Liverpool v Manchester City: The Big Match Preview

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, March 19, 2017: Liverpool's Manager Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City's Manager Manager Pep Guardiola after the FA Premier League match at the City of Manchester Stadium. (Pic by Gavin Trafford/Propaganda)

IT must be a strange lot being a professional footballer.

Particularly at the high end. I’m always intrigued to know what they really mean and think when they sign for new teams and ubiquitously proclaim that they want “to win trophies and titles” in their new billet.

Firstly, do they really expect to win anything? There are simply too many teams and too few prizes to be shared around. As we’ve moved into eras that devalue domestic cup competitions and only rate you if you win either the Champions League or a title in a big European league, there really are only two pots up for grabs. The Champions League can only realistically be won by one of 10 teams. The league, in England, Spain, Italy and Germany is a contest between three teams, at best, per nation.

Liverpool are about the 10th richest/biggest club in world football. Manchester City are just about the richest. Man City know they will win trophies. Liverpool *hope* they will. One day. In England, Liverpool face the annual Premier League campaign knowing they will need to outperform five sides who all feel they have a puncher’s chance of finishing top. Three of those five are much better resourced than Liverpool in terms of their recruitment and payroll budgets. Each campaign, Liverpool are pushing an elephant up a hill. Looking for answers from the great beyond.

Phil Coutinho left Liverpool this week, after five years of sterling service, in search of a higher plane. Phil loved playing for Liverpool, but Phil associates Barcelona with actual trophy winning. Not respectable second or fourth-place finishes , or getting to the odd cup final. He can visualise himself on TV, his face filling the screen, his eyes bright and wide, his teeth barred, his arms bent over double, fists clenched in triumph. In his mind’s eye he can just about make out his profile reflected in the silver of a gleaming over-sized vase.

Phil has taken something of a pay cut to pursue this vision. At the very least, he hasn’t left Liverpool to get richer. At least, not yet.

Some players see lineage between them playing for the elite of the elite, to them lifting trophies, to their images being used on the front cover of best-selling computer games, to untold monetary wealth. I think these guys are easier to work with. They work to get remunerated. Their work is not their life’s work. Their work is a means to an end.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, December 30, 2017: Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Correia applauds the supporters as he is substituted during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

If you’re a club that wants to keep one of these lads out of the clutches of Barcelona, then you just pay them more. Man City have successfully worked on the basis of this model for the past decade. It has set in motion a virtuous cycle for them. Now they win trophies. Every year. Players signing for Man City do not need to differentiate between their motives. They can tell themselves they are in it for the cups as much as the money.

I wonder though if many players stop to think about the currency of trophy winning. In football we talk about glory as if it’s almost an absolute thing. But it can’t be. The glory Coutinho will feel he is a party to when Barcelona lift their zillionth league title this May will be a thing to savour, but to only a degree. The glory that Phil’s erstwhile colleague Steven Gerrard enjoyed in the journey to the final and the ultimate capture of the European Cup in 2005, is such a very different entity.

Virgil van Dijk joined Liverpool two weeks ago in the face of offers for his services from Man City and Chelsea. Virgil, like Coutinho, could expect to collect a league title winners’ medal in May had he chosen Man City. Virgil chose Liverpool though. Upon arriving he spoke the usual platitudes about the club’s history, Anfield’s atmosphere, his excitement at the opportunity to work with talented people, and of course his hope that he might “win trophies”.

He doesn’t really expect to win trophies. It is hard to win trophies unless your club is the very richest. Liverpool have more in common with van Dijk’s old club Southampton than they do Man City, in one key sense — Liverpool and Southampton both expect to end seasons trophyless.

So what does van Dijk do it for? What is Phil doing it for? What do we do it for?

I think Coutinho thinks he’s doing it for the same reasons as van Dijk. Luis Suarez before him felt the same. Raheem Sterling too. They are wrong though. They have signed up for a guaranteed return on their emotional and physical investment. But any investment that has a guaranteed return is immediately devalued. The price has been adjusted by the market. There is no marginal gain to be had if the reward is assured/capped.

Van Dijk hasn’t got a clue what will happen to him. And he’s loving it. Virgil will make his home league debut for Liverpool against Man City on Sunday. He’s counting the minutes till he pulls on that red again, till he walks out into Anfield’s electric air, till he runs across the line onto its greenest green grass. After that he’ll go to war for a cause he absolutely believes in.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Friday, January 5, 2018: Liverpool's match winning goal-scorer Virgil van Dijk celebrates after the 2-1 victory over Everton during the FA Cup 3rd Round match between Liverpool FC and Everton FC, the 230th Merseyside Derby, at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

His defensive partner may again be the improving Joel Matip. He wants to become a better player alongside big Virgil. Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson will flank Joel and Virgil in a Liverpool defensive unit that will want to redefine itself now that it has been reinforced.

In midfield there is still no return for the injured captain Jordan Henderson, so Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum all but pick themselves as the screen in front of the back four.

