Big games this early are weird. Does anybody remember last year, when José Mourinho went into Old Trafford and turned the game into mud in Week 2? He was happy to walk away with a road point against mighty Manchester United. A month later, United lost to West Bromwich Albion at home, and the wheels started to come off. It’s August. The transfer window is still open, pieces are still coming together, or falling apart. Mario Balotelli is still sitting in the stands showing off his scarf game.
Play this game three months into the season, and Liverpool might look completely different.
Well, unless you’re Manchester City.
Manchester City are awesome, and they are awesome right now. You don’t have to wonder if their parts will gel, or if they can sign the missing link, or what they will look like once the players learn the system.
Manchester City are a juggernaut right now, and they will be all year long. You want to know what something as nebulous as consistency looks like? It looks like Man City. It’s Week 2, and all but three letters of their starting lineup on Monday have been on the roster since last summer’s transfer window (swap out Fernandinho for Fernando).
They know August’s points count just as much as May’s. Manchester City will take all the points on offer, thank you very much. Your team is trying to find itself? Manchester City will help you look.
City’s goal is just a perfect example of a team whose players know each other inside and out.
The flick by Stevan Jovetic that crowbarred open Liverpool’s defense doesn’t happen if there isn’t a deep understanding among teammates. And that’s from City’s fourth striker. He was playing with Edin Dzeko only because Sergio Agüero’s hamstrings need to be treated with electric stim-powered kid gloves and Álvaro Negredo is working his way back from injury. It sure is nice to have that kind of talent to fit in. It’s even nicer when that talent doesn’t have to introduce himself to his new teammates 10 minutes before game time.
That move wasn’t the only example of back-heel trickery City pulled against Liverpool. In fact, the team spent a heck of a lot of time trying to exploit the space between Liverpool’s left full-back and left-sided center back. You may know those two players as Liverpool’s newest acquisition, Alberto Moreno, who was playing for Sevilla two weeks ago, and relative Liverpool veteran Dejan Lovren, who will celebrate one month with the club on Wednesday.
You know who has time to learn game plans tailored specifically to opponents? Players who aren’t walking around with name tags pinned to their shirts.
It’s hard to blame Brendan Rodgers or Liverpool’s front office too much. They had to sell Luis Suárez, and that meant a total team revamp. A season with the Champions League means they also needed a deeper squad. Time will tell whether the moves they made were the right ones, but there’s no doubt the moves had to be made. The unfortunate side effect of all those moves is a team on which half of your defensive line is brand spanking new and asking to be ripped apart by elite opposition.
It also means that Liverpool’s new wingers, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic, weren’t ready to start either. (Lallana is carrying an injury, while Markovic came on as a substitute.) And without them, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling operated on the wings. That’s fine, they’re both old Liverpool hands at this point (despite being 22 and 19, respectively, and both having been there less than two seasons); but both players operate better when they have the freedom to do other, non-winger stuff.
Coutinho needs to come in, centrally, and be a playmaker, while Sterling is the closest thing to a Suárez-style defense terrorizer that Liverpool have now. Maybe if one of the new wingers was available to actually, you know, play on the wing, then Liverpool’s best creative players could have run the attack. But they weren’t, so they couldn’t.
Liverpool have a lot of room to improve. When they play the return fixture at Anfield in February, we should see a better version of this team. But even imagining a better version of Liverpool, it’s hard to see how they could beat the Manchester City team we’ve seen for the last year.
If Liverpool have dreams of challenging Manchester City this season, they’ll not only have to improve, they’ll also have to make up ground. Because while they are getting through that awkward getting-to-know-you phase, Manchester City are going to rack up points.
The Premier League can come down to very fine margins. Clubs don’t get mulligans on matches they biff in August just because their new players are going through orientation.