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Is it Enfield? In fact, this is Manchester City’s vulnerability to the counter | Manchester City


Night. The man looks over his shoulder, his mouth open in horror. Too numb to offer more than token resistance, he silently acquiesces as his assistant leads him away. “Forget it, Pep,” he says, “this is Chinatown.” Street lights flash as the camera pans back. The policeman shouts. Like the wail of sirens, a wistful saxophone trembles in the darkness. It’s one of those great endings: our hero has done his best, but it’s a place he can’t win, a place ruled by forces far stronger than him, a place with its own laws. This is Enfield.

On Sunday, after Manchester City lost 1-0 Liverpool, Pep Guardiola repeated the phrase over and over again: “This is Enfield.” He told the press about it. He said it to the radio. He told Sky and the BBC. “This is Enfield.” And his point of view was clear: there is no way to win here. He certainly struggles: Guardiola has won once at Anfield, but that was during a lockout when the stands were empty. In the seven occasions he’s been in charge of the home team there, Guardiola has drawn two and lost five.

But it was no tribute to Kop’s inspirational qualities. Given that he went on to say the phrase in relation to the Liverpool goal controversy, the implication was more likely that the referees are under the influence at Anfield – which didn’t make much sense given that an important part of the decision was given by the VAR official at Stokely Park and that it was correct.

The line echoed by a number of City players was that Anthony Taylor let a lot go. He has been haunted this season Major league guidelines to encourage a more solid style of football that allows for moments of contact. Why then make an exception in this case? Why not allow this contact?

To which there are two obvious answers. Firstly, allowing some contact does not mean allowing all contact and that, given the way VAR is used, a stricter interpretation is always likely in the immediate build-up of a goal. And secondly, the shirt pull is not a shoulder-to-shoulder task, it is not a battle between two players for the ball, it is not a light touch of the leg when the tackle goes in. Pulling the jersey is never a legitimate way to win the ball and, moreover, it is very clear on video.

Erling Haaland grabs Fabinho by the shirt and it’s a foul. It doesn’t matter that Fabinho could have knocked it down anyway. Never mind that Taylor’s view was obscured. It doesn’t matter that sometimes you get away with things like that. It was a foul – and, as the officials later said, Haaland’s subsequent challenge on Alisson: even if Fabinho’s drag had not been penalised, the goal would have been awarded. And amid all the City hysteria, perhaps it’s worth noting that the whole move started with a goal kick that should have been a Liverpool corner.

Fabinho goes down after being pulled by the shirt by Erling Haaland, leading to Manchester City’s goal being disallowed. Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

It was a day of crazy behavior on the line. Jurgen Klopp also revealed that he was furious with the refereeing, and that the incident that led to his red card was Mohamed Salah’s third foul that was ignored was no excuse for his outburst. And of course there is no excuse for the coins that fans throw at Guardiola. It is clear that Klopp should be serving a touchline ban and that anyone throwing missiles should be brought to justice.

But if we talk about the season as a whole, Guardiola’s behavior is fascinating. It was a rivalry largely untainted by the psychological warfare in press conferences that characterized his feud with Jose Mourinho in Spain. Obviously, that is still a long way off. But Guardiola appeared tense from the cold pre-match handshake, long before he made his gestures to the crowd after Phil Foden’s goal was ruled out.

Perhaps it was just the Anfield factor, but it was hard not to wonder if Klopp’s comments on Friday about the long-term inability to compete with government projects struck a nerve, perhaps less in terms of pangs of conscience about the nature and purpose of the government funding his project than the perception that he was playing the Premier League on a lighter footing.

And in that context, it was hard not to see the first rotation of Guardiola’s tactical kaleidoscope this season. Gone were the slight changes to the usual 4-3-3 formation, and in its place came a completely unexpected formation, with Joao Cancelo playing high on the right and Phil Foden dropping relatively deep on the left, which meant he could never expose James Milner on to the right defender in the same way as before equivalent game last season.

Pep Guardiola is watching on
Pep Guardiola watches his Manchester City team lose at Anfield. Photo: John Super/AP

If the aim of offering a de facto back three was to strengthen City’s defense against the counter-attack – a vulnerability exacerbated by the greater verticality required to serve Haaland – it failed: Salah had already been denied a one-on-one when he scored and Darwin Nunez pulled off two late takedowns.

Newcastle and Crystal Palace have revealed their defensive weaknesses apart from Haaland’s excellent goals. But the defeat at Anfield hinted at other shortcomings. Those head-to-head issues are likely to be a bigger factor in the latter stages of European competition than in the Premier League, but with Guardiola feeling the pressure if it’s more than an Anfield issue, it might be just as well for City that this week’s scheduled game against leaders Arsenal has been rearranged. Maybe it’s just Anfield, but maybe it’s more than that.


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