Liverpool's win offers clubs blueprint on how to beat Man City
Joe Prince-Wright looks back at the key talking points from a wild Premier League weekend.
BLUEPRINT EMERGES TO BEAT MAN CITY
Manchester City will probably still win the Premier League this season, but a blueprint has emerged as to how you can hurt them.
Pep Guardiola 's men lost 4-3 at Liverpool on Sunday with Jurgen Klopp fighting fire with fire and ending City's bid to go the entire PL season unbeaten in the process.
City lost for the first time this season at the 23rd attempt but teams are, finally, figuring out how you can stop them. Well, at least for large spells of a game. If you're going to listen to anyone about how to get the better of a Guardiola team, it's Klopp. No manager has beaten Guardiola more in his managerial career.
Speaking to our analysts on the pitch at Anfield after the game, Klopp said time and again how you have to be “brave” but also “press at the right time” to shut down City's slick passing game. Liverpool's gameplan worked perfectly but they still only won 4-3 as City were brave themselves and kept getting on the ball to cause havoc.
Liverpool started brightly, pressing high and getting at City's full backs with Sadio Mane pushed high on Kyle Walker and Mohamed Salah on Fabian Delph . City couldn't get the ball out of their own half and Ederson was forced into poor clearances and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was given too much space and rifled home a fine opener.
Is this a crisis for Guardiola and Man City? Nope. When you look at their remaining schedule, the only game you can see them being seriously tested in is their trip to Tottenham in mid-April.
But what is the blueprint for success against the team who've looked unbeatable for most of the season?
Here are four fundamentals you have to do well to have a chance of beating Man City:
1. Isolate City's full backs in one-on-one battles: This is easy to do for Liverpool because of the pace and danger of Mane and Salah but the likes of Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Bristol City have all had success doing this in recent games. If you are brave enough to let your wingers step high on the man with the ball, you can get success. Walker and Delph (or Danilo , who replaced the injured Delph) aren't as comfortable as City's other players on the ball and will give it away under intense pressure.
2. High-press, high-press, high-press: The likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva can find gaps in the tightest defenses, so why sit back and let City wait for one tiny defensive lapse to punish you? If you press City high, Ederson and their center backs will give you the ball back and you can pounce further up the pitch. Of course, you aren't going to be able to press for the entire game but if you can split the game into four quarters, you can have a chance as long as you do number three…
3. Take your chances: Easy to say but tough to do. Liverpool could have led City 2-0 in the return game at the Etihad earlier this season but Mohamed Salah missed big chances after another fast start from Klopp's men. Liverpool had seven shots on target and scored with four of them. They also hit the post through Mane and in a 20 minutes spell from the 55th minute they tore Man City apart. For all the talk about their poor defending, City had conceded the fewest goals in the PL heading into this game.
4. Allow City the first pass centrally, then pounce: Look at Liverpool's four goals. Man City created their own problems in all four and they were caught out for loose passes from their defense into the central midfield area. That's the time where you can snap in and win the ball back, then get at their back four while they are on the back foot. As Klopp told our analysts, you have to press at the right time. Liverpool did and City couldn't handle it.
Back in the summer transfer window the trio of Alexis Sanchez, Virgil Van Dijk and Philippe Coutinho were embroiled in lengthy and messy transfer sagas.
All three were kept by their clubs (Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool respectively) but two of the three have already moved in January and the third is edging closer than ever to the exit door.
What did the three clubs achieve but not selling their star players in the summer? Who really “won” this stalemate, if anyone did?
You can argue that Liverpool were the big winners from this. Yes, they lost Coutinho but they also got an eye-watering sum of $197 million from Barcelona for a star player that wasn't actually making them that much better than they already were with Salah, Mane and Firmino around. Klopp also added van Dijk for $100 million from Southampton and although that price is high, Liverpool improved their shaky defense considerably and still made close to $100 million on the deal. Decent.
