There are different kinds of losses in big games. There are the thumping sort, which crush morale and invite an imposter syndrome onto a side, and then there are the variety suffered by Liverpool on Thursday night. Settled on fine margins, frustrating because the balance of chances was roughly even, but ultimately – over the long term – relatively harmless.
The Premier League has become very uneven. At this point in its history, the gap between the elite teams and the rest is at its widest point, meaning that week-to-week there’s little in the way of context. A three-nil victory over a mid-table opponent is now a marker other than another three points gained. As a result, these heavyweight contests have acquired a greater value: not in the points they offer and the gaps they can great, but in the belief they provide or the erosion of confidence that they can produce. They’re more abstract than literal, so when the time comes for an appellant champion to face the real thing, the score is almost secondary. What matters more is the intangible sense of belonging, of competing in one of the toughest environments in the country and not being exposed as a pretender.
There were no surprising aspects to Liverpool’s performance. The forward line perhaps wasn’t quite at its incendiary best, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane actually seemed oddly disconnected, but there was plenty to admire. Trent Alexander-Arnold had a really fine game, as did Andrew Robertson on the opposite side, and while Jurgen Klopp might concede that his midfield selection was unnecessarily negative, the team as a whole produced more than enough bright play to have drawn the game.
The question, then, is this: what did we learn about Liverpool this evening? The answer: nothing. They are exactly what we thought they were prior to kick-off.
That’s important, too. Manchester City have been fragile lately, meaning that had they won at a canter on Thursday, by two or three goals and without having to concede sustained periods of pressure, the sense of momentum would have been overwhelming. City’s malaise would have been viewed as a blimp, their players would have been rejuvenated, and Liverpool’s lead in the table would, in some quarters, have been described as a false economy.
But none of that happened. In fact, there’s much for Liverpool to draw from their opponent’s behaviour. This was a frenetic City performance, full of desperation and intensity. On the sideline, Pep Guardiola ranted and raved, over-reacting to little incidents which, in the context of the game as a whole, weren’t really relevant. For all intents and purposes, this was an underdog’s victory, the kind of performance every side is capable of, but which isn’t necessarily reflective of anything other than adrenaline and the gravity of the occasion itself.
These little intangibles matter. During the short journey back to Merseyside, Liverpool’s players won’t view themselves as having been beaten by a superior side. They’ll likely concede that they weren’t quite at their best and that inaccuracies at critical moments cost them. They would also have cursed their bad luck: John Stones made his first-half clearance with just millimetres to spare and, on a different night, Vincent Kompany might well have been sent off for his wild lunge on Salah. Added to which, two second-half efforts were also cleared off the line.
The score excepted, it’s difficult to see how any damage could have been suffered. They weren’t exposed in any way and no hidden weaknesses revealed themselves. As far as defeats go, this was fairly healthy.
In that regard, it was also mission complete. Winning might have created a handy gap at the top of the table, but the primary objective would always have been to leave Manchester tonight as an equal, rather than with any creeping sense of inferiority. After all, that’s what has historically cost teams championships, not isolated losses at the end of a congested run of fixtures.