Liverpool 3-0 Man City: Match review

These are the nights upon which Liverpool has built its European heritage as a club. Manchester City arrived at Anfield with the most expensively assembled squad in the history of football, managed by a man who is widely regarded as the very best in the business. It’s important to place this context at the forefront of analyzing this tie.

Much of the pre-game talk suggested that City were simply too good a football team to be overawed by the occasion, intimidated by a vociferous, hostile Anfield crowd on a European night. History has shown countless great sides crumble under such atmospheres. As it turned out, City would be no exception to that tradition.

Just imagine being on that coach. The extra confidence boost it must give you to have 50,000 fans roaring you on like that before, during and after the game. And then the opposite effect for the City players.

The sea of red passion which lined the streets of Anfield transferred to within the stadium, a wall of ear-splitting noise orchestrated by 50,000 supporters hellbent on doing absolutely everything possible to influence the outcome of the game. Intimidate the visitors, inspire the players in Red. That’s the mantra of all this- and it worked.

City began relatively brightly, up until Mo Salah opened the scoring in front of the Kop after 12 minutes to send the crowd into raptures. Guardiola’s side disintegrated both mentally and physically in the 20 minutes that followed; a collection of world class footballers having the greatest season of their careers, transformed into a quivering wreck of nerves- regularly misplacing simple passes- by a unique chemistry of supporters and players performing in tandem to their very highest level.

That first goal only happens because of Firmino’s determination to never give up on a loose ball, stealing ahead of Kyle Walker to prod a pass toward’s the lurking Salah. The Brazilian’s pressing was almost superhuman in the opening 45 minutes, to the extent that City simply could not play out from the back in their usual, calm manner.

There’s something romantic, mystical even, about 11 footballers driven on to such heights by an atmosphere like that, elevating themselves to a level with which the opposition- regardless of their wealth of quality- simply could not live with.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rattles in the second from 25-yards, City are not just unnerved, but their confidence completely and utterly shattered by the red storm unfolding around them. It’s an absolute thunderbolt from a player who was widely mocked for his transfer fee when joining Liverpool, now stepping up to the plate with a magnificent all-round performance on the biggest stage against the highest caliber of opposition.

City’s midfield of Fernandino, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have been virtually unplayable for much of the season; two of the best the Premier League has arguably ever seen, supported by one of the best anchoring midfielders around. Vastly superior in individual ability to Liverpool’s trio, they were unable to deal with the sheer relentless pressure they were put under throughout the first half. They were overrun and outplayed.

When Sadio Mané headed in Liverpool’s third on the night from Salah’s sumptuous chipped pass, the annihilation was complete. From that moment on, Liverpool had the commanding lead they could only have dreamed of. It would be a test of game management, discipline, and concentration for the remaining hour of the contest- qualities which Liverpool have long been accused of lacking, particularly against opposition of the highest quality.

If the first half was a demonstration of Jürgen Klopp’s blueprint of sensational, ruthless attacking football, the second half was equally impressive in terms of the manner in which Liverpool were able to dig in and withstand constant pressure from a City side desperately looking for an away goal to salvage a disastrous start to the tie.

Every single Liverpool player stepped up to the plate and made their contribution. Trent Alexander-Arnold put in one of the greatest performances by a Liverpool right by in many a year. He came in for plenty of criticism after recent games against Manchester United and Crystal Palace, and City clearly targeted him here with constant diagonal balls to isolate him one-on-one against one of the most precociously gifted wingers in world football at the moment, in Leroy Sané.

Trent dominated that battle all game, gettering the better of Sané time and time again with perfectly timed tackles, headers and interceptions. It was a remarkable display of maturity and passion from a 19-year-old kid, representing his hometown club, in the biggest game of his career, up against some of the most expensive footballers of all time. It was a performance to be proud of, in the extreme.

On the other side, Andy Robertson was typically terrific, exploiting Guardiola’s decision not to start Raheem Sterling by marauding up the left-flank throughout the first half. City could not deal with his bullish, driving runs, while he remained resolute as ever in his defensive duties in the second-half, effectively rendering City’s right-hand side impotent.

In the centre of defence, Virgil van Dijk delivered the kind of imperious display you would expect from the world’s most expensive defender, winning 100% of his duels and providing the commanding, composed presence which helped Liverpool successfully preserve a crucial clean sheet under immense pressure.

