Saturday 19 October 2019

Comment: Liverpool's unique voodoo doesn't require scary, ugly, repugnant scenes

The scenes at Anfield on Wednesday night. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
The scenes at Anfield on Wednesday night. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Tommy Conlon

The general consensus is that Manchester City simply couldn't cope with Liverpool's intensity at Anfield on Wednesday evening.

The only question was at what point, exactly, did the intensity become a problem for the visitors? It would be horrible to think that it began on the journey to the ground. Because this was otherwise a sensational European night at the venerable arena on Merseyside.

One of City's backroom staff filmed the final part of the journey from inside the team bus. It can be viewed online. If anything, the sound effects are more disturbing. Over and over we can hear the metallic thud as bottles and cans bounce off the vehicle's exterior. Rat-a-tat-tat; whump-whump-whump. The road on either side is lined six to ten deep with Liverpool FC supporters, most of them just twirling their scarves and hoisting their banners. There is plenty of the finger and loads of boos. There is billowing red smoke from flares. It is a tunnel of hostility: not very edifying, but part of the game's populist rituals. It's the missiles that make it scary, ugly, repugnant. Splashes of beer can be seen running down the windows. Glass was damaged on the windscreen and driver's door; the bus could not be used for the return journey.

By half-time the City team looked shell-shocked. It is often said that a team which started badly was "still on the bus". In this case it would have been eminently forgivable. Were the City players still on the bus during that first half? Were their minds still distracted by the sights and sounds of that drive through the streets?

Pep Guardiola was adamant afterwards that it had not been an issue. The City manager handled the incident with his customary class; he defused it with gracious words and a calm demeanour. His players, too, dealt with it admirably post-match; their comments were impressively mature and conciliatory.

Maybe as sportsmen the likes of Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan didn't want to be accused of making excuses. Maybe they did not want to be seen as delicate flowers, unable to cope with a situation that is, after all, an occupational hazard. Or maybe it is just plain true what they said: they weren't bothered by it.

Thankfully, for anyone who doesn't want to see such a splendid home performance tarnished, the evidence suggests the match was decided solely by events on the field. City, for one thing, actually started well. They were not playing like a spooked outfit. They had marginally more control of the play. Then Mohamed Salah scored on 12 minutes and the lid came off the volcano. The noise around Anfield was absolutely thunderous.

It was from this point onwards that the Liverpool players seemed to be flooded with adrenaline. Their tempo went into overdrive; they went flying around the pitch as if they were weightless; it seemed to become for them an out-of-body experience.

Guardiola maintained post-match that it was only after Liverpool's second goal, Oxlade-Chamberlain's walloped drive on 20 minutes, that his team lost its way. And true enough, just two minutes after Salah's goal they constructed one of their slick counter-attacks that culminated on this occasion with Leroy Sané's pulled shot on goal.

But the tell-tale signs of disintegration were starting to accumulate. Liverpool's speed and enormous communal work rate were turning the screw; they were squeezing City's time and space. In the 16th minute, Ederson was forced to hoof a backpass clear; it flew straight out over the sideline. The home crowd jeered lustily for they understood exactly what it meant. City's Brazilian goalkeeper has been an auxiliary playmaker this season, routinely starting moves by playing the ball out from the back, often under alarming pressure. He takes hair-raising risks and usually has the composure to gain the rewards. Everyone knows that possession is king for Guardiola and that Ederson is integral to the system.

In the very first minute on Wednesday he received a back pass and, with Salah closing in, took a touch with his right foot and pinged it out wide to a team mate with his left. Nonchalant business as usual. Fifteen minutes later, however, this time with Roberto Firmino chasing him down, Ederson could only reef it out over the sideline. Three more times in the half he would launch the ball downfield to no one in particular. It was the prime symptom of a rattled side; this hitherto imperious team had been taken well beyond its comfort zone.

Half-time broke the spell. The Liverpool players fell to earth. No one was surprised. Their first-half tempo was clearly unsustainable. City would surely have a purple patch, and with it one goal at least to bring back to the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night.

But the Premier League's champions-elect (at time of writing) didn't play like champions at any stage. They recovered their stability in the second half but not their swagger. And they were surprisingly one-dimensional in attack too, opting repeatedly for the diagonal ball to Sané out left. The lethal trident of De Bruyne, Sané and David Silva had been spiked.

If it wasn't the bus that got to them, it was the stadium, with all its electricity and history and yearning. Anfield has an old soul. It seemed to haunt the City players.

Liverpool's manager, players and supporters knew full well what was coming; they knew that between them they could conjure up this kind of unique voodoo for the night that was in it. If any club didn't need bottles and cans to spook their opponents, it was this one.

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