Phil Foden adds glorious grace note as Anfield hosts a paean to football
There was a nice moment at the end of this game. As the players milled around the centre circle drawing a breath, and as Phil Foden went to place a fond arm round the shoulder of James Milner, who had spent the first half trying, and mainly failing, to body-check him into the advert boards, the crowd in the seats and the walkways stopped to give the players a gentle, rippling ovation.
It was that kind of afternoon. At kick-off Anfield had been illuminated by soft, autumnal sun at one end, the chill beginning to creep in under a powder-blue sky. What followed was a glorious, ragged, brilliantly high-craft spectacle as the players of Liverpool and Manchester City produced a full-throated hymn to the unkempt beauty of football even at this rarefied level, its rough edges and strange energies.
This was a game Manchester City dominated for 45 minutes without ever looking particularly happy about it. Pep Guardiola laid on another stroke of double-take in his selection. Best of all Foden produced a quiet masterclass of sharp-edged attacking midfield play, drifting about with malevolent, twirling intent and reasserting his own wonderful talent after a period of retrenchment.
In the process Foden just about bailed his manager out from the repeat charge of mugging his own team – not just “over-thinking” this wealth of attacking talent but sending it out into battle lassoed in his own strange tactical algebra.
On paper City’s team looked almost disappointingly straightforward. Except, as the game kicked off, it soon became clear that Jack Grealish would be the centre forward. Yes: that Jack Grealish. Grealish who doesn’t score many goals, who hasn’t done this before and who had precious little time, with the midweek game, to train for it. But yeah. Anfield. Off you go Jack.
Grealish as false-ish nine made it three non-centre-forwards in a week for City: Foden, Sterling and Grealish. Gabriel Jesus, who is an actual centre-forward, played as a winger here again. It is no secret that Guardiola wanted a new £100m centre-forward this summer. This was at least one way of making that happen. But really, Pep? This felt like the footballing equivalent of buying a Montblanc fountain pen and using it to peel carrots.
And so City set off, burning their way through a series of chances. With 16 minutes gone Bernardo Silva conjured a lovely cross to the back post. Where, one wondered, was Grealish, towering Grealish, launching himself above the defence like a rearing buffalo to butt the ball into the net?
A little later Silva took the ball in midfield and set off on an astonishing, meandering, playground-football run, then played a fine pass to put Foden in on goal. He delayed just too long, moved just too wide. Alisson smothered with his chest. But the ball should have already been zinging into the corner behind his left ear.
Through all this Foden had begun to do terrible things to Milner on the City left. He had also excelled against Chelsea last Saturday, in the centre that time, where he was disciplined and neat. This, though, was something else, a re-emergence out on the left of that sublime cutting edge.
The last four months have been difficult. Injury hasn’t helped. Perhaps Foden has taken a while to recover from the seasickness around the Champions League final in May. An in-out Euros followed, the wonky optics of the Gazza-rinse.
Here he looked hungry from the start and agreeably merciless. At first Foden teased Milner, testing the water. Then he ducked inside him. Before long he was shimmying, sashaying, vaulting him like a piece of gym equipment.
Milner will know he was extremely lucky not to be sent off here for persistent fouling before he left the field on 70 minutes. At times this was like watching an action sequence from a George Romero zombie film: the staggering gait, the clutching arms, grasping helplessly at some fresh-faced fugitive.
By half-time City had taken seven shots at goal to Liverpool’s one, dribbled more, passed more, kept the ball 55% of the time.
Liverpool had been a little passive but they began to press higher up the pitch after the break. They took the lead from that same Foden-Milner side. A neat triangle of passes sent Mohamed Salah racing in behind Silva. He played the perfect through-pass. Sadio Mané had time to open his hips and roll the ball into the far corner – a fine goal and a reminder of Liverpool’s own champion qualities.
To their credit City’s players were straight back at it when they might have taken a breath. Jesus set off on a barrelling, skittering run, then found Foden, head up and moving into space on the left. This time the shot was pinged with real feeling back across Alisson and into the far corner.
Salah produced a wonderful solo goal to put Liverpool ahead again, feinting away from five sky blue shirts before pinging a shot across Ederson. Foden helped make the equaliser, Kyle Walker producing a late audition for next week’s centre-forward slot, leaping over Foden’s cross and allowing Kevin De Bruyne to fire in a deflected shot.
Both teams will feel they might have won this game. City’s attack looks like a story that will run on from here. But this was also a kind of reawakening for a player who has a chance now to start stretching up once again towards the outer limits of his own wonderful talent.