For Saints, they lost their leading center back but in truth VVD's heart wasn't in it after he handed in a transfer request in the summer amid Liverpool apologizing and calling off their bid to sign him following an alleged illegal approach for the Dutch defender. Yet Southampton's form has dipped badly since their captain had his head turned and they are just one point above the relegation zone with a cloud hanging over the club. Their stance to try and persuade VVD, a player who signed a six-year deal in the summer of 2016, to stay long-term, has backfired massively.
That segues us nicely to Sanchez and his impending departure from Arsenal.
On transfer deadline day in September Arsenal could have got $75 million from Man City for Sanchez but the deal broke down at the 11th hour as they couldn't line up Thomas Lemar as a replacement. Since then, Sanchez has played well in fits and starts but his overall output has diminished drastically and his situation was very different to Coutinho and van Dijk's, who were both on long-term contracts.
With less than six months left on his current deal, Sanchez could now be sold for less than half of what he could have fetched in September and probably a third of his actual market value. Arsene Wenger believed he could convince Sanchez (plus Mesut Ozil) to stay at the Emirates but it appears Arsenal's gamble has failed dramatically and they're lucky to get anywhere near $40 million for the Chilean forward if that's what Man United are said to be paying for him.
In hindsight (a wonderful, wonderful thing) all three players should have probably been sold in the summer but Liverpool appear to be the real winners with Coutinho increasing his value and finally landing their man in van Dijk despite paying slightly over the odds.
As for Arsenal and Southampton, they'll look back on the decision to not cash in on their stars in the summer as very poor decisions.
VAR CHATTER INCREASES
Fans of Southampton and Swansea City will be the loudest advocates of using the VAR system on Monday.
Over the weekend both clubs should have had big decisions go their way which would've helped them on their way to sealing massive victories in their fight against relegation.
Abdoulaye Doucoure's 90th minute equalizer for Watford against Southampton was perhaps the biggest incident yet to show why VAR is needed in the Premier League. The French midfielder punched the ball past Alex McCarthy and into the net t o snatch a point for Watford in the 2-2 draw (after they'd trailed 2-0 at half time) and could end up not only costing Saints dear in their battle against relegation, but manager Mauricio Pellegrino is under severe pressure to save his job with no wins in their last 10 PL games.
As for Swansea, Mo Diame committed a clear handball to stop a shot going in in their 1-1 draw at Newcastle and the hosts should have been down to 10-men and the Swans awarded a penalty kick.
All it would have taken is a quick word in the ear of the referee from a Video Assistant Referee watching the incidents on a TV screen to tell them that Watford's goal should have been chalked off and Diame should have been sent off and Swansea awarded a penalty kick. That's it. For this huge decisions which impact the outcome of the game, we need this technology. Purists out there harp on about ruining the flow of the game but there's no need to have challenge flags for managers or a maximum or minimum number of decisions per game.
Simply put: if a contentious incident occurs in the game regarding a goal, red card or a penalty decision, have someone else check it and see if the decision was correct. If there was an obvious mistake made by the match officials, overturn it. If there is still doubt about it, keep the same decision. It is that easy. It really is.
VAR isn't in place in the PL but the debate rumbles on after it was used in the FA Cup and League Cup last week with some teething issues but it was largely successfully with the main issue being that fans inside the stadium didn't know what was happening and why there was a delay.
With the Bundesliga, Major League Soccer and Serie A using the technology this season to clear up contentious calls, it's tough to see the Premier League not adopting this technology from the 2018-19 campaign onwards.
RELEGATION PICTURE GETTING CRAZY
Just 10 points separates last-place Swansea City with Everton in ninth in the Premier League. There is going to be an almighty scrap against relegation.
Swansea City, West Brom and Stoke City occupy the current bottom three but above them the likes of Southampton, Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle are bang out of form, with even the likes of Watford, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth embroiled in the battle.
So, that's half the league.
Momentum means everything at this time of the season and both West Ham and Palace have it after impressive wins at the weekend, while Bournemouth will also feel confident after beating Arsenal on Sunday and so to will West Brom after grabbing their first win in 21 outings.
If you had to select three teams to go down, who would you pick? I feel like we will all be changing our minds on a weekly basis from here until May 13.