Alongside him, the much-maligned Dejan Lovren delivered the finest performance of his Liverpool career with aggressive, front-foot defending, constantly in the right place at the right time to clear any danger that came his way. He proved that he is capable of delivering at the highest level and he must now sustain this level if Liverpool are to progress further in the competition.

In front of the back four, Jordan Henderson gave a superb captain’s performance, snapping into challenges and breaking up play to stifle the threat of De Bruyne and Silva alongside James Milner, whose performances in midfield throughout the second half of this season have continued to surpass all expectations.

All across the pitch, there was quality and passion in abundance from Liverpool in order to manage the game so effectively after the first-half blitz.

This must go down as one of the all-time great Liverpool European performances; a display which will have made the rest of the continent stand up and notice. It’s a night of which the manager, the players and the supporters should be enormously proud. A collective spirit and unity that so few- if any- clubs are capable of harnessing to the same extent.

Importantly, the job is still only half done and the tie far, far from over. Liverpool, though, have put themselves in the best position they could possibly have conceived of at this stage. Something special is brewing.

Allez, allez, allez.

The revival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain under Jürgen Klopp

Rewind back to 31st August when Liverpool announced the signing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal in a deal worth £35 million. From the Liverpool side, there was a mixture of cautious optimism and heavy skepticism about the hefty fee for a player with more question marks than answers around his ability to be a key player at a top English club. From the Arsenal side, his departure was largely met with derision and bitterness, with Chamberlain lambasted for “jumping ship” to a rival side.

Indeed, there was a rampant surge of wild criticism and abuse in the immediate aftermath of his transfer, at which point Chamberlain was only making brief cameos off the bench with his confidence sorely lacking. He was being widely mocked for “swapping one bench for another”, with many already writing him off as a total waste of money.

It’s indicative of the sheer lack of patience and wider perspective in football that Chamberlain was given such harsh treatment upon his arrival before he even had a chance to prove himself. Moving to a new city, playing with new teammates and under a new manager with completely different demands and a whole different style of football to what Chamberlain was used to at Arsenal; it was always going to take him some time to settle in and adapt at Liverpool, especially with the amount of media attention following his transfer.

Fast forward to the present, after the initial teething process, and Chamberlain has established himself not only as a useful squad player, but as someone who has a great deal to contribute to the first team at Liverpool, both now and for many seasons to come.

His breakthrough performance came in January’s momentous victory over Manchester City, in which Chamberlain tore through the City midfield before lashing in the opening goal from outside the box, before setting up Roberto Firmino’s second-half goal with a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot through ball from a deeper position to carve out an opening for the Brazilian.

Chamberlain was full of energy, dynamism and quality on the ball against arguably the strongest side in Europe this season, going toe to toe with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan and demonstrating his ability to perform at that elite level. The focus for Chamberlain has long been performing at a high level consistently, rather than just in flashes.

He had done so throughout much of November and December for Liverpool, before going off the boil somewhat after his virtuoso display against the champions-elect. In the past couple of weeks, however, Chamberlain has regained his groove with a fine display in the 4-1 thrashing of West Ham, in which he dribbled past four players before sliding a pass through for Mo Salah to score in the second-half.

He followed that up with another classy performance against Newcastle at the weekend, providing the spark which ignited what had been a cagey opening against Rafa Benitez’ well-drilled outfit. Aggressively driving through the heart of the midfield, Chamberlain used his pace and awareness to create an opening, electing to pick out Salah rather than shooting at goal himself.

The Egyptian did the rest and from then on, Liverpool strolled through the game at a canter, with Chamberlain at the heart of a dominant and assured team performance, looking every inch at home in the central midfield position he claims to be his strongest.

Chamberlain looks a far more confident player now than he has done for some time, and that surely has to come down to Klopp’s role in helping him use his strengths in his preferred role as part of one of the most exciting attacking sides on the continent- in keeping with the German’s proven track record of developing and improving players through work on the training ground.

In terms of distance covered, Chamberlain is running 7.43 miles per game for Liverpool, which is over a mile more than he was managing at Arsenal in the opening three games of this season prior to his transfer, while he is also averaging 69 sprints per game, versus only 50 sprints per game at Arsenal, demonstrating the extent to which he has bought into Klopp’s high-intensity brand of football. The transformation already has been stark.

He’s also taking on 2.15 shots per game, versus 1.60 shots per game at Arsenal last season, upping his shooting accuracy from 44% to 64%, again demonstrating his increased confidence in front of goal, and while scoring his still an area he must look to improve in, his tally of three league goals (four in all competitions) has already surpassed his highest total for a single season at Arsenal, while he also has six assists to his name.

