is not a defence that will win a title this year. Though it seems at times like the season is already half over with the amount of games being played everywhere, there still remains nearly 2/3rds to go and if the team could just lock things up a bit more, there is a lot left to play for.

2. The Midfield Is Still A Muddle

The Christmas visions of Jude and Enzo and Amrabat are probably all swirling around the heads of the Merseyside faithful right now and this performance will only strengthen that call. Starting very much a youth-based midfield failed to take hold of the game as over and over, City seemed to win the ball back and recycle the attack. Fabio was able to get his goal on a wonderful move but otherwise was too loose with his possession and neither Thiago nor anyone else seemed comfortable in controlling play. There were a lot of heart-in-mouth moments from playing out of the back that resulted in near calamity but Liverpool just about got away with it. The entire game had a nervous energy to it, with one stray tackle or mistimed pass leading to big chances on either end. Though the stakes and teams were of the highest calibre, the play
very much felt like two teams knocking the rust off, only one had far more to go than the other before finding top gear.
Bringing Fabinho and Henderson did calm things down but it also took away some of the attacking channels that the likes of Elliott had managed to create. The right balance of the squad is still not quite there and while it was heartening to see both Naby and Ox get some playing time, neither stamped their authority on the game in a lasting way. Ox did make one fantastic pass up the line to show that he does have quality but Liverpool still require that central box-to-box player to dominate the midfield and retain possession. January looms as a very big window, and with everything else swirling, like the owner’s sale, so much remains to be seen about what actually will come in.

3. Nunez Is Still Raw

Darwin Nunez showed both sides of his coin tonight. He provided a willing outlet and has insane speed to get on the ball. He was constantly able to get to side-channel ball and provided a good assist to get Mo involved and on target. However, he must take more time with his shooting boots. Again, it’s a lot to ask to throw players directly back into the cauldron and expect them to be flawless but what will really bring Liverpool up a level is Darwin finding his final form as a potent finisher. He scuffed at least 3 chances wide and at this stage, against this opponent, you have to at the very least put them on target. It’s sometimes as simple as going back to basics. I do wonder if he overthinks himself at times and wants to play such a flawless game and shot that he ends up not just putting his laces through the ball. The opportunities are there and he has shown he will get chances, next comes the finishing. Having to compete constantly against Haaland remains unfair so if he just stays within himself and improves his game, the goals will come.

4. Injuries AGAIN

Finally, the injury bug continues to bite as this match so the loss of Milner and pre-match Bobby. With the attacking third players dwindling by the minute, it is imperative that Liverpool play within themselves. The next few matches in the league will not be against the quality of Man City but they are dangerous all on their own and must not be taken for granted. The obvious fear is a letdown is looming after having to get up for such a big match right out of the gate but because Klopp won’t allow it, the team will have to pick themselves up quickly and go again. The final reinforcements from Qatar will hopefully be ready to bring back in by next week but with an increasingly fragile attack, Liverpool must find a way to grind out results until January when some relief and answers will be provided.
Ironically, the end result was a disappointing and frustrating as heck to watch at times but it also was a lightning bolt of a reminder of why this league is as competitive as any at the moment now. We might have just witnessed the most epic end to a World Cup we’ve seen perhaps ever, but England football is back to say, “hold my beer mate, we’re just getting started.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays To All!