Yaya Toure 63'
No matter all the differences, the end result is the same. For all of Liverpool's good play, clever tactics, and growing into Rodgers' passing system, it's another season where another two points are dropped at home despite being the far better side because of self-inflicted errors. Another season where Liverpool out-play stronger opposition but don't reap the full reward.
Of course, going toe-to-toe with Manchester City is a positive. Playing far, far better than last week is a positive. But there were an awful lot of positives from Liverpool's play in matches that they lost or drew last season. I know it's a different manager, different players, and a different system. I know that we need to be patient during Liverpool's development under Rodgers. But I still can't help but be sick of the similarities, especially in the result.
The match sure seemed to start in the worst possible manner. Well, conceding an early goal would probably be the worst possible manner, but an injury to Lucas within five minutes is a close second, clutching at his right thigh and replaced immediately, supposedly first incurred during the warm-up. Shelvey came on, playing as the more advanced midfielder, but it was far more a 4-3-3 than the previously-seen 4-2-3-1, with both Shelvey and Gerrard usually ahead of the absolutely immense Joe Allen.
Liverpool created a few early opportunities: a couple of tame Gerrard shots from distance wide of the mark and a blistering, wonderful cross from surprise-starter Raheem Sterling which Borini steered narrowly wide after getting in front of Zabaleta. But it was still a tentative opening 20 minutes, highlighted by Carlos Tevez's near-goal soon after Borini's chance, a shot from the byline trickling across the face of goal and off the far post. But from there, Liverpool were the better side, from 37-63% possession in the first 23 minutes to 49-51% at half-time. Gerrard starting roaming across the midfield more effectively, while Shelvey also drifted to the right, allowing Borini to play more centrally. The short, tempo-setting passes, highlighted by Joe Allen's 21 successful of 21 attempted after 45 minutes, became pervasive. Suarez and Borini were winning the ball high up the pitch, putting Manchester City's back three under constant pressure, while Sterling frequently tested Kolo Toure.
And in the 34th, Liverpool opened the scoring, from a set play no less. Kompany had just nearly put Gerrard's dangerous cross in the net, but Skrtel struck from the resulting corner, taking advantage of Manchester City's zonal marking – read: a flat-footed, ball-watching Pablo Zabaleta – an unstoppable header that Hart had no chance at. Incidentally, Skrtel's now scored in eight Liverpool matches. Liverpool won just four of them: against Bolton, Villa, Brighton, and Cardiff last season – although the Carling Cup final shouldn't really count because of penalties. Either way, it hasn't been the best of omens.
And it doesn't help that Skrtel bears blame for both of Manchester City's goals, the second far more than the first. After continuing in the same vein for the first 15 minutes after the restart, stifling Manchester City with controlled passing, a resilient midfield, and pressing in the opposition half, City's first equalizer was also a direct result of a Mancini substitution, as happened in last season's 2-2 draw in the Carling Cup semi-final. Jack Rodwell replaced the ineffective Nasri, shifting Yaya Toure into a more advanced position. Three minutes later, Yaya Toure scored.
Gerrard gave the ball away trying to spring Suarez on a quick counter, frighteningly familiar to the first penalty conceded against West Brom. City attacked without pace down Liverpool's left: Dzeko held possession then laid off for Milner, with Johnson following the striker into his own penalty box. Which left Tevez one-on-one with Sterling, something that should never happen, although some credit goes to City's clever movement. Reina looked likely to cut out Tevez's cross, but either Skrtel didn't hear Reina's call, ignored Reina's call, or Reina didn't call loud enough, getting in front of his keeper to weakly head the ball across goal, with Kelly unable to control off his chest, falling "fortunately" at Yaya Toure's feet, unmissable from five yards out.
But, in a show of resiliency we didn't see often last season, Liverpool were back in front three minutes later, from Suarez's brilliant free kick 25 yards out after Rodwell unintentionally blocked Gerrard's blast from distance with his arm. There's no doing the free kick justice with words. I have no idea how Suarez managed to curl the free kick around City's wall, nestled low inside the near post. But after 19 months of seeing Suarez in a Liverpool kit, I should be aware that the laws of physics often don't apply to the Uruguayan.
Unlike so many of Manchester City's opponents, Liverpool didn't sit deeper and deeper after taking the lead, which is what allowed City back into the game against both Chelsea and Southampton in the last two matches. Liverpool continued to play their football, continued to try to keep possession, blunt City, and press high up the pitch. Johnson could have won a penalty in the 73rd, tackled by Kolarov, who got ball and man at the same time. It wasn't very surprising to see Atkinson wave appeals away, though.
Then disaster struck in the 80th minute. Liverpool have become heavily reliant on the back pass by design, looking to take the sting out of the match and regroup with Reina. It's understandable that when Skrtel was put under pressure by Dzeko, he immediately thought of going back to his keeper. It's less understandable that he failed to look up before attempting the pass, delivering it straight to Tevez without a covering defender in sight, leaving the Argentinean one-on-one with Reina, rounding the keeper than tapping in. Horrific. We knew there would be bumps and bruises as Liverpool learned a "new way" of playing football, but I didn't expect those bruises to be so unforgivably self-inflicted and so painful.
From there, both teams frantically created chances in search of a winner. Shelvey whizzed a left-footed shot narrowly over the bar, Dzeko spurned two opportunities, Shelvey had another shot deflected behind by Kolo Toure, and from the resulting corner, Suarez had a shot blocked and Carroll a header cleared off the line – seemingly trying to set up Coates rather than going for goal.
So, yes, there's both good and bad. Once again, Joe Allen was Liverpool's best, unflappable in midfield, comfortable on the ball and crucially positioned to halt City attacks, which was even more crucial in Lucas' absence. Gerrard was vastly improved, more influential in a roaming role, a perfect corner for Liverpool's first goal and winning the free kick for the second. While he faded in the second half, Sterling was a lightening rod in early on, never over-awed by the occasion. Outside of one early moment where he lingered in possession early on, Coates didn't look out of place either, finally getting his chance in a big match. Kelly was vastly improved at right back, demonstrating the importance of match practice against West Brom and Hearts, while Shelvey was much more disciplined and intelligent than on Thursday. Even Skrtel was excellent outside of those two disappointing moments. But those disappointing moments were ever so costly.
Again, like last season, there's something to build on despite the result. Like last season, Liverpool raised its game against difficult opposition, demonstrating that they can "play with the big boys" but still leaving us wondering why they can't do it against the minnows. Still, for all the positives, for all the improvement – both individual and within Rodgers' style of play – the outcome also remains far too much like last season.