Andy Robertson is challenged by Kevin De Bruyne
The unique circumstances of 2020 have added a layer of volatility to this season, making predictions at this early stage almost impossible.
And yet a victory for either side would have set the tone for the rest of the campaign. A City win in particular would have anointed Pep Guardiola’s side primary challengers to Liverpool’s Premier League dominance. A Liverpool win would have highlighted the gulf that still exists between the two rivals.
There was still enough in what unfolded for Jurgen Klopp to be the happier of the two managers, though. Virgil van Dijk’s injury has forced the German to think a little differently in a number of positions and it’s this adaptation that has allowed Liverpool to maintain their momentum – this was the first game the Reds haven’t won since their Dutch centre back was sidelined.
Indeed, Klopp can take great satisfaction from how little van Dijk was spoken about before kick-off and during the match itself. The German’s team selection, however, did raise eyebrows before kick off, with Diogo Jota picked to start alongside Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in something of a front four. That Liverpool would opt for such an attack-minded strategy at the home of their closest challengers said a lot about how they are under Klopp.
It also showed how the Anfield side might evolve. A 4-2-4 shape, which frequently shifts into a 4-2-3-1 only heightens Liverpool’s pressing game, with City’s defenders barely given a moment to even think on the ball. Jota has been very quick to absorb the methods and ideas Klopp has been professing on Merseyside for years.
Many have pondered whether Jota could ultimately replace Firmino in Liverpool’s strongest XI, but it appears Klopp is more concerned with how the Portuguese forward could fit into the same side as the Brazilian. He sees Jota as the route to progression in how Liverpool press from the front. This was evident in Sunday’s performance at the Etihad Stadium.
City have also shown their tactical open-mindedness this season, with Guardiola deploying Joao Cancelo as a central midfield to great effect in a win over Arsenal last month. Cancelo also enjoyed a good game against Liverpool, although it was in a more orthodox role on the left side of the defence.
The stress on Guardiola’s side came in the centre of the pitch where Rodri struggled to cope with the Liverpool bodies buzzing around him. It’s possible Guardiola has grown accustomed to the luxury of having Fernandinho who can perform this role with ease, but Rodri simply doesn’t have the physicality of the Brazilian to cover so much ground.
Ferran Torres has given City a fresh option in the final third, with the Spaniard deputising for the injured Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus as a centre forward in recent weeks. Jesus was back to lead the line against Liverpool on Sunday, but Torres still offered something centrally. Like Jota for Klopp, Torres could be the key to Guardiola evolving his team.
This was a contest that swung back and forth. Liverpool looked to be in control for much of the first half, only for De Bruyne to inspire a comeback and then miss the chance to clinch all three points. By the point full time came into sight, there was a sense both sides were content with a point apiece.
City and Liverpool have set a new precedent at the top of the English game these past few years, but this match was a demonstration of how they are both faced with having to evolve. Even Liverpool, who were crowned champions only four months ago, must continue to try new things, new ideas, to avoid growing stagnant. Sunday’s match wasn’t just about the here and now for these two rivals, but also what might come next.