If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps Manchester City overcame their nemeses from Anfield by aping them.
For once, Jurgen Klopp was not a game’s most animated coach as the antics of an anguished and eventually exuberant Pep Guardiola showed.
While the running statistics of the Manchester City players made for impressive reading, Guardiola covered more distance than many a manager, straying far out of his technical area.
More pertinent, however, was the work ethic of his players. “The effort today,” marvelled Guardiola after the relentless of City’s pressing game rivalled Liverpool’s at their finest.
“A very intense game,” added the Liverpool manager, whose sides usually prevail in such circumstances. It was not about pure possession – not when City had a mere 49.6 per cent of the ball, the first time they had a minority share in a Premier League game in Guardiola’s reign – but was decided by Klopp-style counter-attacking and a swift combination of wingers; not Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah but Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane.
If the Englishman has still never scored against his old employers, he compensated with a calm assist. If Liverpool have proved a bogey team for City, Sane has a tendency to prove the scourge of the Scousers; this was a fourth goal in as many league games against Klopp’s team.
It produced another role reversal: Liverpool ended City’s unbeaten league start in January 2018. Fast forward to January 2019, and City ensured Liverpool will not be Invincibles.
Klopp lost the battle but has an advantage in the war. “If someone had told me after both games against Man City we would be four points clear, I would have paid money for it,” he said. “It’s not possible.”
Time will tell how significant that gap proves because this suggested the margins are narrow. “At the end [of the day], the post in or post out can make a massive difference,” said Klopp, noting that Mane struck the upright at 0-0 and Sane’s winner went in via the woodwork.
City, who have won a title on goal difference, know more than most how narrow the margins can be. This one may also come down to 1.12 cm, the distance the unwitting Ederson was from scoring an own goal in tragicomic fashion when John Stones made the first of his two goal-line clearances.
The fraught finale featured Stones’ second last-ditch intervention and a crucial Ederson save, the first half a lunge from City’s captain at Salah that could have brought his expulsion.
“I really like Vincent Kompany but how on earth is that not a red card?” wondered Klopp. “If he hits Mo more, he is out for the season.”
Liverpool’s top scorer survives to start another game. His City counterpart struck for the seventh time in as many home league games against the Merseysiders.
It was the 250th league goal of Sergio Aguero’s productive career. An expert in preying on the weak had nipped past the one fallible member of Liverpool’s defence.
This was the sort of epic that cannot be created with only one side performing well. Three-quarters of Liverpool’s back four were terrific. Virgil van Dijk showed his powers of magnetism, Andrew Robertson delivered an assist and a series of fine challenges and Trent Alexander-Arnold allied menacing crosses with precocious judgment.
That left only Dejan Lovren, who may have been doubly culpable for defeat, caught flat-footed by the sharper Aguero at the near post for the opener and, after Roberto Firmino’s headed equaliser, playing Sterling onside for the decider.
Yet it is a sign of the standards in the Liverpool defence that they had not been breached twice in a league game since visiting West Bromwich Albion in April.
There was a different, but welcome, sense of novelty for City in another respect. Guardiola could savour the sense his initial gameplan was not disrupted by the scoreline.
He has noted with irritation that Liverpool have tended to score with their first shot on target against City; this time it was the other way around.
It was no coincidence that Bernardo Silva was Aguero’s supplier. While Fernandinho was indefatigable, highlighting why he is irreplaceable, the short, slight Portuguese played like a man possessed.
“He wins all the duels,” said Guardiola. “Of course I would prefer to have a taller or more physical team but Bernardo is incredible. It is a long time since I see a performance like he did in all terms: he is precise, he is clean, he is clever, he fought with Van Dijk.”
And he ran 13.7 million kilometres, the most by any player in the Premier League this season. If it was the sort of workload associated with Klopp’s midfielders, Silva ran himself into the ground to power City closer to the leaders.