Mangala OG 7'
That was unexpected.
It's the first time in a long time we were able to remember 2013-14 without wanting to jump off of the tallest building in town, the first time Liverpool looked like that side since the loss-that-shall-not-be-named at Anfield.
And Liverpool did it at Manchester City, last season's runners-up and this season's title favorites, at a ground where Liverpool haven't won in the league since October 2008. Manchester City hadn't ever conceded four goals in the Etihad Stadium, hadn't lost at home by such an emphatic scoreline since February 2003.
Early goals – the first within seven minutes, three in the first 32 minutes. Counter-attacking goals, set play goals, absolutely sublime goals – especially Liverpool's third. Sure, there was a goal conceded that didn't need to be conceded, but there was also a surprisingly resilient defensive shell, happy to allow the opposition possession but limiting opposition chances.
Even in 2013-14, we rarely saw that sort of blitzkrieg, that sort of counter-attacking fluency, or that sort of scoreline away from home against top opposition. United certainly doesn't count, Tottenham barely does. Otherwise, Liverpool lost 0-2 at Arsenal and 1-2 at Chelsea and City that season. It's rude to kick a man while he's down, but I can't help but pointing out that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool never beat Chelsea at Chelsea or City at City, and Klopp's now done it in the last two away matches.
Like in a few of those 2013-14 massacres – especially those against Tottenham – it's tough to decide how much to credit Liverpool and how much to blame the opposition. Manchester City were not good today. At all. A lot of that was down to how well Liverpool started, and the fact that a good start actually led to an early goal, even if it was an own goal. But Liverpool were also lucky that Kompany, Silva, Bony, and Zabaleta were unavailable, that Fernandinho – for whatever reason – wasn't picked to start, that Agüero couldn't play for more than an hour.
Silva is the metronome of City's attack. Bony would have given City an alternative to the still-recovering Agüero who's both older than 20 and is actually a striker. Fernandinho would have given Liverpool a lot less space to operate in City's half. Chances are that Zabaleta isn't caught on the ball as Sagna was before Liverpool's opener. City have conceded just one league goal in the 720 minutes Kompany has played, compared to 12 in the 450 minutes he hasn't.
But still. Well done Liverpool. Whatever the scoreline – and I'm certainly not complaining about 4-1 – the most encouraging feature was Liverpool's fluency in attack, especially the link between Coutinho and Firmino, ably aided by both Can and Lallana. None of Liverpool's goals were the low-percentage thumpers that Liverpool have often relied upon when winning big matches in the last year and a half; the first three goals all featured some jaw-dropping interplay, especially between Liverpool's two attacking Brazilians.
Those two were the epicenter of all three of Liverpool's first-half goals: Coutinho to Firmino then the Mangala own goal; Firmino's work-rate before finding Coutinho for the second; Can's back heel to Coutinho to Firmino for the third. And Firmino could have had two more before the interval, both set up by Coutinho, the first well-saved by Hart, the second pushed just wide of the post.
But City eventually sprang to life, aided by a couple of Liverpool mistakes: Skrtel's failed clearance and Lucas, already on a yellow, unable to bring down Agüero. Who then Agüeroed the ball straight past Mignolet from 20 yards out with a minute left in the half. Sigh.
And then City were much more secure to start the second half, completely (and necessarily) revamping the midfield, replacing Toure and Navas with Fernandinho and Delph, switching to a 4-3-1-2 formation to match Liverpool in the middle. Despite all the good that'd come before, you couldn't help worry that Liverpool are still the Liverpool we know and fear; had City gotten a second, by hook or crook, through City class or Liverpool error, it's more than likely that City also get a third.
For 15 minutes, no one really had any chances: City usually in possession but still end-to-end, both defenses – especially Liverpool's – doing just enough. Then, another miraculous Hart save on Firmino, supplied by Can via Lallana's dummy. Then, Coutinho with the ball in the net, but rightfully ruled offside. Liverpool in the ascendancy? Yep. But then, because Liverpool, it was swiftly followed by Milner's sloppy back pass putting an otherwise irrelevant Raheem Sterling in on goal, laying off to Agüero, Liverpool's defenders doing just enough to deny the striker an opportunity before Mignolet could scramble back into position and subsequently claw away the shot. Phew.
Seconds later, rather than build on that moment, Agüero, just back from a extended injury absence, went off. And City, forced to use 19-year-old Iheanacho and 20-year-old Sterling up front, never really threatened again. Liverpool continued to look dangerous on the counter, especially after Ibe's fresh legs replaced the cramping Coutinho and Benteke came on for Bobby Firm. Yet another outstanding Hart save denied Benteke when through on goal – seriously, 6-1 wouldn't have flattered Liverpool, and would have happened if not for England's #1 – but Skrtel thunderously half-volleyed the resulting corner. 4-1. A mass exodus from the Etihad, the final 10 minutes a moot point.
It is, admittedly, one game. Two if you count the similar high after beating Chelsea. Both were wins that Liverpool needed, both were deserved, and both were results that Liverpool rarely got under its previous manager.
The frightening part is that Liverpool can get better. Liverpool were vastly improved on the counter, and Liverpool probably won't play as well on the counter in most matches. But, even against the likes of City, Liverpool can assert more control in midfield, Liverpool can be more resilient in defense, Liverpool can further reduce individual errors, Liverpool can take even more of its chances. Liverpool played the majority of the match without Benteke, and were again without both Sturridge and Henderson.
The last match before the international break demonstrated Liverpool's floor; not an especially bad performance, but an especially bad result.
Today's match gave us a glimpse of Liverpool's potential ceiling.