The loudest cheer of the afternoon came following a missed penalty, if anything summed up this rather dismal let-down of a showdown then that’s it.
The 86th-minute penalty that Riyad Mahrez struck way over the crossbar was one of the only moments of action in a match that the television blurb billed as the challengers versus the Champions.
There was intrigue but very little incident. Maybe spidercam predicted that both sides would cancel each other out over the 90-minutes and hence decided to pack in even before it all started.
This 0-0 draw between Liverpool and Manchester City failed to answer a fair few questions; neither were able to lay down a statement of intent or perhaps they didn’t want to.
There was an apparent feeling that neither side wanted to lose this head-to-head encounter, especially City who had not won at Anfield in 18 attempts and lost all three last season. Pep Guardiola aimed to play with restraint, to slow the game down and not allow Liverpool to roll out the favoured Anfield tactic of sustained and often wild pressure.
Having been on the brink of defeat, the draw would have left Liverpool the more satisfied of the two, Gabriel Jesus – who wanted to take the kick instead of Mahrez – was far less so. Mahrez has now missed four of his last six penalties, which begs the question as to why he was allowed to take it in the first place. It offered a touch of drama on what was a dull afternoon, but little else.
No helter-skelter match
The game felt all the more disappointing because last season’s matches really had it all. And yet it was also the irony. One obvious reason why the match was so tepid was because of the ironic influence of all those explosive matches of the past 12 months. They were so open that either manager thought carefully how best not to allow it to happen again.
Wary of once again being caught out on the break by their hosts, Guardiola got his side to play more conservative possession; it was certainly unusual to see the number of time City’s players spent passing the ball around their own defence, often at little more than walking pace. It was calculated by Guardiola; a slower match meant a more fruitful game for City.
On the other side, though, Liverpool were obviously nowhere near as rampaging as they were in April and it was yet another sign that Jurgen Klopp’s side are trying to play a more measured game this season, for better or worse.
Klopp has clearly been trying to recalibrate his team so that they can more steadily navigate an actual title race. He now has a stronger defence – of that there is no doubt – but once again here his attack was all but non-existent. As Jim Beglin wisely put it: “Just like a game of golf; when you sort your driving out, your putting lets you down.”
Cancelling each other out
The challenge for both sides was different this time around; both played with respect and essentially cancelled each other out. There was plenty of thinking – some may say overthinking – as Klopp expected City to target Trent Alexander-Arnold through the pacey Leroy Sane, so removed the full-back and broke up the Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez central defensive partnership - only for Guardiola to not start Sane at all.
That all contributed to the stalemate, and possibly why Van Dijk made such an error of judgement late on when he gave away the penalty with a missed timed challenge. Dejan Lovren who came into the defence settled in quite nicely, although he could have also given away a penalty when he went in clumsily on Sergio Aguero.
Perhaps one of Klopp and Liverpool’s biggest challenges is one of pressure. Now that they are expected to actually challenge for the title, it means that they can't quite free-wheel through the season in the way that has been so encapsulating over the past two seasons. Every decision now has more weight, more pressure, and the effects of that will be telling. The effects it had on this game was to slow it right down, something that suited City much more.
Intrigue, but little incident
In the opening half there were small glimpses that the simmering could turn into more of a bubble, but Liverpool’s spells of 100mph football were rare, if not fully absent.
The crowd inside Anfield – and the millions watching at home who had stuck with it – had to wait until the 62nd minute for the first attempt on target; Mahrez cutting inside to fire straight at Alisson. And as if by magic, another followed a mere 30 seconds later; this time for Mohamed Salah who shot to the left of Ederson but the Brazilian got down to claim it.
It showed what this match was capable of, even if it had been an hour in the making.
City looked the more rounded side. They did build up ahead of steam in the final minutes, culminating in the penalty miss. But Guardiola’s tactics did sacrifice some of their attacking qualities; City controlled large spells of play but it was often bordering on risk-free football, with their full-backs rarely venturing forward. Bernardo Silva operated in a more withdrawn role than usual and Raheem Sterling, as often happens in this stadium, found it difficult to have any positive impact.
This will go down as a subscript in the final publication of the story of this season’s Premier League; it doesn’t deserve anything more. Whether these two sides are the true title contenders, only time will tell, but the first heavyweight contest between them was an oddity. That it finished as a goalless draw is quite remarkable, but the mutual respect and desire to not lose meant that it did.