Pep Guardiola craves control and – for now – it is missing at Manchester City

There was a pathway between Julián Álvarez, Manual Akanji and Rúben Dias and it led just inside the left-hand post, but it was almost impossibly narrow. Trent-Alexander Arnold guided his shot along it. By design? By instinct? By luck? It was very hard to say, and because of that Manchester City did not win a 24th successive home game and Liverpool successfully protected the record their former manager Tom Watson had set during his stint at Sunderland.

More consequentially – assuming Joël Matip and Dominik Szoboszlai are not especially motivated by the honour of plump, bowler-hat wearing 19th-century tobacconists with sardonic moustaches – City drew their second successive game and so the dream of a proper title race was extended into the second third of the season. Which of course speaks primarily to the remorselessness of City’s excellence under Pep Guardiola and the anticipation that at some point they will put together a run that will carry them clear of the pack. If they’re leading by Christmas, the second half of the season could be a procession.

But City were not remorseless, far from it. It’s a truism that a side has to be almost perfect even to have a chance of beating them, but Liverpool got the draw and created other chances without playing particularly well themselves. Alisson, although he made a couple of fine saves, was extremely skittish, his unease with the ball at his feet adding to the growing body of evidence that the requirement for goalkeepers to play out from the back might have tipped from intriguing counterintuitive gambit into indulgence. As Jorge Valdano remarked last season, perhaps the weirdest consequence of football’s data revolution is that teams now seem far more prepared to take risks in their own box than their opponent’s.

Rúben Dias is denied the second for City after it is disallowed for the slightest of pushes.
Rúben Dias is denied the second for City after it is disallowed for the slightest of pushes. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Their press too was often not the suffocating multi-layered blanket it ought to be. For all the praise for Liverpool’s revamped midfield – and it is working far better than last season – there were still multiple occasions on which a longish City ball from deep led to players running at an exposed Liverpool back line, a pattern that is only partly explained by Ederson’s astonishing passing range.

The result was an unexpectedly ragged game, a particular surprise given the unusual openness City had demonstrated in their previous outing, the 4-4 draw at Chelsea. More than anything else, Guardiola demands control: when there had been such a lack of it, the assumption was that, particularly for a game against the side who have most consistently challenged his City, he would prioritise order.

Guardiola is haunted by the spectre of counter-attacks. Most of those moments of overthinking before Champions League exits have been occasioned by attempts to head off potential counter-attacking threats. The urge to set up the play so his team are positioned to guard against a potential counter are why Guardiola sides so rarely score on the counter themselves, why he has spoken of it taking 15 passes for his side to organise themselves for an attack. And yet Liverpool not only equalised on the counter but had multiple other opportunities to do so.

It would be an exaggeration to say Liverpool should have won – they lost the xG 1.3 to 0.6 by Opta’s measure – but equally there were at least four occasions on which a better touch, a better run or a better decision from Darwin Núñez might have opened City up. And that is not common for City. Something is going awry in their midfield.

It’s probably as simple as John Stones being out, although his presence on the bench suggests a return is imminent. The use of Álvarez as a sort of attacking central midfielder-cum-second striker means there is a need to find an additional midfielder from somewhere, and Stones has done an admirable job in stepping up from centre-back to operate alongside Rodri. Akanji, it’s fair to say, is still learning the role. If Ilkay Gündogan had not left the club, in the summer, perhaps it would be less significant, but for now City look vulnerable whenever one or more of Rodri and Stones is absent.

The alternative would be leave Álvarez out, or to have him start from the flank in a more orthodox 4-3-3, with Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva alongside Rodri in midfield, but Guardiola often seems resistant to the idea of Foden as a central player. At the moment, he is probably a necessary counterweight, a passer who offers a degree of certainty, to the darts and bursts and flourishes of Jérémy Doku on the left. The Belgian was responsible for 68% of all City’s dribbles on Saturday, his directness and the regularity with which he loses the ball – an inevitable consequence for somebody who dribbles so much – a curious departure from the Guardiola model of control and prioritisation of possession.

We’ve been here before, of course. The template is familiar: City look vulnerable in the autumn and then hit the sort of form in the spring that makes Tom Watson nervous. Even in this phase of mild uncertainty and without the injured Kevin De Bruyne, they are a point off the top. They remain title favourites.

But for a goal disallowed for the slightest of pushes, they would have beaten Liverpool. If Stones is back against Tottenham next week, calm may once again descend upon the midfield. But in the last couple of games, the control that Guardiola so cherishes has deserted them.