As Man City Stakes Claim in Title Race, Liverpool's Future Appears Uncertain

For the first time in Jurgen Klopp’s reign, there are serious questions about Liverpool's future.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

And with that, perhaps, it is done. Manchester City’s 4–1 victory over Liverpool Sunday takes it five points clear of Manchester United at the top of the table with a game in hand. That may still be close enough for a proper title race, but Liverpool will not be in it. It lies five points further back having won just two of its last nine games. As City gets stronger and stronger, Liverpool’s title defense is over and, for the first time in Jurgen Klopp’s reign, there are serious questions about the future.

Liverpool was undone in the end by two goalkeeping errors from Alisson, but this wasn’t a defeat to be placed on one man. This has been a general slump. There is a weariness about the club now. Injuries to three first-choice central defenders, clearly, have been a major issue, and that has had knock-on effects in midfield as Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have had to drop into the back four, but this has been a collective decline. This is a squad that has been together for three years and is beginning to show its age.

The blip had seemed to have ended with successive 3–1 wins over Tottenham and West Ham, but a home defeat to Brighton on Thursday resurrected the doubts. Klopp’s slightly odd claims that City has had an easier calendar than his own side seemed a reflection of his anxiety. On Sunday, Liverpool was tentative, playing without anything like the conviction and verve it does at its best.

That in turn seemed to disconcert City. It has been more conservative this season, a tactical shift that has clearly benefited it. It sat off, as if expecting Liverpool to fly forward, and when Klopp’s side didn’t, it was as though it didn’t quite know how to respond. The result was an opening quarter as untidy and eventful as any period of any game between Liverpool and City since Klopp and Pep Guardiola arrived in England.

Liverpool did create a couple of chances—a header over from Sadio Mane after a moment of inspiration from Trent Alexander-Arnold and a volley from Roberto Firmino—but then gave away an entirely avoidable penalty, Fabinho dangling out his trailing leg to trip Raheem Sterling. Ilkay Gundogan, though, fired the penalty over the bar—the third spot-kick City has missed in its last four league games against Liverpool.

That same route—Sterling taking on Alexander-Arnold—brought the opening goal four minutes into the second half, Gundogan slamming in the rebound after Phil Foden’s initial effort had been saved. Alexander-Arnold has had a difficult season and although he has been more of an attacking presence in recent weeks, it increasingly appears that opponents are targeting his defending.

alisson-becker

Going behind finally forced Liverpool into action. City’s defense has been immaculate for the past two months, conceding just one goal in its previous nine league games, but it was caught out by a simple ball over the top—the sort of pass in behind that has been such an Achilles heel in recent seasons. There should have been no danger, but Ruben Dias, who has been so central to City’s defensive improvement, dithered, allowing Mohamed Salah to break into the box. He grabbed at the Egyptian’s arm and Salah willingly accepted the contact, going to ground to win a penalty that he then converted—Liverpool’s first goal at Anfield this year.

Once again, though, the inconsistency of application of the law was clear. Given there was no attempt to play the ball, why was Dias not sent off? Perhaps the feeling was that the contact was minimal, that Salah effectively manufactured the foul by collapsing as soon as he felt the touch on his arm, but if that is the case, was it even a foul?

On the touchline, Klopp screamed an audible, “Come on!” The message was clear: he knew the league situation demanded Liverpool win. But if there was a reaction, it was from City. First John Stones had an effort ruled out for a narrow offside, then it regained the lead after 73 minutes.

A poor pass from Alisson put Liverpool under pressure and although possession was won back, the goalkeeper then misplaced another pass. Phil Foden seized on it, drove into the box and crossed for Gundogan to add his second. Four minutes later it was three, Alisson again duffing a pass, and Bernardo Silva dinking across goal for Sterling to nod in. And five minutes after that the game was done, Foden scoring a brilliant fourth.

The title looks like City’s to lose. Liverpool, after three successive home defeats, has rebuilding to do.