The spoils were shared in the big match of the Premier League weekend, as title rivals Manchester City and Liverpool played out an entertaining 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium.
As fans have come to expect from tussles between these two heavyweights, there were subplots aplenty, from an engrossing tactical battle, a penalty miss from Kevin De Bruyne that wasn’t too much worse than Ademola Lookman’s panenka fail on Saturday, a contentious handball decision, and a Liverpool backline that largely coped admirably without the injured Virgil van Dijk.
A 1-1 draw, a point a piece, and little to separate these two on the field.
However, only one of them can truly be considered genuine contenders for the title this season, as while Pep Guardiola appears to be curing City’s defensive problems, it’s their attack that now needs urgent intervention.
Admittedly, City’s defense weren’t flawless, with one of the game’s key moments coming from an error in that much maligned backline, as Kyle Walker clumsily brought down Sadio Mane in the box, opening the door for Mohamed Salah to step up and fire the Reds ahead.
Roy Keane, watching on on the Sky Sports gantry, left viewers with no doubts about what he made of Walker’s defending.
“People keep telling me Kyle Walker’s playing well – I don’t think so,” Keane fumed. “He’s an international, 30 years old, and he’s a car crash.
“[Mane] was up against an idiot.”
Ex-City defender Micah Richards, thoroughly out of his depth sparring with ‘Keano’ in the studio, attempted a meek defense of his successor in the City backline.
“He’s been one of our best players this season,” Richards mumbled. “I think Roy’s being a bit overboard there.”
Keane was not convinced.
“I’ve watched him over the years, he’s got that daftness, he can make idiotic decisions,” the ex-Manchester United skipper continued. “I wasn’t surprised, some of his defending over the years is shocking.
“He’s now 30 years of age but he’s doing the same daft things, he’ll never learn.”
🗣 “We’re being a little harsh on him, he’s been outstanding this season”@MicahRichards disagrees with Roy Keane on Kyle Walker pic.twitter.com/Q2khPm7Bf6
Walker’s reckless challenge on Mane was the nadir for City’s backline, who were accused of being the reason why the club missed out on the title last season, but by and large, this was a resolute defensive display by a unit still integrating new arrival Ruben Dias.
Despite Guardiola’s concerns about Liverpool’s front three, City largely neutralized them – particularly during a controlled second half – although it could have been a different story had the Reds exploited the hosts’ backline with sharp, insightful movement and quick transitions as they have done in the past.
City’s defense are proving they aren’t doomed; Arsenal – so long seen as the hopeless case of Premier League defending – have conceded fewer goals than any other team so far this season, and are evidence that such structural issues can be remedied.
One problem solved, but another – perhaps more concerning – has emerged.
It’s up front where Guardiola needs to return to the drawing board, although it’s rare to see one of his teams so bereft of ideas, craft and nous in the final third.
Raheem Sterling is firmly out of form, having failed to contribute a goal or an assist in five of his last six games, while Gabriel Jesus, despite his Bergkamp-esque finish, is no Sergio Aguero.
Despite Phil Foden’s encouraging performances, he still doesn’t appear to have the trust of Guardiola, while Riyad Mahrez hasn’t made a decisive contribution in a fixture since the 5-2 defeat by Leicester City in late September.
Then there’s De Bruyne, whose assist for Jesus’s equalizer couldn’t entirely compensate for one of his weakest recent performances in a City shirt. The Belgium international completed less than 76 percent of his passes, and only one of his six attempted crosses reached its target.
Yet again, there was a lack of a cutting edge from De Bruyne and City as a whole; it’s no coincidence that they’ve drawn three of their last five matches – as many as in their previous 70 Premier League games!
When David Silva departed at the end of last season, the sentiment was that City were in good hands going forward.
Now, however, it’s a very different story, and Guardiola needs to revitalize his attacking options as a matter of urgency.
What’s worse, is the uncertain future of Aguero, currently absent with injury, whose contract comes to an end in the summer.
Sunday’s draw was yet another stark reminder of how bleak the future – and present – are for an Aguero-less City.