Dripping in sarcasm, there was no doubting the true sentiment behind the handshake offered by Pep Guardiola to the officials at full time of Manchester City’s damaging defeat to Liverpool at Anfield.
Michael Oliver and his assistants had already suffered the wrath of the Catalan coach over the course of the 90 minutes and in making such a pointed demonstration Guardiola made clear who he blamed for the result.
The handball by Trent Alexander-Arnold, overlooked just 22 seconds before Liverpool scored the opener through Fabinho, was indeed a pivotal moment in the match. Things might have panned out very differently had the reigning Premier League champions been awarded the early penalty they, and many others believed they deserved.
Fabinho’s opener came after just six minutes, though. There was still plenty of time for City to turn things around and impose themselves on the contest, and yet they never did. Guardiola may find it convenient to blame the officials for one of the most damaging results of his Man City tenure to date, but he was also at fault for what unfolded on Sunday.
Primarily, his refusal to use Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy cost his team dearly.
City’s recent defensive issues have been well-documented and with both Ederson and Aymeric Laporte sidelined through injury Guardiola was already short of top-level quality at the back for the trip away to Liverpool.
Rather than using Mendy, the Frenchman signed for £52 million two summers ago, Guardiola opted to field Angelino at left-back instead.
The 22-year-old was brutally exposed by the movement of Liverpool’s relentless front three as demonstrated by the way Mohamed Salah ghosted in at the back post to score the Reds’ second goal.
Kyle Walker was Man City’s saviour more than once last week, assisting one and scoring another in the comeback win over Southampton before finishing the Champions League game against Atalanta in goal, but he was desperately poor against Liverpool. Given the way Walker has played so far this season, Guardiola should have anticipated that he would struggle against Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Salah.
Whether at left-back or right-back, Cancelo would have been a better option.
The Portuguese international earned himself a reputation as one of the best full-backs in Europe with Juventus, a status that was reflected in the £60m Man City paid for him in the summer. And yet Guardiola seemingly remains unconvinced.
Guardiola is heralded as the finest tactical mind of his generation, but he was far too rigid in adapting to the challenged presented by Liverpool.
A back three of Fernandinho, John Stones and Walker flanked by Cancelo and Mendy as wing-backs surely would have given Manchester City a defensive balance they lacked at Anfield.
"We showed why we are the champions"
Pep Guardiola was proud of his players despite defeat at Anfield
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) November 10, 2019
It wasn’t just in his defensive selection that Guardiola failed his side. With City chasing the game, the Catalan coach inexplicably only made one change, introducing Gabriel Jesus for Sergio Aguero 20 minutes from the end while Riyad Mahrez, David Silva and Phil Foden all remained on the bench.
“What happened today, we showed why [we] are champions,” Guardiola smiled afterwards with just enough wryness to put his interviewer on edge.
“I am so proud of my team, more than ever. We can be proud of how we played against the strongest team in Europe. We played like back-to-back champions. We cannot deny how good Liverpool are but the way we played, the personality, it was good.”
There’s just something about Anfield that rattles Guardiola.
His behaviour after the final whistle will be used to illustrate the way in which he lost his grip of a must-win match, but his decisions before and during the game itself did that anyway. Guardiola should have looked at himself before pointing the finger at others or shaking their hands.