Liverpool’s defensive woes worsen
Every watching Liverpool fan would have winced as Fabinho’s sprint turned to a limp midway through the first half. The Brazilian has been impressive as Virgil van Dijk’s stand-in over the past week or so, but now faces a period of time on the sidelines with what appeared to be an injury to his right hamstring. Jurgen Klopp will hope it is a matter of days or weeks rather than months.
In Fabinho’s place the teenager Rhys Williams impressed, and the youngster’s role could now be crucial to Liverpool through the autumn as the fixtures and injuries pile up. Joe Gomez was composed as he took on the mantle of senior partner, while Joel Matip is expected to be back in the coming days to ease the situation, but Klopp will need to squeeze every last drop from his resources if Liverpool are to win a major trophy again.
Alexander-Arnold back to his best
Trent Alexander-Arnold has not been quite at his fluid best so far this season, which in itself is hardly a criticism given his enormously high standards over the past couple of years. His preseason preparation was hindered by injury and international duty, but even so it is a surprise to see no goals and only one assist next to his name in the Premier League with Andrew Robertson carrying much more of the attacking threat in wide areas.
However here he was Liverpool’s outstanding player. His crosses from the right were dangerous, as were a couple of his set-piece deliveries, but it was the full-back’s dribbling which really stood out. One weaving run in the first half almost ended in a brilliant goal if only he’d had the confidence to shoot with his left foot, and in the second half it was his drive through the heart of the Danish defence which finally broke the deadlock, sliding a pass across goal for Diogo Jota to tap into an empty net. On this evidence, Alexander-Arnold is back to his terrifying best.
Villas-Boas plays into Guardiola’s hands
It was built up as a night of vindication, perhaps even redemption for Andre Villas-Boas. The bright young thing, hurled into the Premier League’s pinnacle, outcast by Chelsea and then Tottenham, who has quietly revived his reputation in France. Marseille was always an emotional settling point for the Portuguese, a former home of Marcelo Bielsa, who Villas-Boas visited in Rosario six years ago, desperate to tap into the Argentine icon’s knowledge.
It was the same path trodden by Guardiola, something of a tradition for football’s deepest thinkers and scrutinising analysers. For all his success, it’s a complex that has hindered Guardiola at Manchester City in the Champions League, betraying his principles to pre-empt danger.
Tonight, though, it was Villas-Boas who played into City’s hands. Reverting to a back-five, Marseille ceded possession, territory, and invited pressure. That added congestion still did nothing to stifle Kevin De Bruyne’s creativity or Raheem Sterling’s incisive runs, but instead only suffocated Marseille’s threat going forwards. It took just 18 minutes for City to find the breakthrough, with Ferran Torres capitalising on a misplaced pass, and just like that Villas-Boas’ intricate blueprint was thrown into disarray.
City lack cutting edge up front
The loss of Sergio Aguero to a hamstring injury prior to this match will have filled City supporters with a familiar sense of dread. The club have certainly dropped off recently, of that there can be little argument, but their record of absentees has been woefully unlucky. Few players have such a pivotal impact on the shape, nous, and sheer danger of Guardiola’s side as Aguero, particularly in the absence of Gabriel Jesus as his understudy turned rival.
Instead, it was Torres who played in the traditional striker’s role. The Spaniard, bought from Valencia in the summer, clearly has an abundance of potential and ran tirelessly but struggled to consistently influence the game outside of his natural position. The instinct to time his runs onto De Bruyne’s through balls or loiter patiently in a poacher’s position still yet to be completely refined - a role Sterling has already learnt to play with devastating effect.
But as nerves crept in before Ilkay Gundogan finally - and deservedly - doubled the lead, the lack of a natural finisher did glare in a game City had dominated for such large stretches and, in truth, should have killed off far earlier. On harder nights than these, it might just cost them.
Sterling stars in complete performance
While De Bruyne is the indisputable heartbeat of Guardiola’s side, it was Sterling who played an integral role in their success tonight. In the early stages, a blaze of stepovers and feints almost created the opener. A deft chipped ball to the far post set up Gundogan for City’s second, before Sterling himself - now playing in the No 9 role - tapped in the third after a wonderful move, evidencing every bit of that lethal edge his side had lacked.
It was a complete performance from the England international, and although City were rarely challenged, there were positives to be taken all over the pitch. In particular, it was the defence that inspired confidence, a statement that’s hardly been common as of late, despite such large investment. Ruben Dias has already established himself as an outspoken leader, Aymeric Laporte’s return from injury continued in positive fashion, while Kyle Walker is the often under-appreciated constant. This was by no means City at their best, but after such a poor performance against West Ham last weekend, and an indifferent start to the season, there were good signs to savour for Guardiola, who continued to shout and puff his cheeks right up until the final whistle.