Call it the lull after the storms, perhaps. Liverpool and Manchester City shared 18 goals in four epic encounters last season. After the eventful came the empty as they shared the points in a stalemate that, apart from one minute, was largely devoid of incident.
That minute first offered and then cost City a first win at Anfield since 2003; it was a passage of play to forget for both clubs’ record signings. First, the previously imperious Virgil van Dijk made a rash challenge on Leroy Sane. “It was not smart to dive in there,” the Dutchman admitted.
Then Riyad Mahrez stepped up and skied a dreadful penalty. The substituted Sergio Aguero is the regular taker. Gabriel Jesus had wanted the responsibility. “I apologise,” said Pep Guardiola, who nominated the wrong man.
And so two unbeaten league starts remain intact, though it said something that the two most compelling attacking units in England failed to register a shot on target in the opening hour. Nor were goalkeepers Alisson and Ederson unduly troubled by the subsequent efforts, including Mahrez’s misdirected spot kick.
“He is deflated and feels he has let us down,” said City defender John Stones. Yet amid a general lack of incision, the Algerian was the lone City player to threaten a goal. He angled an effort narrowly wide when found by David Silva and drew a near-post save following fine work by Bernardo Silva while City were frustrated with a couple of earlier appeals for spot kicks. “Maybe we need two penalties to score one goal,” added Guardiola.
Nevertheless, they made a lesser kind of history, with a first clean sheet at a bogey ground since 1986. “It is better than last season,” Guardiola said. If his side were scarred by Anfield eviscerations, they constructed a response. They slowed the game down and took the sting out of it.
“If you play so quick they are much better than us,” Guardiola said. “If it is an open game at Anfield, you don’t even have one per cent of a chance.”
City’s proficiency at passing meant possession served as a defensive tactic. They succeeded in quietening Anfield. The chant of “where’s your famous atmosphere?” can be increasingly tiresome. On this occasion, it was appropriate.
Guardiola was more cautious than usual. Kyle Walker barely crossed the half-way line. The excellent Bernardo Silva operated deeper than usual, displaying discipline and intelligence to ensure Fernandinho was not isolated when Liverpool broke.
Perhaps both sides were too worried about being counter-attacked. “We cancelled each other out,” Van Dijk said. Liverpool were comparatively conservative, shorn of dynamism and dynamite alike.
Jurgen Klopp’s decision to recall Dejan Lovren, which could have backfired when he seemed to foul Aguero in the penalty area, was justified when the Croatian made a potentially goal-saving tackle on Jesus.
The Croatian was not the only centre-back to excel. At the other end, Aymeric Laporte made a couple of fine challenges on Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian was the personification of Liverpool’s ability to terrorise City last season but, with his usual victim Nicolas Otamendi benched, Laporte proved a more formidable opponent. Liverpool’s feared front three were muted.
“A lot of credit for Kyle for containing [Sadio] Mane and [Benjamin] Mendy for controlling Salah,” Guardiola added. It is not the type of control his sides are most famed for exerting, but it was an antidote to last season’s anarchy.