Liverpool have one foot in the Champions League semi-finals after their stunning 3-0 win over Manchester City at Anfield. The first-half was an attacking masterclass, but did the second show they have fixed their defence? Nick Wright examines the improvement.
Manchester City will be glad to see the back of Anfield for one season. Three months on from their last visit, when their unbeaten start to the Premier League campaign was ended so emphatically, they endured an even more traumatic night on Merseyside. Pep Guardiola knew what to expect but he did not know how to stop it.
In his defence, few sides could have coped with Liverpool’s first-half performance. While City patiently probed in the opening stages, Jurgen Klopp’s men prepared to pounce. Then, in the space of just 19 minutes, three City mistakes were ruthlessly punished. Liverpool’s pressing was too much for Guardiola’s side. Their finishing was clinical.
Liverpool’s breathless first-half display evoked memories of that 4-3 win in January, but this time there was never any danger of a late collapse. The game will be remembered for Mohamed Salah’s 38th goal of the season and for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stunning second, but it also showed how far Liverpool have come in a defensive sense.
Manchester City barely got close to Liverpool’s goal in the first half, and even in the second, when the hosts dropped deeper and Salah was forced off with an injury, they could not find a way through. Liverpool became only the fourth side all season to prevent City from scoring. They are the first to not even allow them a shot on target.
Goalkeeper Loris Karius was identified as a weakness before the game, but behind a back four of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson, he was a bystander throughout. Liverpool, so often exposed in the past, were disciplined and well-drilled. For the first time all season, City seemed to run out of ideas.
It owed a lot to the £75m man in the middle. Van Dijk dominated Gabriel Jesus, winning every one of the duels he competed and marshalling the defence with the kind of authority Liverpool have so often lacked under Klopp. It was not the first time he has made a difference, either. In his last eight starts, Liverpool have kept five clean sheets and only conceded four goals.
The improvement can be seen at full-back, too, where Klopp has turned a problem position into a strength, with Alexander-Arnold moving to the top of the pecking order on the right and Robertson nailing down his spot on the left. Robertson has been one of Liverpool’s most consistent performers in recent weeks, but it was Alexander-Arnold who shone brightest against City.
The 19-year-old’s inexperience was exposed by Marcus Rashford and Wilfried Zaha recently, but up against Leroy Sane, he barely put a foot wrong. According to Opta, he made more clearances (10), more interceptions (seven) and more ball recoveries (10) than any of his team-mates. He prevented Sane from creating a single chance. Going forward, he also played a key role in Salah’s opener.
Alexander-Arnold’s display rewarded Klopp’s faith and so too did Lovren’s. The Croat has been a much-criticised figure since his arrival at Liverpool, but he was faultless when the pressure mounted on Wednesday night. An impeccably timed interception from a Sane cut-back and a brave header from an Aymeric Laporte cross were among his most important interventions.
Like Karius, Liverpool’s defenders were afforded solid protection against City. James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain snapped into tackles and worked tirelessly in midfield in the first half. Then, with the added support of Georginio Wijnaldum, they kept their shape and closed off the spaces in front of Liverpool’s defence in the second.
The shut-out secured Liverpool’s fourth consecutive clean sheet in the Champions League and their sixth overall – the joint-highest in this year’s competition along with Barcelona. It is another statistic which points to steady improvement at the back and it augurs well for what lies ahead.
Liverpool are holding firm in big games and, crucially, they are managing it against lesser opposition too. In fact, their defensive improvement in the Premier League actually pre-dates the coming together of their current defence. They have only lost to a team outside of the top six once all season. They have only conceded two or more goals against those teams on two occasions.
For now, however, Liverpool have more of the bigger occasions to focus on. They will need to show the same steel in next week’s second leg at the Etihad Stadium, but before then there is the small matter of a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. Salah’s absence may test their attack, but Liverpool now know they have a defence they can fall back on.