LIVERPOOL, England — Three thoughts from Liverpool’s 1-0 win against Manchester City at Anfield on Saturday.
1. Liverpool win by doing basics better
Liverpool asserted themselves as Chelsea’s closest challengers in the Premier League title race by simply doing the basics better than Manchester City.
That the only goal of the game came from a City mistake emphasises the fact that Pep Guardiola’s team once again let themselves down with a lack of focus and concentration when it came to keeping the ball away from the opposition.
City full-back Aleksandar Kolarov not only lost possession with a sloppy pass deep in the Liverpool half but also failed to jump properly when Georginio Wijnaldum rose above him to head in the cross from Adam Lallana, which came from Kolarov’s mistake in the first place.
With a lead to hold, Liverpool were then solid and organised, with Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren doing the simple things that City’s back four repeatedly struggled to manage. Jurgen Klopp’s team also worked harder than City, winning most of the second balls and pressing the blue shirts every time City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had the ball at his feet.
City, who were poor in the first half, stepped it up after the break, but they could not force their way past Liverpool’s well-marshalled defensive unit.
Having had more than a year to work under Klopp, Liverpool appeared more of a unit than City, who are only six months into the Guardiola revolution. So time will tell which team ends the season highest in the table.
But right now, Liverpool are a better team, and they are the greatest current threat to Chelsea’s dominance.
2. Lallana has become Liverpool’s key man
There have been times during Lallana’s Liverpool career when his £25 million price tag has weighed heavily on the midfielder’s shoulders — when questions have been raised over his best position and even his value to the team.
Those questions are being asked no more, however, because the England international is now proving himself to be the heartbeat of Klopp’s Liverpool team and the man who is inspiring their push for the Premier League title.
Under Brendan Rodgers, Lallana struggled to have an influence on the team, with his more advanced role denying him the space that Klopp has now given him with his more involved position in midfield. Against Manchester City, the 28-year-old produced another big performance when it mattered, with his role in Wijnaldum’s early goal an example of his growing confidence and maturity.
Having received the ball on the left flank, Lallana powered forward, spotting Wijnaldum breaking through the middle, before carrying the ball further and crossing at the crucial moment when the Dutchman was entering the penalty area.
By drifting across the midfield line just behind centre-forward Roberto Firmino, Lallana was regularly able to cause problems for City’s overworked defence.
But Lallana was not the only player in a red shirt to step up to the plate during a pivotal game at the top of the table. James Milner, facing his former club, was once again excellent at left-back, while centre-half Klavan suggested he has the qualities to become a mainstay at the heart of Liverpool’s back four.
Considering City have spent in excess of £100m on new centre-halves in recent years, acquiring Klavan for just £4.2m is testament to Liverpool’s scouting and an indictment of City’s.
3. De Bruyne feeling the heat after busy 2016
This time last year, Kevin De Bruyne went into the New Year with 10 goals for Manchester City, having made a lightning start to his career at the club after his £54.5m arrival from Wolfsburg.
As 2016 drew to a close against Liverpool at Anfield, however, De Bruyne was still searching for his first league goal since mid-September. He is finding his second campaign at the club much more difficult.
The Belgian is undoubtedly a class act and a player who will be a central figure at City for years to come, but he is struggling to have the impact under Guardiola that he enjoyed under Manuel Pellegrini last season.
De Bruyne has scored just three goals for City this season, his last coming against Barcelona on Nov. 1, but his drop-off is not just about the lack of goals.
Against Liverpool, De Bruyne looked jaded and frustrated and perhaps in need of a break. The demanding festive fixture programme in England does not lend itself to players being given the time to recharge their batteries — City must go again in less than 48 hours when they host Burnley at the Etihad on Monday — and De Bruyne may be forced to plough on until the schedule eases.
But he appears to be feeling the heat after a busy 2016 that also saw him turn out for Belgium during their run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_