Expect Liverpool to set up compact and notionally narrow. Perhaps in a 4-2-2-2 style of formation that was so effectively previewed at West Ham in November. I think Sadio Mane left and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain right will be asked to spring from a square central block to torture Man City’s flanks. They will be up against decent full backs but they will hope to be assisted in their forays by Liverpool’s own wide defenders.

Mo Salah is fit and ready to finish what he started against Man City in August. He was just bedding into his new environment back then. For 20 minutes before Mane’s sending off changed the course of the game, Salah was in behind Man City’s back four at will. Only nervy finishing by the new signing saved them. On Sunday he may stay within 10-15 yards of Bobby Firmino for much of the game. No one talks about striker partnerships these days, but quietly Salah/Firmino is becoming a truly potent example of one.

Man City? They’ll pick all those brilliant lads who made their moves and signed their contracts to get what Coutinho did. Their guarantees will still be fully valid whatever Anfield’s result. Good luck to them, we all have our lives to live. We may well win “fuck all again”. I’m with Virgil though. The hope doesn’t kill. It keeps you truly alive.

Predicted 11: Mignolet; Gomez, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Can, Wijnaldum; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane; Salah, Firmino.

Kick off: 4pm

Referee: Andre Marriner

Odds: Liverpool 11-5, Draw 14-5, Man City 13-10

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  1. Great as always and loved the R.E.M. lines

  2. Quality writing Rob. Hitting the proverbial nail on the head every time. I’m feeling quietly confident about Sunday’s game… then again I felt the same before the Spurs game as well. Whatever the result it could be the game of the season.

  3. “The glory that Phil’s erstwhile colleague Steven Gerrard enjoyed in the journey to the final and the ultimate capture of the European Cup in 2005, is such a very different entity.”

    Yes Rob, great point with respect to Coutinho. He has to be a numpty to screw this up at Barcelona surrounded by all those stars, just like Raheem Sterling. Both players are good but it’s the ones around them who really do the business.

    I’ll repeat this: Bristol City played their hearts out, with a disciplined approach, defending and attacking without fear when they played Man City in their Carabao Cup first leg. Had they had a bit more composure, they would have been 3-0 up before De Bruyne’s goal. Aguero was always going to score his last second goals, but imagine Mane and Salah had played in their front 3, Bristol City would have slaughtered them.

    LFC being a larger club with more resources have the players to take the game to City, barring any mishaps like last time. We also have Virgil, who like you alluded to, has given us some hope by getting into our corner while Coutinho abandoned us.

    Hope Klopp and the Reds watched the game while in sunny Dubai; used to live there years ago. I wonder what they were up to. Hope they managed to focus a bit on this weekend’s game.

    It’s going to be a very tough game with all key players for City and Sterling being on top of his game.

    I just wish that somehow, we begin the end of City’s winning run at Anfield.

    Up the Reds!!!

  4. The butterfly collector

    “Now they win trophies. Every year.”
    Apart from last year. So not every year.

  5. But any investment that has a guaranteed return is immediately devalued.

    So true. But won’t be good enough for some parts. But I agree with your point, Rob: You gotta enjoy the ride!
    Not always easy for a supporter though. ;)

  6. Thoughtful writing. I’m frankly still amazed when someone like Virgil Van Dyke chooses to join our “project” over a guaranteed winner’s medal at City. Or AOC who could have joined moneybags Chelsea but chose us. I don’t know why they did it – maybe they are just crazy enough to have bought into Klopp’s vision. Not that I don’t believe in Klopp myself, it’s just that, as Rob says, the odds are so massively stacked against us.

    The only bit in the article I’m not sure about is this – “Phil has taken something of a pay cut to pursue this vision. At the very least, he hasn’t left Liverpool to get richer. At least, not yet.” Maybe it’s true that Coutinho put some money into the pot to enable the transfer to happen – or maybe that’s just PR spin – however we don’t know what deal he has made with Barca over image rights and the rest. Somehow I think that it is inconceivable that he isn’t going to become incredibly rich very quickly with this move, as the new golden poster boy for Barca, and that this will translate also into gazillions in increased earning opportunities back in Brazil. In short, I don’t think we need to worry about him too much.

    For what it’s worth, I also don’t buy into all this “Coutinho acted so professional throughout” sh*te that has been peddled by the mainstream media. The way he and his entourage have been carrying on since the summer have left a sadly very sour taste in the mouth.

  7. JCinSecretHarbour

    I’m with you fellas. With regards to why and how the Club managed to secure both VVD (maybe AOC to some degree) ahead of the elite competition. As a glass half full type of fan I’m inclined to do a little reading between the lines and lend by belief in Klopp finally backing FSG into the put up or shut corner, as in if you want to walk with Europe’s elite then you have to act and look the part. However that said it would be very interesting to hear VVD’s viewpoint on Coutinho’s rapid exit and whether or not that was part of the plan in as much as joining a Club which continually struggles to keep its Alpha players??

  8. Well Rob that was quite an article that. No, I’d go as far as to say it was the best thing I have read by a seasoned Liverpool supporter in quite a while. Top job dude.

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