Pep Guardiola shows huge respect to Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool with his post-match comments
A fixture usually so entrancing, with a history of leaving the audience breathless and burning for more, morphed into something entirely different.
Manchester City’s visit to Liverpool was poetically described as “title defenders against title contenders” by Pep Guardiola and the manner in which both teams played as though they dared not lose gave the greatest credence to that billing.
The respect shown to Jürgen Klopp’s charges by the current champions, in particular, was spotlighted on a Sunday that wasn’t so much super, but stifling.
City worked tirelessly to slow the game with extra passes, exerting their energy to shut down Liverpool’s rapid transitions and opportunities to counter.
That left them little in the tank to trouble in the final third, but that was not of paramount importance.
Guardiola did not want his side to be undone by the bloodying red attacking blurs that have come to define and decide these fixtures and admitted he intended to oversee a match of attrition rather than attacking splendour.
That resulted in these free-flowing juggernauts only producing two shots on target each as they highlighted why both have only conceded thrice coming into this test.
Sergio Aguero had offered just 16 touches when he was substituted, 10 less than City goalkeeper Ederson had managed by the 65-minute mark.
Roberto Firmino, who followed him off the pitch shortly after, recorded just 21.
It was a game to endure not enjoy, especially for the attackers, which was by Guardiola’s design.
"If it's an open game against Liverpool, you don't have a chance, not even one percent,” the 47-year-old said post-match.
“If it’s up and down quickly they are much, much better—they are maybe the best team in the world running these transitions, offensive-defensively.
“There is not a team better in the world than them, because they are built for that, created for that.
“It’s what Jurgen feels, and what the players take, for that sense. In that situation they are much better than us.
“We know how complicated it is to play this team in this stadium. They are incredibly good and incredibly quick, but we controlled the game well - we just didn't create.
“It's better than last season when we lost here."
It could have been more rewarding for City, but Riyad Mahrez woefully skied an 86th-minute penalty, awarded for Virgil van Dijk’s ill-judged slide on Leroy Sane.
Liverpool, who have extended their run of successive home clean sheets in the league to nine matches, will have to contend with more esteemed opponents coming to Anfield and effecting the art of containment.
Guardiola enthused about how the visitors operated out of possession and controlled the tempo of the encounter to nullify Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino.
“We have to recognise against which team we put in this performance,” he said, adding “at Anfield, stopping probably the three best attackers in the world."
His satisfaction in City’s defensive showing was echoed by John Stones. “A clean sheet at Anfield is not something you can do very often,” reminded the England international.
“The attacking threat from their team - we stopped that today. We can take positives from it and be proud of how we played.”
The comments from City and the honesty over their approach underscores Liverpool’s elevation under Klopp, who celebrates his third anniversary on Merseyside this Monday.
They are now genuinely title contenders and are treated as such.
The Reds have played Tottenham and Chelsea away, hosted City, had tricky trips to Crystal Palace and Leicester and sit on a league-high 20 points.
That is despite Salah, Firmino and Mane not yet operating with maximum efficiency or explosiveness. How to re-energise the attack will top Klopp’s thinking during the international break, although it is worth pointing out that it wasn’t until October 17 last season when the triumvirate truly started to blitz and bruise opponents.
At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool have been vitally imperious. Virgil van Dijk is, as per Glenn Murray and Troy Deeney’s estimation, the standout central defender in England.
Behind him, Alisson has been nothing short of a game-changer, while Joe Gomez has excelled and Dejan Lovren was a match-of-the-match contender against City with Andy Robertson not offering Mahrez an inch.
“It is a very intense, unbelievable challenge to face Manchester City always - I’ve said that before - and as the last game of an difficult period, it makes the challenge even bigger, so I am really happy with what the boys did,” Klopp said.
“I thought how we defended was brilliant apart from the penalty and one or two situations where we needed Alisson with a really good save.
“If somebody would have told me after eight matchdays we would have had 20 points, I would say with pretty much any fixture list I’d have said ‘yes’, but with the fixture list we had, I’d have said ‘I’ll buy it, let’s start on the ninth matchday’.”
Liverpool may not have delivered another big statement against City at Anfield, but Guardiola’s approach spoke volumes.
It wasn't just about not losing away to the Reds again, but not being able to afford to drop points to them.
Both managers conceded that this may be the most cagey and fiercely contested domestic campaign in recent memory.
Only goal different separates City (+18), Chelsea (+13) and Liverpool (+12) at the top of the table, while Arsenal and Tottenham are just two off the early pacesetters.
So while this was not a game for the ages, it was one that captured how tense this season could shape up to be.