Ken Early: City and Liverpool draw shows exhausting toll of Premier League

Excitement in short supply as teams run out of steam in second half and settle for a draw

Liverpool’s  Jordan Henderson and injured team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold during the match between Manchester City and Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/AFP via Getty Images

Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and injured team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold during the match between Manchester City and Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/AFP via Getty Images

 

In the time of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, the matches between Manchester City and Liverpool have evolved into the Premier League’s Clasico – the two top teams contesting the biggest game, showcasing all that is best about the league.

The games have produced spectacular moments to remember. Fabinho’s drive to set Liverpool on their way to victory at Anfield last season. Leroy Sané galloping through to win it for City the season before. Chamberlain and Salah shots from distance. Sané, Mendy and Jesus running riot in a remarkable 5-0.

Once again, on Sunday, they showed us something we hadn’t seen before: two exhausted teams running out of steam and settling for a 1-1 draw with half an hour still to play.

“Super football game, to be honest,” was Klopp’s summary. The Liverpool manager was half-right – only the first half was good. After half-time there was nothing to get excited about, and the last 20 minutes or so were faintly reminiscent of the non-aggression pact between Ireland and the Netherlands at the 1990 World Cup.

This is where the Premier League finds itself nearly a quarter of the way through the 2021 season: the league that is so fast, so punishing, so demanding, and allows so few substitutes, that even the two best teams in it can’t actually perform at full match intensity for an entire 90-minute game. The masochistic league whose Clasico peters out into nothingness with a third of the match still to play, so that all that’s left to talk about afterwards is the usual absurd refereeing decision, which thankfully on this occasion didn’t quite manage to ruin the game.

Hugged

At the end the two coaches hugged and could be seen talking to each other. “We didn’t speak about the result, we spoke that we need to keep fighting again for five subs,” Guardiola explained afterwards. “Look, Trent Alexander-Arnold, injured, an England national team player. Around the world they have five subs, but here we believe we are more special. It’s a disaster.”

You could argue that it’s odd that Guardiola complains so much about not being able to make five substitutions when he was entitled to make three in Sunday’s game and in fact made only one. But that would be to miss the larger point, which is that the load on the players is cumulative. Both of these teams were playing their seventh match in 22 games. Alexander-Arnold had played all but nine minutes of the previous six matches for Liverpool, and after 62 minutes of chasing Raheem Sterling the muscle fibres in his calf decided they couldn’t take any more.

In the first half, when everyone’s muscles were still more or less in working order, the teams had served up an impressive example of high-line, high-stakes, empty-stadium football. This new football takes some getting used to. When two teams are playing at such speed, leaving so much space behind their defences, the whole game is taking place on a knife-edge where the tiniest mistake can make everybody look extremely foolish.

Anticipate

There’s no way to anticipate which way the mistake is going to fall. When the sides are closely matched, as they were yesterday, the course of a match can feel almost random. One side can seem to be in control, as Liverpool were for the first quarter of an hour, but they’re always vulnerable to a sudden quick stab.

One reason why rugby appeals to the sort of people who don’t “get” football is that it offers a more tangible connection between work and reward. Scores often come at the end of long periods of effort that push the play in one direction. You know when a rugby team is close to scoring because they’re getting close to the try line, that’s how you know it’s time to get up out of your seat and scream.

Football has never really been like that – dangerous attacks and goals can always come out of nowhere. But now it really is a case of blink and you’ll miss it. The two goals both came about from sudden turns, fooling defenders who had anticipated something else. Trent Alexander-Arnold didn’t expect Gabriel Jesus to let the ball run through him like that; he was pressing towards the striker and Jesus wrong-footed him with a touch before toe-poking it past Alisson – a move straight from futsal.

Unguarded

The Liverpool goal came from a similar spin by Mané, who burst unexpectedly into half a yard of space left unguarded by Kyle Walker, who had moved to cover a run by Andy Robertson. Walker tried to recover and brought Mané down: penalty, scored by Salah. For this mistake Walker was pilloried by Roy Keane on TV at half-time, Keane calling him an “idiot” and a “car crash”.

Really? Mané is one of the best players in the world, he does this kind of thing to defenders every week. If Walker feels insulted by Keane’s abuse, he can reflect that at least he’s still capable of holding down a job in top-level football.

The other thing that decides games these days besides small defensive mistakes is, of course, VAR handball, and this week it was Joe Gomez’s turn to be dragged into the remorselessly grinding cogs of justice. Pundits cry out for “common sense”, but in practice that usually means turning a blind eye, which is impossible in the age of VAR. Instead, decisions are made by checklist. Does the ball hit the arm? Yes. Was the contact above the elbow? No. I’m sorry then, Mr Gomez, my hands are tied, this hurts me more than it hurts you . . .

Fortunately for Gomez, Kevin de Bruyne smashed the penalty wide with magnificent magnanimity. A fair result, as both sides in the end seemed to agree.

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