One simple statistic says it all: Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table is now the same number of points as they have let slip in this entire first half of the season. A second paints the full complexion of the situation: Manchester City started the month of December sitting two points clear at the top of the table, but finish Boxing Day in third, seven points behind the leaders.
While Jurgen Klopp’s side were quietly and unfussily demolishing Newcastle United at Anfield, Pep Guardiola’s City were labouring in Leicester as they sank to a second consecutive shock defeat to supposedly inferior opposition.
This is the first time City have lost consecutive league games since losing to Chelsea and Leicester in December 2016. That was also the last time City went five consecutive league games without a clean sheet, another unwelcome statistic that this latest Leicester loss has now equalled. For a side that normally has such remarkably high standards, this really is as bad as it gets for Pep’s City.
The last few weeks have spelt out a stark contrast between the reigning champions and the current leading challengers. This is a less exciting Liverpool side than the one that got to the Champions League final last year, and certainly less thrilling than the one that last mounted a legitimate title challenge in 2013/14. But what this side holds over both of them in an impressive ability to find a way to win.
The 3-1 win over Manchester United was the best example of this: as terrible as their opponents were in that game, the Liverpool of old never would have broken out of the cycle of taking hopeless 30-yard potshots that this side found themselves in at the start of the second half. But 2018/19 Liverpool had Xherdan Shaqiri to introduce off the bench, and his two deflected efforts gave them the three points.
But the visitors never looked at all likely to find a way back into the game after Dejan Lovren lashed a short corner into the roof of the net just 11 minutes in. Fabinho book-ended that by also scoring his first goal of the season late on, and that meant that of the 13 Liverpool outfielders to have appeared in this game, ten have scored at least one goal this season, with Robertson, Nathaniel Clyne, and Jordan Henderson the odd men out.
It is notable, too, that Liverpool have flirted with a number of different formations this season: they typically go 4-3-3 in the big games, 4-2-3-1 against the rest, with the occasional dalliance with the 4-2-2-2 that gave them a 2-0 victory over Wolves on Friday.
As James Milner said: “I think that’s a good quality within the group. We have that, we have different ways of playing, we can play different formations, and we have a very strong squad with a lot of good players and also players who can play in different formations and styles of play.”
That flexibility is helped in large part by Milner himself and his four central midfield colleagues (Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Naby Keita, and Fabinho), all of whom have proven equally capable when given their chance. Simply put, it is incredibly difficult to find a significant and consistent weakness in this Liverpool side, regardless which midfield they pick.
By stark contrast, City have lost a single central midfielder and absolutely collapsed as a result. Fernandinho missed both the defeat to Palace and this loss to Leicester, and neither John Stones nor Ilkay Gundogan proved a capable deputy. Fabian Delph, meanwhile, looked lost in the left-back role that he performed so well last season: he was caught ball-watching for Marc Albrighton’s opener, and his red card shortly after Ricardo Pereira’s late winner was a final indignity for his side.
Injuries to key players would normally be at least some mitigation for a slight dip in form – Liverpool fans might shudder at the idea of a similar fitness issue befalling Virgil Van Dijk – but that does not apply here. For a start, the combination of their wealth and the identity of their managers means this is a club that should want for nothing in the transfer market. Secondly, this is not a slight dip, but an mini-implosion.
Most pertinently, though, City have covered for such absences without issue in the recent past. Kevin De Bruyne missed the bulk of this half-season; they barely missed him, and he was in the starting lineup here, as was recent absentee Sergio Aguero. If you’re looking for a more direct comparison, allow us to point out that Fernandinho missed four Premier League games last season and City won them all; three of those games were against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham.
The issue is not those injuries, then, but something else – complacency, yes, but also that lack of flexibility meaning they often end up looking like they don’t know what to do when things start going against them. This was not just a second consecutive defeat, but a second consecutive defeat after going a goal ahead.
Title-winning teams typically respond to the adversity of suffering an opposition equaliser by taking things up a gear, and if that doesn’t work, they make little adjustments to regain the advantage – as Liverpool did by bringing on goalscorer Shaqiri against United, or by bringing on goalscorer Daniel Sturridge in their draw with Chelsea, or by bringing on goalscorer Roberto Firmino in their 3-2 win against PSG.
Instead, this City side has twice responded to in-game setbacks with an increased sloppiness and a lack of imagination. If they are to stand any chance of getting back into the title race they have so carelessly thrown away this week, they need Liverpool to slip up at least three times more than them in the second half of the season – and that means this worrisome recent trend will need to come to an immediate halt.
Steven Chicken is on Twitter