It could be that next season Manchester City reclaims the Premier League title and we look back at Thursday as the moment the momentum began to shift. Or it may be that it has no bearing at all and a thumping City victory lives in the memory as no more than a quirk similar to Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Arsenal in 1998 after Arsene Wenger’s side had sealed the title.
The temptation will be to suggest Liverpool’s players have been celebrating all week. But just as likely is that, having won the title, its intensity has dropped and, as a couple of key breaks went City’s way, that was enough to send it spiraling off course. Once the first goal had gone in after 25 minutes, Liverpool fell into shambles, so bad as to make any proper analysis pointless; this was not a normal performance. Liverpool probably enjoyed the guard of honor provided by City but not much else.
In terms of what is left to play for this season, though, there is a little pressure added to Liverpool if it desires to set a new points record. It still needs 14 points from its final six games to match the 100-point mark set by City two seasons ago. And it must be something of a concern that Thursday's defeat marked five away games in a row in which Liverpool has failed to score–the first time it has done that since 1992.
The early stages of the match had seemed to expose why Liverpool has won the title this season. In what was essentially an even game, City’s defense yielded two early chances, with Sadio Mane missing a header and Mohamed Salah hitting a post after being gifted space into which he could accelerate. The failure to replace Vincent Kompany and the failure to upgrade either or both of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones have been obvious weaknesses for City this season.
There must also be questions about City’s forward line, particularly if Sergio Aguero, who has been linked with a move to Inter, does leave at the end of the season. The Argentinian is absent after knee surgery, meaning Gabriel Jesus started at center forward. There is a thought that Guardiola prefers the Brazilian but, whatever he may offer in terms of movement and work rate, he is not a goalscorer in the same mold as Aguero. Twice in the opening quarter of the game, mistimed runs rather wasted Kevin De Bruyne through balls as he was called offside.
But it was City that took the lead, with De Bruyne converting from the penalty spot after Joe Gomez had hauled Raheem Sterling down. The two had clashed in the meeting between the sides at Anfield earlier in the season, leading to a dispute in the canteen at an England camp a few days later and Sterling being dropped for the match against Montenegro as a result.
A player who almost certainly will have a big part to play next season is Phil Foden. There has been some frustration that the 20-year-old, a key part of England’s Under-17 World Cup success in 2017, hasn’t been more involved over the past couple of seasons, but he surely is well on his way to being a regular.
His narrow positioning caused Andy Robertson huge problems, and he was central to the second goal. Gabriel Jesus dropped deep to gather the ball and fed Foden, who ignored De Bruyne’s run outside him. That created space for Sterling, who beat Gomez again with his first touch before squeezing a shot past Alisson. By halftime it was 3-0, a neat move concluding with a one-two between Foden and De Bruyne.
Not since the 6-1 defeat at Stoke on the final day of the 2014-15 season, Steve Gerrard’s last game, had Liverpool been three goals down at halftime. No Jurgen Klopp side had been 3-0 down at halftime since his Mainz lost to Bayern Munich in 2007.
And yet it got worse. A Rodri pass found De Bruyne, Foden’s run created space for Sterling, whose shot was drifting just wide when it was turned over his own line by the back-tracking Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
In terms of this season, it didn’t matter, but a 4-0 win perhaps sets down some sort of marker–though City's makeup next season could hinge on the forthcoming ruling of its Champions League ban appeal. Regardless, Klopp is anticipating a battle that extends beyond the two teams and not another romp to the title for 2020-2021.
"We will not defend the title next season. We'll attack the next one," Klopp said earlier this week. "I have learned when you think you have reached the pinnacle, you are already on the way down.
"City will be strong next season, [Manchester] United will be strong next season, Chelsea will be strong."
So maybe Thursday's result matters in the long run, and maybe it does not. Amid a league season that has been hugely disappointing for City, whose two-year reign is over, it perhaps regains at least a small measure of pride.