After five consecutive league defeats at Anfield and six in all competitions, Manchester City finally left L4 with something to show for their efforts last Sunday, their first visit since August 2012 which didn’t end in defeat.
In stark contrast to the two rip-roaring performances that Liverpool gave against the current Premier League champions in the teams’ other Anfield clashes this year, the Reds were unable to find the slick, devastating tempo that made Pep Guardiola’s superb team look like headless chickens last January and April.
Before, during, and after the match on Sunday, I noticed the name of one of Liverpool’s absentees cropping up a few times – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The midfielder’s scoring statistics from 2017/18 were boosted by goals in the two home matches against Man City, but his long-term absence through injury was felt on Sunday as Liverpool struggled to get anywhere near the performance levels they reached in recent carnations of this fixture.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain v Man City, 14 January 2018
Manchester City were unbeaten in the Premier League, having dropped just four points in 21 matches when they visited Anfield in January. Their most recent meeting with Liverpool was a 5-0 romp at the Etihad Stadium four months previously, so the size of the task that awaited the Reds did not need exaggerating. One thing Jurgen Klopp’s side did have in their favour, though, was their home record against City, having beaten them at Anfield in each of the previous four seasons.
Liverpool roared out of the starting blocks with a point to prove after their Etihad mauling and it took them just eight minutes to strike the first blow, with Oxlade-Chamberlain finding the net. The image shows him (circled) ready to receive the ball from Roberto Firmino, who is forced to lay it back to the England international under heavy pressure. At this point, the midfielder could either pass it to Mohamed Salah on the right, try to pick out Sadio Mane further infield or look for a safe pass close to him.
None of those options interest him, though. As soon as the ball is steered towards his path, Oxlade-Chamberlain is on his bike and has only one thing on his mind – get forward. Fernandinho, one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, is eyeing up an interception but the Liverpool man skips past him with consummate ease. Even when he has beaten the Brazilian, he could try to find Mane, who is about to ghost into the penalty area (see image). He keeps going, however, and just as it appears he’s shown too much of the ball to Nicolas Otamendi, he lets fly with a powerful low shot that fizzes beyond the diving Ederson.
It was an early statement of intent from Liverpool and it was made possible because of the assertive, enterprising mindset of Oxlade-Chamberlain. From the moment the ball left Firmino’s feet a mere five seconds before the goal, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with it and the result was an early lead for the Reds. It was a goal that proved pivotal, too, with Liverpool later seeing a 4-1 lead whittled down to 4-3. Manchester City’s hopes of emulating Arsenal’s 2004 invincibles ended after this pulsating match, one in which Oxlade-Chamberlain set the tone from the outset.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain v Man City, 4 April 2018
Three months later, City were back at Anfield for the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals. The Premier League title was pretty much in the bag, so Europe was the big prize on offer to the champions in waiting. Liverpool were never going to let their fellow English opposition breeze into the last four though and again hit the front early on.
In the 20th minute, Liverpool put together another neat attacking move, giving Man City the runaround in the early exchanges. As James Milner wins a 50-50 ball in the image above, the visitors seem to have the situation under control, with eight of their 10 outfield players behind the ball. It breaks to Oxlade-Chamberlain (circled), who it seems will either give it right to Salah or perhaps switch the play back to Trent Alexander-Arnold.
As in the Premier League meeting though, neither of those is remotely near his thought process. His mind is already made up; he notices the space in front of him and bursts into it with intent. A clever touch takes it away from Leroy Sane and, with none of his opponents closing quick enough (see image), he arrows a shot into the top corner of the net, with Ederson absolutely helpless.
Liverpool are now 2-0 up inside 20 minutes and add a third goal shortly afterward. The tie is effectively won in that opening half-hour, with the Reds taking a 3-0 lead to the Etihad Stadium and surviving an early scare to breeze through 5-1 on aggregate. Their first leg performance was arguably their most complete of the season and again Oxlade-Chamberlain was to the fore, his attack-minded dynamism summing up the relentlessness of Liverpool on the night.
Liverpool’s midfield v Man City, 7 October 2018
Oxlade-Chamberlain was at Anfield last Sunday, but only in the role of interested spectator as he continues his lengthy rehabilitation from serious injury. The match turned out to be the antithesis of the corresponding fixture from last season, with neither team committing much in attack until the final 15 minutes – understandable considering that each administered severe hidings to the other in recent months.
One of the more disappointing aspects to Liverpool’s performance was the reluctance of any of the four midfielders deployed on the day to initiate attacks and demonstrate ambition in the way that Oxlade-Chamberlain did against Man City last season. The first half injury to James Milner was a blow to the Reds, with Naby Keita being introduced far earlier than intended after the Guinean went off injured himself against Napoli earlier in the week. Not for the first time, Jordan Henderson polarised Liverpool’s fan base, with wildly contrasting opinions of his performance on social media. Georginio Wijnaldum had another solid game in the middle of the park and has been one of the Reds’ most consistent performers in the early weeks of the season.
None of that quartet though play with a great deal of attacking gusto, even if they are generally sound in what they do. Taking the examples of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goals against Man City last season, could you imagine any one of Milner, Henderson, Keita or Wijnaldum doing what the ex-Arsenal man did in those situations? All four showed a tendency on Sunday to play the ball backwards and try to build play slowly, which is fine in terms of not being overly cavalier but conversely could play into the hands of the opposition if any backpass is under-hit or doesn’t find a team-mate.
Between them, Liverpool’s midfielders registered 160 passes on Sunday and 63 of those were played backward – 39.4% in total (see graph). It’s striking how many of these were in Liverpool’s own half, not exactly an area where a backpass would be highly recommended. Unsurprisingly, Wijnaldum was the most conservative, with just under half of his 46 passes going towards his team’s goal rather than Man City’s. Ten of Keita’s 26 passes were backwards (38.4%), while Henderson and Milner each hit just under a third of their passes behind them. In some scenarios, this was understandable as City pressed Liverpool and forced them to just get the ball out of feet and away from danger. In other situations, the option of spreading the ball wide and not inviting pressure from City was available but not taken.
Liverpool are undoubtedly in a good place overall, but a winless run of four games with largely the same team (the Carabao Cup defeat to Chelsea excepted) has raised legitimate queries about whether they have the stamina to keep up a title chase into the final third of the season. Had Oxlade-Chamberlain been fit, it’s likely that he would be in Liverpool’s first choice midfield given how well he had been playing prior to his injury.
In matches where the Reds are struggling to create chances and the front three are feeding off scraps, the England international would be far more likely than any of the current midfield trio to try something different in breaking down the opposition’s defensive barriers. Like Philippe Coutinho before him, and like fellow injury victim Adam Lallana, he has the ability and the mentality to take the initiative when Liverpool are being frustrated and need a change of tack from midfield. If Oxlade-Chamberlain’s absence hasn’t been acutely felt so far this season, it very likely will when the Reds enter a glut of games in a hectic, and quite possibly crucial, December.