The curious thing about the Liverpool-Manchester City rivalry that has defined English football for the last four or five years is the sporting and respectful spirit in which the games have been played, even as the rivalry between the fans has got more and more toxic.
Now the rivalry has entered a new phase. Liverpool are lost in mid-table while City streak away, powered by the record-breaking phenomenon Erling Haaland. Whether prompted by some hitherto unseen Machiavellianism, or simply lashing out in frustration, this time Jurgen Klopp decided to try a different approach.
He knew that his comments before the game about how state-owned clubs like City, Newcastle and PSG are playing by different financial rules to everyone else would anger City and their supporters.
Plainly what Klopp said was true. City are paying Haaland a million euros a week – nearly twice as much as the next-best-paid player in the league, Cristiano Ronaldo, earns at Manchester United. Real Madrid couldn’t keep up in the Haaland auction, and the only realistic competition at that salary level would have been PSG – except they already have Messi, Neymar and Mbappé.
But City can never accept this, because that would be to admit that there is a certain hollowness to what they are doing.
So instead Klopp’s argument was met with all manner of infowar, including the claim that Klopp is racist (as he only seems to have a problem with clubs with Middle Eastern ownership). Obviously it is not racist to point out that when a state provides its pet football club with unlimited funds, it might be advantageous to that club. The fact that the states that happen to do this are Middle Eastern monarchies is incidental, though one supposes states that aren’t absolute monarchies would find the spending harder to justify.
Certainly, Klopp’s remarks would have been taken as an insult by Pep Guardiola, whose greeting to his opposite number looked cold. His team looked well-equipped to bury Liverpool, with Phil Foden facing James Milner down the left, as in the fixture last season, when Milner should have been sent off in the first half as Foden ran rings around him.
That match-up looked ominous for Liverpool, but using Foden on the left meant that Jack Grealish, currently enjoying his best form for City, was dropped to the bench, while Foden himself was not available on the right, where his link-up with Kevin de Bruyne has proven so devastating. Foden has an uncanny ability to hold the ball under pressure and release it with perfect timing to the space where De Bruyne is arriving for the cross towards Haaland.
During the first half City dominated the centre, swarming the ball carrier and snuffing out moves easily. The speed and co-ordination of their defensive pressing is probably the most underrated aspect of their game. The centre closed off, Liverpool had more joy with longer balls behind the full-backs.
City for their part resisted the temptation to attack fast and direct – often Ilkay Gundogan or Bernardo Silva would pause and go backwards to give the team extra time to move up the field as a unit. The exception was when Thiago lost De Bruyne, who charged forward with ample space to pick out Haaland. The ball was accurate, but the header was straight at Alisson.
The match and the stadium exploded five minutes into the second half with Guardiola, unexpectedly, proving the catalyst.
De Bruyne’s flick towards Haaland in Liverpool’s box was cut out by van Dijk, and a quick Roberto Firmino pass put Salah through against Ederson. Advancing to the edge of his box, City’s keeper brilliantly tipped the shot effort wide.
Liverpool appealed in vain for the corner but the ball went City’s way, and almost immediately from the restart they had the ball in the net. Haaland bullied Fabinho out of the way and raced through the middle on to De Bruyne’s through-ball. The goalkeeper seemed to gather it but Haaland’s trailing leg knocked the ball clear to Foden, who lashed it in at the near post off Joe Gomez. But VAR ruled out the goal for a foul by Haaland on Fabinho.
It was at this point that Guardiola made his intervention. You have to remember that the City manager has convinced himself that the world is not only against City (which may be largely true, since super-rich state-funded clubs generally don’t command much affection beyond their own support) but also that Liverpool are the darlings of English football (which is obviously nonsensical).
The anger he expressed seemed to come from some deeper source – rage at finding himself once again thwarted by the tentacles of the giant anti-City conspiracy – because it was not justified by the on-pitch events. The replays made it clear that Haaland had pulled Fabinho down by the shirt.
It should be noted – and it was by Guardiola and Bernardo Silva after the game – that the move exposed the nonsense of “let it flow”. Let it flow – as long as you don’t score, in which case VAR will have to disallow the goal for the obvious foul.
But when defenders pull an attacker down, that foul will be allowed to flow – as long as it’s not inside the box. Defenders therefore have license to foul now, but attackers will be penalised if their fouls prove profitable; how this is supposed to lead to better football and more goals is anyone’s guess.
Guardiola refused to accept the evidence of the replay and after frenzied protests he allowed himself to be baited into turning around and sarcastically applauding the crowd. This seemed unwise.
Klopp turned around and did the same thing, not sarcastically in his case, and suddenly the crowd had been whipped up into an unceasing roar. Jota headed wide from a Salah pass, and Liverpool were starting to believe.
With the atmosphere and the chaotic, end-to-end nature of the play, you wondered if this might finally have become a game for Darwin Nuñez. It had been no surprise to see the €85 million Uruguayan start on the bench. His erratic technique is fine against a team like Rangers, where you lose the ball and get it back five or 10 seconds later. Against City you might be chasing the ball for two minutes.
And yet the City of the last half hour was not the usual City. The players seemed to take their emotional cue from Guardiola, raving on the touchline. The patient, backwards-forwards build-up of the first half had given way to rampaging, go-for-the-throat attacks.
City’s blood was up – but they’re at their best when they play with their brains rather than their hearts. Gundogan wasting a good break by passing right when Foden was streaking clear to his left summed up their uncharacteristic impatience.
City’s play was showing the lack of control that some had speculated might be the price of including a pure No 9 like Haaland. Haaland has obliterated those speculations with an unprecedented barrage of goals. But even he can’t score in every game.
On 75 minutes City won a free kick in the right channel and De Bruyne prepared to pick out one of the big men. But the delivery lacked the usual fizz and Alisson caught it under so little pressure that he could look up the field and see Salah one-on-one against Cancelo.
Alisson and Salah have linked up in this kind of situation before, most notably for the second goal against Manchester United the year Liverpool won the title. Cancelo looked poised to cut out the quick long ball – but somehow he missed it and Salah was running through. This time he clipped it high over the shoulder of Ederson and Liverpool had their goal.
Anfield awaited a City onslaught, but fate decreed that the rest of the match would belong to Darwin Nuñez. First he ran through the middle and shot wide of Ederson’s far post. Then he wasted a three-on-one break, with Salah free on the right and screaming for the ball, by passing directly to the solitary City defender.
On 92 minutes he beat Akanji down the left and crossed too hard for the substitute Trent Alexander-Arnold to score at the far post. And in the 96th minute, he appeared to beat the offside trap for a one-on-one against Ederson, only to produce a bizarre chip that sent the ball sideways rather than goalwards.
It was an astonishing display that combined pace, directness, terrible decision-making and awful finishing. But there are many ways to fail. In all the time Nuñez was on the field, Erling Haaland touched the ball three times, one of which was the kick-off after Salah’s goal, and another of which was a defensive clearance.