Manchester City Pep Guardiola wished the assembled media a happy new year at the start of his post-match press conference and extended the seasonal goodwill message to their families when he left the Anfield stage.
It was a nice touch by the Manchester City manager but the niceties were part of a performance better than that produced by his team at Liverpool and exposed by an angry, exasperated exchange with Txiki Begiristain shortly afterwards.
There was no goodwill to be found in defeat by Jürgen Klopp and falling 10 points adrift of Chelsea, the leaders.
Press duties completed, Guardiola headed back to the makeshift dressing rooms in the bowels of Anfield’s new main stand where he met Begiristain, City’s director of football and a man with some serious questions to answer over the club’s expensive and erratic recruitment drive.
Pep Guardiola, pacing up and down, scratched his head, pulled at his tie and began punching his fist into the palm of his hand as he dissected Manchester City’s display with his former Barcelona colleague.
They have trailed and recovered before but that was at a club attuned to Guardiola’s methods and vice-versa. A revealing glimpse into genuine frustration and the performance that provoked it were reminders of how much work is required to recreate that understanding at the Etihad Stadium.
“The manager was angry at half‑time,” Yaya Touré admitted. “When you are losing like that and Liverpool are the better side then it’s not going to be happy at half-time. It was disappointing and we all felt that. Of course he is going to be angry. He is a manager who can be angry. We have to sometimes improve and react to situations, and of course we knew Liverpool would be waiting when we lost the ball and they did that to score. So he will be angry for everything that is happening.
“We are not going to be perfect. There are times when we won’t take opportunities but we can take opportunities from this too. Anfield is not easy but we can learn from this and what the manager says about it. When you lose games, what do you have to do? You are disappointed and you want to bounce back. We don’t want to let the gap grow much more between us and Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham. So we have to react. We will use it – we are not going to give up. We will go to the end.”
Touré and co responded to their manager’s criticism, controlling possession in the second half and forcing Liverpool into a retreat when David Silva switched to the centre in place of the subdued Kevin De Bruyne, but not to the extent of creating one chance of note. Klopp’s team were restricted as an attacking threat, too, but having punished Manchester City’s weakness in the air early, when Georginio Wijnaldum produced an outstanding leap and header to convert Adam Lallana’s eighth-minute cross, their compact shape held firm.
The Liverpool manager had bemoaned the freedom with which Joe Allen roamed between his midfield and defence in their previous outing, against Stoke Manchester City. He ensured there was no repeat against Manchester City with a more protective midfield trio of Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Emre Can.
Raheem Sterling, fading amid the hostility that greeted his latest return to Anfield, De Bruyne, Silva, in the first half, and Sergio Agüero, throughout his first appearance in 28 days, were comprehensively shackled. Klopp had the answers to City’s array of individual talents.
His team have collected 13 points from 18 while Philippe Coutinho has been injured and, as the Brazilian nears fitness, so Liverpool have emerged as formidable challengers to Chelsea. Klopp said it must be annoying for Antonio Conte’s team to have won 13 consecutive league games and still found Liverpool hanging on six points behind. Equally, how annoying must it be to have won 12 of the last 16 league games and sit second?
“We came from eighth position last year so we don’t think about being champion or whatever this year, but we are much better than last year and the position is completely different,” said Klopp. “We are fine. If anyone else thought we had to be champion this year then maybe it seems different to them but we are fine. We are where we are and if it ends there then cool.
“If we are still there five matches before the end and are only a few points behind then we will think about something else but not in this moment. I’m not like this. I have had much more difficult situations in my life than being second in a very difficult league. We are happy about our way and what the rest is doing we can have no influence on until we play them. That’s all we can do. I’m not annoyed. Not for one second.
“I won a league twice and I honestly didn’t think about the opportunity until really late. We have targets. We are ambitious. You saw it again against City how ambitious the boys are but talking about it doesn’t bring you one point. You have to work. When you see the final line and if you are still in and around then the pressure will increase.
You could see the pressure here – not because we didn’t want to lose the game but because we wanted to win it. That is really pressure against a very good side. You do the analysis and think: ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to show the boys all of this because they are a really good side.’ I know there is criticism of their defending or whatever but they play some of the best football in the world and you have to defend it. We did it. I’m happy with our situation in the table at the moment.”
Klopp can be content not only with Liverpool’s league position but how his team have developed rapidly according to his managerial ideals. Guardiola, between the new year wishes, admitted he is unsure when City will do likewise. “I don’t know, I’m not able to tell you that,” he said. “Jürgen is here more than one season, more than one year. I’ve been here just six months and the way we want to play in the league is not that simple. We need a little bit more time but I’m a guy who is so optimistic and we’re going to try.”