So, Liverpool went along the M62 to the Etihad Stadium and left with a point.
It wasn’t your vintage Manchester City vs. Liverpool match-up, but the outcome felt significant – for Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, and Mikel Arteta. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or haven’t had access to any sort of internet since Saturday lunchtime, you’ll know that the game ended 1-1, with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s 80th-minute dagger cancelling out Erling Haaland’s first-half opener.
Klopp – and goal scorer Alexander-Arnold – were both left unimpressed with the Reds’ performance, particularly in the first half, with the German stating “I told the boys [at half-time]: imagine we would play good, how that game could look – because we had good moments in the first half, but we didn’t feel them properly.”
There were selection dilemmas going into the game across the pitch. Joël Matip kept his place ahead of the returning Ibrahima Konaté, Darwin Núñez and Diogo Jota started in attack and Curtis Jones returned to the midfield – as many believed he would.
My last feature for Anfield Watch was around this very topic, and why Curtis Jones over Ryan Gravenberch from the start would give Liverpool more control in the midfield and allow them to form more of a secure structure both in and out of possession. You can find the theory behind it here.
The theory didn’t work out in practice. Liverpool’s first 45 minutes certainly weren’t the worst of the season, they even managed to create some decent chances. Yet, it was noticeably poor. There was a lack of control and ball security on the ball. Out of possession it was far too easy for Man City to find players like Bernardo Silva and Jérémy Doku between the lines.
While this may seem slightly targeted (and it shouldn’t because he wasn’t the only underwhelming figure out there in the first half) Curtis Jones struggled to influence the game. Perhaps it was more noticeable because he was the only real selection ‘choice’ in the middle, given Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister are two of the first names on the team sheet.
All the bad traits of Jones’ game were on display – he held on to the ball for far too long, he wasn’t proactive in his approach, and it had a negative influence on how Liverpool could build up in possession. I am keen to give him the benefit of the doubt. Jones’ best football has always come when he has featured week in week out and is able to get into the rhythm of regular football – away at Manchester City is not exactly the easiest place to make your first start since the 1 November.
Which brings us to the 54th minute of the game. After a poor first half, Liverpool were wrestling to get control back into the game, or at least pose more of an attacking threat to level the game. He turned to Gravenberch and Díaz in place of Jones and the injured Jota. Both were influential in the goal (more on that later in the piece). Gravenberch in particular was impressive in turning Liverpool’s fortunes around in this game.
In just 44 minutes of football (including the eight minutes of injury time added on) the former Ajax man had three progressive passes, two progressive carries, two passes into the final third and one pass into the opposition penalty area (all stats from Opta via FBRef).
First up, let’s look at his passing…
Above are his pass locations vs. City (the left-hand side being the opposition half) via WhoScored.com.
Gravenberch didn’t attempt many passes, or even touch the ball very often (nine pass attempts and just 15 touches). While his volume was low, his impact and decisiveness on the ball made the world of difference. Of his seven completed passes, three were progressive, two were into the final third and one was into the Man City box. That’s six out of seven being a meaningful action that brought his side creativity or further up the pitch.
What Klopp recognised was that Liverpool weren’t going to have an extended amount of control for long periods in the game, it wasn’t the way it was flowing and once a Guardiola side establishes that level of control in a game it’s almost impossible to wrestle back. Instead, the Reds needed to become better in the transitional moments, they needed players who could get them out of their own half and drive into space into the opposition half.
Carrying the ball is one of – if not the – best of Gravenberch’s abilities. He thrives at driving into space and is good at turning his opposition and in tight spaces thanks to his deceivingly quick long limbs. It was on full display against the blue half of Manchester. While he only had two progressive carries, they were, to use the word again, meaningful. The standout action was of course his action in the lead up to Alexander-Arnold’s silencing finish.
The Alisson block, Gravenberch's glide, Trent's finish and celebration.
There's something different to enjoy every time you watch this 😍pic.twitter.com/W3l4zxUdzF
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) November 27, 2023
The Amsterdam-born midfielder picks up the ball on the edge of his own box after Mac Allister has hurried the ball away from a huge Alisson save. He then drives down the left-hand side of the pitch before the showstopper. Rodri is the best defensive midfielder in the world. If you’re lucky enough to move past him, he’ll stay close enough to you to know when to tactically foul you.
Gravenberch slows the ball down, almost stands the Spaniard up, then drives past him like it’s the easiest thing in the world. While a lot happens after that action before the ball hitting the back of the net, that action right there is so key to the goal happening. How often do you see Rodri being exposed? Has anyone ever made it look that easy?
On the other side of the coin, you can look at it as a midfielder with fresh legs moving past one who started the game, but even then, that just doesn’t happen often to Rodri. He then makes the right pass out wide to Luis Díaz and Liverpool get the equaliser.
Gravenberch changed the game for his team, despite not being that involved in possession. He made every action count.
This isn’t to say that he’s the first choice going forward.
Liverpool are in a place where they now have two very good options in the left sided midfield role that both offer something different. While it wasn’t his best performance against City, he offers the side control in the midfield, he offers more defensive stability than Gravenberch and on his best days he is a progression monster. The Dutchman, on the other hand, is a transitional monster, he can turn opponents in an instant and he's much more comfortable in the final third than Jones.
The draw on Saturday was perfect for Gravenberch to come into in an increasingly stretched game, but it may not have looked the same if he started.
There are definitely improvements to be made, but one thing is for sure, the future of Liverpool’s midfield is in good hands.