The only thing more manic than this helter-skelter game was Pep Guardiola on the touchline. He was as entertaining to watch as the match… almost.
Over the course of 10 minutes late in the second half, the Manchester City manager seemed on the verge of self-combustion. Furious that a free-kick was awarded against Gaël Clichy for a foul on Sadio Mané, the Liverpool forward, Guardiola turned and was ready to launch a water bottle into row Z, only to pull out at the last second, perhaps recalling that his nemesis, Jose Mourinho, landed a touchline ban for failing to resist that urge this season.
Craig Pawson did not escape the eye-ball treatment, though, and two minutes later the harassed fourth official got more of the same. When Pawson responded, Guardiola reacted by dramatically folding his arms and nodding his head, like a schoolboy who had been rebuked by his teacher. The Catalan wasn’t finished there. With eight minutes remaining, Guardiola charged over to Pawson, several fingers raised on both hands, which he shook in the official’s face. Was he complaining about the number of penalties he felt referee Michael Oliver had denied his team or the volume of chances missed by Sergio Agüero?
Guardiola was just as hyper at the final whistle, flinging his arms around James Milner’s shoulders and playfully slapping him on the chest, presumably asking the Liverpool midfielder how he had got away with a foul on Raheem Sterling that, on another day, would have earned him a red card and City a penalty. And, in his post-match interviews, Guardiola seemed no less emotional.
He has won 40 trophies as a player and manager, but this, he claimed, was one of the proudest, best and most special days of his life. Jürgen Klopp, Guardiola’s counterpart, looked positively flummoxed when that assertion was put to him. “Well he is Spanish, they are more emotional than the Germans?” the Liverpool manager quipped. “I’ve had nicer moments in my life.”
City, remember, drew 1-1, failed to win yet another big game and, despite creating enough chances to win a humdinger of a match, also conceded enough to lose it as Guardiola opted for all-out attack for the second game running against opponents who are a real threat on the transition. Tactical sophistication? Or a case of putting all your eggs in one basket and hoping for the best?
Guardiola provided a convoluted answer about why he deployed Yaya Touré “alone” at the base of City’s midfield, much as he had done with Fernandinho in Wednesday’s Champions League defeat by Monaco. With little to no support around him, Fernandinho had a torrid time of it in Monte Carlo and Touré – fortunate not to be sent off for a reckless challenge on Emre Can – will know how the Brazilian felt after this. His substitution was merciful but was it a surprise Touré struggled as David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Sterling and Leroy Sané focused on creating chances, too many of which Agüero spurned?
Agüero’s 25th goal in 35 games ultimately rescued a point but it was not the Argentina striker’s best afternoon, and there is a reason why question marks have been placed over his future. Harsh on a striker who gets into pockets of space that plenty do not and remains one of the best in the business? Sure, but Guardiola will probably be asking himself if the injured Gabriel Jesus would have volleyed over from close range late on or failed to stab home Sterling’s cross in the first half.
City insist privately that they want Agüero to stay. The player says he has not received such assurances. The only certainty is that Guardiola remains a dab hand at defending and criticising Agüero in the same breath.
“In my career as a football player I scored 11 goals – one goal a year,” he said. “Can you imagine the advice I say to Sergio and the other guys about scoring a goal? I don’t think so. I am not going to doubt the quality of Sergio Agüero scoring goals. But we don’t score goals. When this happens it’s so difficult.”
City remain a good bet for the top four but their first season under Guardiola is hardly panning out as the club’s hierarchy would have hoped. Guardiola is struggling to address their big-game blues. City did not win any of their games against the top five last season and won just one of 14 against the top eight. This term, they have eight points from 21 against the top six, with three still to play, including Arsenal and Chelsea away in their next two league outings. Liverpool have taken 20 points from 10 games against their top-six rivals.
Guardiola reacted to City’s Champions League exit to Monaco by pointing out that he had an “exceptional” record as a manager and had never felt “so much power”. The Exceptional One? The Powerful One? That may prove to be the case but he was the Manic One on Sunday.