Ken Early: City ‘superstars’ unconvinced by Pep’s declaration of love
Some squad members have absorbed much highly strung praise from furious manager
Seething: Pep Guardiola. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty
Everybody could see he was heading towards the referees, and even though you knew roughly what was coming, the sheer acid sarcasm of his parting shot was still somehow surprising. “Thank you so much! So much!” he shouted with Basil Fawlty-like exaggeration as he pumped each of the officials’ hands.
Everyone knew what Guardiola was angry about. He had made it pretty plain to the entire stadium, rushing up to the fourth official and screaming “Twice! Twice!”, holding two fingers to the sky, and throwing back his head screeching with demented laughter. This scene took place after the second of two unpunished penalty-area handballs by Trent Alexander Arnold.
The second one was a simple case. Raheem Sterling kicked the ball hard against Alexander-Arnold’s hand from a short distance away, and under the revised rules this shouldn’t be a penalty.
The first handball was more difficult. As it happened, it looked like the sort of incident that would result in a VAR review and possibly a penalty once the ball went dead. The problem was that the ball went dead in the back of the Manchester City net, after Fabinho scored from 25 yards. Would the officials now call it back, cancel the Liverpool goal and award a penalty to Manchester City?
That looked like the correct if somewhat awkward call according to the recently updated letter of the law. But in the age of VAR you have to pay attention to not just the letter of the law, but also the small print underneath. Replays showed that the ball had struck Alexander-Arnold’s arm only after first hitting the arm of Bernardo Silva.
The updated laws on handball say that players will be penalised for handball if “a player gains control of the ball after it touches their hand/arm and then scores, or creates a goalscoring opportunity”. Winning a penalty would count as creating a goalscoring opportunity, so a VAR penalty check would have ended up giving a free-kick to Liverpool for Bernardo Silva’s handball.
You could then embark on a sub-debate as to whether Alexander-Arnold’s handball constituted an illegal advantage to Liverpool that should have led to their goal being disallowed after a sweeping end-to-end move, but the fact that the ball was touched to Fabinho by Ilkay Gündogan meant the play had moved on to a different phase and the handball no longer hung like a curse over the move. Where would we be without VAR? In exactly the same place, probably, except the last four paragraphs might have been about some other more interesting aspect of the match.
The truth was, Guardiola’s argument that his team had been the victim of a great injustice was weaker than he thought, and his Lear-on-the-heath sideline histrionics probably only served to confirm to his team their suspicion that this was one of those nights when everything would go against them.
Things had started going against them as early as Wednesday night, ever since Ederson felt something go in his thigh as he took a goal kick against Atalanta in Bergamo. Claudio Bravo came on for a thrilling 35-minute cameo that ended with him being sent off for a foul 40 yards from his goal and had everyone excited about what he might do at Anfield.
Fingers predictably pointed at Bravo when Fabinho beat him from range, which just goes to show that a keeper who once gets a reputation for being unreliable can never again catch a break. Everybody expected Fabinho to move the ball wide to Jordan Henderson on the right of City’s box – including all of the City defenders, who tracked left and opened up that small but inviting gap at Bravo’s near post.
Neither was Bravo culpable on the second goal, when a superb Liverpool counter-attack, incorporating the fullback-to-fullback switch that has become their trademark, presented Salah with a chance that he took clinically.
City’s biggest challenge now was to keep believing they could get something out of the game. And perhaps the lack of that conviction played a part in the third Liverpool goal, when Gündogan decided to pass the responsibility for stopping Jordan Henderson on to the left-back Angeliño, rather than continue chasing him towards the corner flag. The fraction of a second before Angeliño realised it was now his job to block Henderson left the Liverpool captain enough space to boom a cross to Mané waiting at the far post.
It was the sort of small but crucial error you see from a tired or demoralised team and you would say it finished the match as a contest, except that City created most of their best chances after that point and with better luck could have equalised.
The attempted rescue mission was spearheaded by Raheem Sterling, who fought ferociously until the end, when he dumped Virgil van Dijk to the ground as the ball ran out for a goal kick. In the last quarter of the game he repeatedly beat Alexander-Arnold and Jürgen Klopp had to send on Joe Gomez to try to shut him down.
Sterling was plainly fired up by the constant barracking he received from the home crowd. Liverpool fans still have not forgiven him for leaving their club 4½ years ago, in what now seems like a completely different era, when they had finished sixth under a different manager and appeared to have no realistic prospects of winning anything. It’s time for Liverpool fans to move on.
Afterwards Guardiola was full of praise for his team: “We showed why we are champions, incredible personality, I am so so proud.” This is his standard response to the worst defeats. In 2018, when City lost twice to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals either side of a painful 3-2 home defeat to Manchester United on what should have been the day they confirmed their title win, he launched a similar love-bombing campaign. “When things go badly like that, it’s important to reassure them. ‘Lads, you’re fucking superstars.’ That’s what I kept telling them that week,” he tells the journalist Lú Martin in the latest “Pep: How does he do it?” behind-the-scenes book, Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam.
Does it still work when the players know it’s a script? These players include Sergio Agüero, who was taken off a minute or two after failing to reach a low Kevin de Bruyne cross, to extend his eight-year record of never scoring at Anfield; Rodri, who was dominated in midfield by Fabinho; and Riyad Mahrez, David Silva and several other subs, who sat on the bench and watched the whole thing, wondering why their manager made only one change despite the bad situation on the field.
None of them will feel much like superstars after what happened at Anfield, but all of them will by now have absorbed a great deal of highly strung praise from their clearly furious manager. Maybe no squad of players will ever have been more relieved to disperse on international duty.