Forget about the three goals. Forget about Sadio Mané turning Nicolás Otamendi into a garden gnome. Forget about Mohamed Salah making KDB sound like an in-joke among Russian intelligence officers. And forget about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain obliterating the line between midfield and attack. Just put it all to the side for a minute, and focus on this:
Zero—not zero just zero goals, but zero shots on target and zero saves to be made.
As James Yorke wrote for The Ringer on Tuesday, after two and a half years of “anything can happen at the back,” Liverpool found their defense right around New Year’s Day. It was still there for Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Manchester City, and as long as it doesn’t go away—OK, take a deep breath into a paper bag, and take a couple more if you need to—Liverpool have as good a chance to win the 2018 Champions League as any other team on the planet.
Coming into the first leg of their quarterfinal tie, City’s attack was a possession-sucking, space-crunching machine. They led all teams in Europe with an average 67 percent share of the possession, and they were second in goals, third in shots, and fourth in shots on target per game. They pressed better than any team in England—by far—and completed more passes within 20 yards of their opponent’s goal than anyone else. The presence of Manchester City in the Premier League this season has required managers to cop to their inadequacy and accept that Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Leroy Sané, and Co. will dominate the balance of chances; you just have to hope that you finish more of yours.
That is, until Wednesday. Guardiola’s team selection was strange—he benched Raheem Sterling and only played a single fullback, Kyle Walker—but he always tends to find the right balance across 90 minutes. Liverpool’s goals were a mixture of thundering raw power, fine-needle precision, and overwhelming forward momentum. They finished their chances, sure, but they almost completely nullified one of the best attacks in the world on the other end.
xG map for Liverpool - Manchester City. The Reds dominated the first half and executed a surprisingly effective bus-parking in the second. pic.twitter.com/QxQU6d2ZUD— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) April 4, 2018
In the first half, City completed 249 passes. Guess how many of them made it into Liverpool’s box? Just a single one. We already know the kind of havoc Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing can cause. As he’s famously said, “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counterpressing.” And sure enough, his conceptual no. 10 led directly to Liverpool’s second goal:
"The Ox! From outside the box!"— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 4, 2018
Anfield is ROCKING after Oxlade-Chamberlain gives Liverpool a 2-0 lead. pic.twitter.com/65s06wse6X
It’s just that the press never lasts forever, and a passing machine like City should, in theory, be able to sort through Klopp’s chaos at least a handful of times across 90 minutes. Plus, against the top six in the Premier League this season, Liverpool have allowed 20 goals in nine games. But with the arrival of the steady Virgil van Dijk in central defense and a more selectively manic approach—Liverpool’s pressing numbers are down from last year—the defense has turned into something that can hound the best team in the Premier League for 45 minutes and then sit back in the second half—Liverpool completed just 86 passes in the second half compared to City’s 383—but keep them at arm’s length. City constantly found the typically devastating Sané in space on the left wing, but 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold played the game of his life at right back, finishing with four tackles and seven interceptions.
We knew Liverpool could attack like this, if not push it to another gear. They’ve scored the second-most goals in the Premier League, they took out Porto 5-0 in the Round of 16, and they notched 23 goals in the six games of the group stages. Hell, just this January they put four past City—but of course, they let in three at the other end. If Liverpool can pair their hell-raising attack with a near-impenetrable defense, there’s no one in the world this team can’t beat. Well, as long as Salah’s groin is healed up by next week.