Positionally, he looks increasingly aware of his role in the midfield trio, thriving with space to drive into in front of him and able to use his ability to pick out an incisive pass to any one of the front three, which suits him far better than when he is tasked with playing further forward in a wide role. In the past couple of league games, he has shown his ability to help control the tempo in midfield by constantly showing for the ball and playing simple passes, picking his moments to drive forward and commit defenders.

Importantly, there is still plenty of scope for Chamberlain to continue developing and further improvements are surely likely once he has a full pre-season of training under Klopp, rather than arriving at an awkward time as he did this season. His progression so far has been greatly encouraging, having left a club which now finds themselves in something of a crisis, instead taking a brave career decision to become an important part of an exciting team who are on a steep upward trajectory.

Beyond his progression on the pitch, his maturity and intelligence in his handling of the media have been befitting of his growing stature and already it seems as though his teammates value his positive influence as a member of the dressing room.

Although he is still far from the finished article, Chamberlain deserves great credit for knuckling down and taking a bold career move which has so far paid dividends. There is every reason to believe he can be an integral part of Klopp’s plans for years to come.

 

 

Liverpool 4-3 Man City: match review

It might take a while to appreciate just how phenomenal a game of football this was. For the neutral, it surely goes down immediately as an all-time Premier League classic- a hectic, scintillating demonstration of devastating attacking football from the two most thrilling sides in the country.

Man City’s hopes of an invincible season have been dashed, but Pep Guardiola’s side are still well on track to stroll their way to the title on a record-high points tally. No team has emerged victorious against them all season until now, with good reason. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have shown they are the only side capable of going toe-to-toe and playing them at their own game without getting torn to pieces. It took an immense showing of both quality and sheer effort to overcome what has, until now, proven an unstoppable force this season.

While City’s two late goals shifted the scoreline from a complete annihilation to a narrow victory, this was, in many ways, the finest performance from Liverpool during the Klopp era. Several momentary defensive lapses aside, this was a display of phenomenal verve and cohesion, such that City’s defenders had to cope with a degree of pressure they simply haven’t faced from any other side.

The midfield trio of Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain functioned hugely effectively as a unit to help stem the tide of City’s attacks while also driving forward and setting Liverpool on the front foot. Chamberlain, in particular, was simply magnificent throughout, delivering the finest performance of a blossoming Liverpool career- a player re-energised, re-motivated and clearly loving his football as part of this team.

His goal was illustrative of his new-found confidence, picking the ball up from a deeper position before aggressively surging forward and lashing a low, pinpoint finish into the bottom corner past Ederson for his fourth in Liverpool colours. It’s the kind of goal he would never have scored several months back, but one can only assume that his work on the training ground under a manager who believes in his ability and consistently deploys him in his favoured role have been integral to his upward trajectory, establishing himself as a key cog in the Klopp machine in the role vacated by the recently departed Philippe Coutinho.

While the Brazilian possessed certain qualities unmatched by any other player in the Liverpool squad, his defensive contribution while playing in midfield could often be called into question and left the side somewhat unbalanced at times. Here, Liverpool’s work rate to win back possession by closing City down relentlessly was evident from the first minute. They were hardly given a second to breathe.

Throughout the duration of the first-half, Liverpool were largely diligent in their defensive work, only to be undone by a momentary lapse in concentration with Joe Gomez caught out by a raking crossfield pass to Leroy Sané on the left flank. The German burst into the penalty area and fired the equaliser past his compatriot, Loris Karius, who ought to have done better at his near post despite the ferocious power of the strike.

For Liverpool to have expended so much energy and to play so well during the first half, only to go in level at the break, could easily have damaged morale. To keep up that intensity in the second-half against a City side with a knack of scoring multiple late winners this season would be an enormous task- but one Liverpool showed they were more than capable of stepping up to.

That spirit, grit and determination was embodied by the performance of Andy Robertson, who turned in one of the finest left-back displays from a Liverpool player in years. The Scot dealt superbly with Raheem Sterling- a player in the form of his life, constantly terrorising defences this season- with his tough tackling, well-timed headers and interceptions, as well as his lively foraging runs up the wing.

