In a game that promised goals and an avalanche of highlights, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola pragmatized, thus neutralizing their cavalier strategies and ultimately canceling each other out.
Goals are guaranteed, they said. These are the two most attacking teams in the Premier league, they said. It will never be 0-0, they said. Liverpool and Manchester City hadn’t drawn 0-0 since 1986, they said. It was 0-0.
And so after an unexpected stalemate, City and Liverpool remain level on points at the top of the table, with Chelsea catching them after its win at Southampton. City, probably, is a little closer retaining the Premier League title for the first time, but the small step it took could have been a significant one had Riyad Mahrez not missed an 86th-minute penalty and so wasted the opportunity to give his side its first win at Anfield since 2003.
City had already had two shouts for penalties – one when Sergio Aguero appeared to be bundled over by Dejan Lovren and one when the Croatian caught Gabriel Jesus with a flailing arm – when Virgil van Dijk tripped Leroy Sane. Aguero is City’s usual penalty-taker, but he had been substituted, leading to an on-field discussion as to who would take it. Despite having missed four of his previous seven Premier League penalties, Mahrez shrugged off the claims of Gabriel Jesus but blasted his kick high over the bar.
That incident brought late drama, but after the thrills of the four meetings last season, this was something of an anti-climax. Both managers opted for slightly conservative variants of their usual style. For Liverpool, Lovren returned with Joe Gomez shifting to right-back in place of the more adventurous Trent Alexander-Arnold.
City, meanwhile, adjusted shape, the usual 4-3-3 becoming 4-4-2 with David Silva operating as a second striker behind Aguero. The logic was similar to that which lay behind the use of Ilkay Gundogan in a right-sided role in the Champions League quarterfinal first leg last season, but this time it achieved the desired result, protecting the full-backs and giving City an element of control.
Right back Kyle Walker, meanwhile, was far more restrained than usual, slotting in almost as a third central defender when Benjamin Mendy pushed forward down the left. Liverpool was never able to build up the sort of momentum it had for spells all three of the games it won against City last season.
The extent to which that was City’s doing and to which it was down to Liverpool being a little off-color is difficult to say. All of Liverpool’s starting front six had been involved in both the defeat away to Napoli on Wednesday and the draw at Chelsea last Saturday, and it may be they were suffering a touch of fatigue after three such tough games in a week. The 12 days leading up to the international break had been highlighted as a key period for Liverpool’s season, and it won none of the four matches it played in that run, a frustrating end to Jurgen Klopp’s third year as manager at Anfield.
Liverpool’s front three hasn’t yet found the form of February and March yet this season with the wide players, Mohamed Salah in particular, diminished by the more defensive approach being adopted by the fullbacks. More fundamentally, the Egyptian has lost his touch in front of goal. Until roughly this time last year the criticism of him was always that his finishing didn’t match up to his excellence in other areas, and he seems to have reverted to that impression of him: 29 shots on the league this season have yielded only three goals.
There was an early surge from Liverpool, and for seven or eight minutes at the start of the game, City struggled to deal with the ferocity of the Liverpool press, but once that storm had passed, City was relatively comfortable. What few chances there were fell largely City’s way. As well as the penalty, Mahrez had the two best opportunities, dragging one effort just wide of the far post and then drawing a smart save from Alisson at his near post.
But for the most part this was a game the fascination of which lay in how it defied expectation, two managers noted for their cavalier outlook adopting more pragmatic approaches and contriving to neuter both their opponents and themselves.
Liverpool, in the end, will probably feel it got away with it, but in the long run the point is probably of more value to City.