Thrillingly fluent, thrillingly pointless: Man City’s riposte comes too late

Pep Guardiola’s side were brilliant against Liverpool - but lads, you’re 20 points behind

Kevin De Bruyne on the ball during Manchester City’s win over Liverpool. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

Kevin De Bruyne on the ball during Manchester City’s win over Liverpool. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

 

The French have a phrase for things such as this. L’esprit de l’escalier describes that moment on the stairs when you think of exactly the right witty riposte, just 10 minutes too late.

There was something of that spirit here on an engrossing mid-summer night at the Etihad Stadium. Manchester City played like princes, made Liverpool gasp for air and handed out a thrillingly fluent, thrillingly pointless 4-0 thrashing to the club football champions of the world.

This was Premier League football de l’escalier, the perfect riposte a beat too late. But it was beautiful too, studded with glittering little miniatures the futility of the occasion could never quite diminish.

The best of them came on 29 minutes. With City leading 1-0, Kevin De Bruyne took a pass from Rodri on the edge of the centre circle, spun with one foot rolled over the ball, and took three quick touches with his right foot to glide away from Fabinho.

At that moment a piece of human geometry presented itself. Four red shirts marked out a tight, narrow rectangle, 30 yards end to end, protecting the diagonal pass to Gabriel Jesus.

De Bruyne activated his deep thought circuit boards, mapping the space, calculating vectors of time and motion, pipe clamped between his teeth, leafing though the charts, checking his Copernican wheel, gradually feeling the bars start to narrow, the numbers settle.

Finally he played the pass, a ludicrous, almost satirical thing threaded through that channel at just the right speed to hit the feet of Jesus on the edge of the area. This was a pass so good it seemed to belong to some other discipline, the snooker trick shot or the charity domino-topple (Jesus crowned the moment by jinking left and right then falling over).

In a pointless game in an empty stadium, that moment, and the three first-half goals, served notice of two things. First De Bruyne’s own genius as a central midfield player. And secondly just how badly City have been outplayed this season. Yes, really. Not how tough next season will be, or how desperate City will be to take the title back, both of which are no doubt also true.

But really, what City’s performance highlighted was the splendour of Liverpool’s own achievement in winning the league so emphatically ahead of a team this good; the brilliance of Liverpool’s season while there was still a season to be won.

There had been a concerted attempt to inject some urgency into this contest before kick-off, to suggest that next season started here, that this would be an opportunity to “send out a message”, to strike a killer psychological blow and all the rest of it. In reality this was always a dead game, another voyage through the summer doldrums.

Pep Guardiola saw his Mancester City side beat Liverpool 4-0 on Thursday night. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/AFP/Getty
Pep Guardiola saw his Mancester City side beat Liverpool 4-0 on Thursday night. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/AFP/Getty

There was, of course, an emotional element to this for City. The 3-1 defeat at Anfield in November felt like an early coronation. City’s players were spooked: outrun, outplayed, shouted down by the crowd. It hurt.

The guard of honour here will have made them want to vomit too (and rightly so. What next? A modern dance routine? A special cake?) Similarly, there will be an urge to see a degree of lukewarm revenge in the hand Raheem Sterling played in City’s first two goals.

Both involved getting the better of Joe Gomez, who had ruffled and rattled Sterling at Anfield, an exchange that ended with a much-trumpeted face-off in the England canteen.

Here the two men came together in the penalty area with 24 minutes gone, Sterling twisting and turning as Gomez produced a slow-burn kind of foul, a series of grabs and grapples and jounces that eventually left Sterling tumbling to the floor. It was a gauche piece of defending. How to concede a penalty: step one.

De Bruyne tucked it away. Moments later his surging diagonal run drew Liverpool’s cover, leaving Phil Foden to slip the perfect pass through to Sterling, who finished ruthlessly. Ten minutes later it was three, Foden and De Bruyne combining and Foden finishing with real verve.

It was a fascinating spectacle in those moments, even more so as the fourth goal arrived via the same route in the second half, De Bruyne providing the de facto assist for an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain own goal. Liverpool, the champions without a midfield, had been picked apart by the team that is all midfield, which is in effect a love song to the beauty of midfield and midfielders. What to make of all this? Is it anything more than the perfect put-down in the silence of the stairwell? “Next season starts today,” Rodri said before the start. “Next season starts today,” Sterling said at the end.

It’s a dressing-room line, but not much more. These players already know how good they are. This was a moment to ask themselves how their opponents had managed not only to take their title, but to wrench it from their grasp with such irresistible verve. At the Etihad they were magnificent, irresistible, overwhelming. But lads, you’re 20 points behind.

For now City will take confidence from this into their August Champions League campaign. They may well be back to these levels next season. In the meantime this was a glimpse of what might have been, and one that will torment Pep Guardiola a little more than Jürgen Klopp. - Guardian

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