It’s generally not a good testament to a soccer match’s quality when the most compelling footage taken from the game involves a couple of guys talking to each other. That was the case for yesterday’s hyped-up Liverpool vs. Manchester City match, a clash that had everyone who’d tuned in giddy to watch the explosion of some military-grade fireworks, but in fact featured little more than a handful of poppers.
The chats in question were two-fold, and both related to the late-game penalty kick that probably should’ve given Manchester City the victory. The first was when Riyad Mahrez had to tell Gabriel Jesus, who had been readying himself to shoot, that the manager wanted the Algerian to take the spot kick. The visibly taken-aback Jesus stepped aside to let Mahrez shoot what almost certainly would’ve been the winning goal, only to then watch Mahrez send the ball miles over the goal frame.
The second talk came after the match, when City manager Pep Guardiola made a point to discuss something—probably his ill-fated decision to have Mahrez take the penalty—with Jesus out there on the pitch in Guardiola’s typically intense, personal-space-invading manner. In both moments Jesus’s disappointment and frustration is etched on his face. Jesus later confessed to the media that he was “not happy” when told he wouldn’t be taking the penalty, and Guardiola publicly apologized for denying his young striker the chance to be the hero. It’s not much, but it’s just about all the genuine intrigue the otherwise unremarkable match had to offer:
Surrounding those two discussions, a star-studded match between two of the best teams in the world broke out—or failed to break out, as it were. Both Man City and Liverpool are usually forces of pure destruction, at their best when they completely rend the opposition’s gameplan into tiny strips and make party favors out of the homemade confetti. The four Liverpool-City matches we were treated to last season—twice in the Premier League and twice more in a Champions League quarterfinal tie—featured more than their fair share of mutual shredding. Between those four matches, the two teams combined to score 18 goals in what were some of the most thrilling encounters of the entire European season.
Hence why everyone expected so much from Sunday’s contest, and why the exponentially more subdued affair was so underwhelming. Evidently, neither team wanted to open itself up to the kind of attacking mayhem that was the norm during last season’s matches. Because of this, neither team could really do what they do best. There were fewer shots on target (4) in this weekend’s edition of the budding rivalry than there were average goals (4.5) in last season’s four matches of glorious anarchy. In the end, both Liverpool and City succeeded in stymying the other, and both failed in coupling that with a good attacking strategy in the other direction. The 86th minute penalty decision in City’s favor was totally fair, but so was the resulting 0-0 draw between these two teams that seemed more afraid to lose than intent on winning.
The drabness of the match didn’t take away from its importance, however. In many ways, this is a scoreless draw that should feel like a win for the Manchester club. City’s style of play—complete domination of the ball and a methodical process for getting the ball into the other team’s net to go with it—and absurd attacking depth—remember, the Citizens have missed their best player, Kevin De Bruyne, for about two months now and have hardly skipped a beat—makes them masters of league play. Winning a league is more about the consistent ability to drown the many inferior teams in a torrent of goals than it is about keeping your own head above water in the handful of matches against fellow title rivals. City can score goals in their sleep against the vast majority of Premier League teams with their A-team, B-team, and even C-team, which is why they are such big favorites to repeat as champions.
Liverpool, in contrast, have a playing style better suited to matches against relative equals—it’s no coincidence that Liverpool beat City en route to their place in the final of the Champions League last season while finishing a distant third place behind City’s record-breaking Premier League pace—but that isn’t quite as routinely ruthless against opponents of lesser quality. Mostly this is due to Liverpool’s lack of depth. While the club’s addition of Xherdan Shaqiri and the (knock on wood) current health of Daniel Sturridge gives the Pool Boys a much deeper bench than they had last year, you’d still be smart to bet on City’s style and depth carrying the day against the likes of Bournemouth and West Ham and Cardiff more often than Liverpool’s.
If Liverpool are to mount a legitimate challenge for the league title, they will likely need to rely on their ability to pick up points in direct competition with the other top four hopefuls at a higher clip than what City can manage. Settling for a draw at home against City, even with the two teams currently level on points atop the EPL table, is more of a missed opportunity than a boon. It’s too early to seriously worry about your team’s title chances if you’re a Liverpool fan, but if City wind up doing what they are expected to by winning the league once again this season, it’ll be because the Reds dropped points in matches like Sunday’s. Their task now is to keep pace with City until their next matchup on New Year’s Day, and to not let the opportunity to strike a real blow pass them by again.