Jürgen Klopp’s record against Pep Guardiola has drastically improved since they both relocated to the Premier League. Only one defeat from five English-based games compared to a 50:50 win-lose split whilst in the Bundesliga has proven his gegenpressing tactics have some merit.
This not the only major improvement to have emerged on Merseyside recently. Amongst the many success stories for Klopp this season, the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold is the latest, and possibly most important, development in the Reds evolution.
A home-grown product of their academy, he’s also a player who grew up a mere 10 minutes from Melwood. Despite last night’s match being only the 36th senior appearance for the right-back, he looked frighteningly assured for such a young prospect.
Liverpool’s defensive fragility
A popular narrative leading into this game revolved around the fact Liverpool can’t defend. Not only did they shut out the Premier League’s most prolific side, a team who have scored 13 more league goals than any other this season, they did so without conceding a single shot on target.
At the heart of this display was a young Liverpudlian who made four successful tackles, seven interceptions and ten clearances. As the youngest English player to feature in a Champions League quarter-final, 20-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold produced a water-tight performance which completely nullified the threat of Leroy Sané.
Helping his team deprive City of an away-goal, this clean sheet could well prove as valuable as the three goals scored at the opposite end of the pitch. For a Liverpool side bulging with goals at present, a single goal for the Reds in the second leg would leave the Citizens needing five.
Disproving the obvious
The surprising decision to leave Raheem Sterling on the bench against his former club coupled with an injury to Sergio Agüero meant Sané was to be Guardiola’s main weapon at Anfield.
Not only has Sané been one of the most impressive players across the top league’s this season, Alexander-Arnold was also widely viewed as a weak link in the Reds back-line. Following a mauling at the feet of Marcus Rashford last month and a first-half display fraught with anxiety in facing down Wilfried Zaha last weekend, Guardiola looked to exploit this perceived weakness by directing 48% of City’s attacks down their left wing.
What actually occurred was for Alexander-Arnold to more than match the young German. Showing great positional awareness, speed and imperious timing, Liverpool’s right-back gave a masterclass in what was undoubtedly his greatest game to date.
The fact that Sané had the body language of a player well-beaten towards the end of the game showed just how well he had been shut down by his opponent.
Work in progress
The inclusion of Virgil van Dijk into Liverpool’s defence has helped add some solidity, however, much credit needs to be given to Liverpool’s coaching staff. The wing-backs, in particular, have all been greatly developed this season.
While much praise has been rightly lavished on Andrew Robertson recently, it’s easy to forget how improved Alberto Moreno was during the early stages of the campaign.
With Nathaniel Clyne yet to feature this season due to injury, youngsters Joe Gomez and Alexander-Arnold have also been crucial for the Reds on the opposite wing. The fact that they’re both under 21 is another easily forgettable fact, such has been the maturity shown by them throughout this season.
It seems clear there’s an underlying confidence beginning to grip these Liverpool defenders. As a team who have long lacked robustness in defence, this new trait will be a scary proposition for their rivals looking ahead.
The big stage
As the England manager watched on from the stands, he will have been greatly heartened by the trio of performances put in by Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexander-Arnold.
It was the right-back who would have left the biggest impression, something which could force his first international cap to arrive soon. While this summer’s World Cup remains a distant prospect, there will be a growing expectancy starting to surround him.
To perform a near-faultless game against one of the world’s best wingers during a major match has certainly served to lay down a significant marker. But while it’s easy to get carried away with such a tenacious yet composed performance, it’s also worth remembering that one swallow does not make a summer.
He’s likely to make more mistakes in the future as he continues his development, however, he deserves every ounce of praise he receives in the meantime.
To be the nub of what was arguably Liverpool’s best result since they lifted the 2005 Champions League title is no small matter. But then there are bigger games now lined up for the remainder of this season for him to prove he possesses the consistency to compliment his skills.