City, however, were starting to crank up the pressure, until Chamberlain set Roberto Firmino through on goal with a sumptuous through ball. The Brazilian still had plenty to do, however, proceeding to shrug off the attentions of John Stones, before lofting a sublime, curling chipped finish in off the post to regain the lead- a stunning piece of individual quality, heavily reminiscent of the kind of goal Luis Suarez used to score in his prime.

It takes Firmino’s tally for the season up to 17, and along with his colossal all-round contribution in terms of pressing, movement, link-up play and chance creation, the Brazilian is quietly establishing himself as one of the very finest players in the league this season. There’s not a single forward in Europe who executes the complex role Firmino takes up in Klopp’s system and this was just the latest evidence of why he is the perfect player to operate as the attacking fulcrum of this Liverpool side- full of quality himself, while also elevating the performances of those around him.

He’s simultaneously a creator, a defender and now an increasingly prolific goalscorer- with Firmino in the side, it almost feels as if you’re playing with more than 11 men. Just imagine having to defend against that.

In a remarkable nine-minute frenzy, Liverpool put City to the sword twice more, with Sadio Mané lashing an unstoppable left-footed drive into the top corner after excellent work by Mo Salah, before the Egyptian bagged his 24th goal of the season with a sensational 45-yard lob after intercepting Ederson’s under-hit clearance, to put Liverpool firmly in the driving seat.

Despite holding such a commanding lead, however, the game never felt quite over with City still pouring forward in numbers with so much attacking quality in their ranks. Liverpool are not a side built to shut games down by sticking ten men behind the ball, and sure enough Bernardo Silva- on as a substitute for Sterling- swept the ball home from close range with eight minutes of normal time to go.

Liverpool appeared to have successfully ridden out a late storm, only for Ilkay Gundogan to put hearts in mouths as he prodded in City’s third in stoppage time to make it 4-3. It would have been beyond devastating for Liverpool to throw away three points after such a gargantuan display of endeavour and that very nearly became the reality as Sergio Aguero flashed a header into the side netting in the dying seconds from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick.

Rather than elation, the immediate sense at the final whistle was one of enormous relief, having managed to hold on for what is by far and away the biggest win of the season, taking Liverpool on to an 18-match unbeaten run and now up to 3rd in the table, pulling ahead of Chelsea on goal difference.

To step up and deliver such a performance in light of the blow of losing Coutinho and without the presence of Virgil van Dijk speaks volumes about the character and depth of this Liverpool side, inflicting City’s first league defeat of the season in spectacular style. While the frenetic finale somewhat took the edge off what would have been an emphatic thrashing, there should be no underestimating just how big a win this is in terms of morale for the remaining months of the season.

The target for Liverpool should be to establish themselves as the most likely challengers to City for the title next season and on this evidence, they are more than capable of doing so. City will be well aware of that themselves, too, having faced their most uncomfortable ninety minutes of the season, by some distance.

Although there still remains plenty of room for improvement and upgrades in individual personnel, this is arguably the biggest statement victory under Klopp, overcoming what is unequivocally one of- if not the most- formidable teams in Premier League history.

It ought to be celebrated as such.

 

 

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: slowly but surely proving his worth to Liverpool

Rewind a few months to the ridiculous hysteria which surrounded Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain following his £35 million move from to Liverpool from Arsenal. He was lambasted left, right and centre at every opportunity from fans of his old club, social media in general and even from Liverpool supporters seemingly prepared to write him off as a “flop” after a couple of brief cameo appearances off the bench.

After his first start in the League Cup defeat against Leicester, viral video compilations of him getting tackled and misplacing passes were making their way around Twitter and Facebook.  Arsenal fans claiming they “robbed” Liverpool for £35 million (or £40 million, as widely quoted to further emphasise the point). Liverpool fans questioning why on earth so much money had been spent on a player with just 9 league goals in his entire Arsenal career to come and sit on the bench.

None of this was ever justified. Of course, questions were raised as to whether Oxlade-Chamberlain would justify such a hefty outlay given Liverpool’s abundance of attacking riches and the more pressing need to upgrade at centre-back. While the career move represented a clean slate for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he was never given a fresh start by fans and the media who were keen to put him down, for whatever reason.

He was unfortunate in the way his arrival coincided with Liverpool’s torrid September, in which the team’s overall performances and disappointing results were completely unfairly attributed to Oxlade-Chamberlain despite hardly getting any minutes on the pitch whatsoever- an easy scapegoat for misplaced criticism.

Oxlade-Chamberlain arrived as a player with a reputation for inconsistency and being injury-prone, with no clear sense of his best position. At times, he was sensational for Arsenal (see his performance against Bayern Munich in the Champions League in 2014), demonstrating vast talent and potential, while on other occasions he would fail to live up to the expectations he had built for himself when he first broke through as a highly promising teenager.

Liverpool were never signing the finished article, rather a player with plenty of key attributes suited to Jürgen Klopp’s style of football and with the potential to develop into a more well-rounded player under the German’s management with a much-needed change of scene after having stagnated somewhat at his previous club.

Despite the absurd obsession with writing him off at the very first opportunity, Oxlade-Chamberlain has stayed patient and has had to bide his time to get minutes on the pitch, adapting to Klopp’s tactical demands and settling into a new environment. To begin with, he was mostly given only very short appearances off the bench in which he would always look bright and positive without being able to build up any real rhythm due to a lack of regular game time.

His lack of confidence was also clear when he first joined, often taking the easy option, afraid of making a mistake and lacking faith in his own ability to drive at and beat opponents, which is a great strength of his. Gradually, we’ve seen him grow into his own skin at Liverpool over the past few months to the point where he now looks very much like an established and valuable member of the first team squad.

He might not be a nailed on starter when everyone is fit, but rarely has that been the case and the importance of having strength in depth to allow Klopp to rotate the squad during a densely packed fixture schedule will be imperative to what Liverpool are able to achieve this season- and something which was clearly absent last campaign.

With his versatility in being able to play across numerous positions both in midfield and attack, Oxlade-Chamberlain lessens the burden on the likes of Sadio Mané and Mo Salah, providing another pacey wide option should either of those two be unavailable- as has proven the case with Mané of late. Philippe Coutinho has also had his fair share of injury struggles, while Adam Lallana has barely featured at all, and thus the presence of Oxlade-Chamberlain has been much more of a necessity than many might have expected when he first joined.

After netting his first goal in the 7-0 drubbing of Maribor in the Champions League, Oxlade-Chamberlain has cut a more confident and relaxed figure, able to express himself more freely on the pitch and demonstrate what he has to offer. Having enhanced his reputation with promising performances against Huddersfield and Maribor at Anfield, he was rewarded with a first league start away against West Ham, in which he scored a crucial third goal at a time when West Ham had just pulled one back and were piling on the pressure at the other end. Liverpool went on to win 4-1, with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal a key moment in changing the momentum in the contest- a deserved reward for his persistence throughout the game.

Fast forward to the present, Oxlade-Chamberlain has started consecutive league games for the first time for Liverpool, having been one of the standout performers in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea, picking up an assist for Salah’s goal with a neat, prodded through ball to set the Egyptian through on goal. Described by Klopp as “dynamite”, his ability to drive past opponents on the ball with pace and control, both centrally and out wide is hugely effective, and while there remains considerable room for improvement in terms of his end product, he has shown a capacity to deliver excellent crosses into the box and use the ball wisely in attacking areas.

In the 3-0 victory against Stoke, Oxlade-Chamberlain was again one of the top performers for Liverpool- not spectacular by any means, but quietly efficient and more than capable in his role, contributing in no small part to a highly impressive team performance and result as Klopp was able to rotate five of his front six with no discernable drop-off in quality- Oxlade-Chamberlain being the only one of those to start both the previous two games.

Heading into the hectic festive period, fatigue and injuries will inevitably rack up- not just for Liverpool, but for most if not all sides- and Klopp will undoubtedly be aiming to get the very most out of all his resources. The likes of Mané, Firmino, Salah and Coutinho will not be able to start every single game and therefore there will be plenty of minutes for the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Dominic Solanke. With a highly favourable run of fixtures coming up, plenty of points are there to be won and how well Klopp is able to rotate his side will be a defining factor in how Liverpool negotiate a busy December and, crucially, to avoid burnout in January, which proved so damaging last time out.

We haven’t seen the best of Oxlade-Chamberlain yet and there is surely plenty more to come, both this season and beyond. While he hasn’t exactly produced any fireworks as of yet, he’s shown himself to be a more than capable member of the squad with the ability to go up several levels further. There is something to be said for a quietly efficient, dependable and versatile player of his ilk who can be dropped into a number of positions and do an admirable job for the team- both in his contribution on and off the ball.

Now the nonsensical criticism surrounding his arrival has finally dissipated, Oxlade-Chamberlain is slowly but surely, week by week, proving his worth as a valuable asset for Liverpool.