Trent Alexander-Arnold accepted Liverpool's players had let themselves and the fans down after falling to a 4-1 defeat at home to Premier League leaders Manchester City. 

Liverpool were condemned to a third consecutive league loss at Anfield, making the Reds the first reigning champions to suffer such a run in the English top flight since Chelsea back in March 1956. 

Mohamed Salah's second-half penalty at least ended Liverpool's league goal drought at 410 minutes, though having drawn level at 1-1 from the spot, the home team fell apart to leave their already slender title hopes in tatters. 

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson twice made costly mistakes that led to goals for Ilkay Gundogan – his second of the contest – and Raheem Sterling, while Phil Foden slammed in a late fourth to complete the Merseyside rout. 

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool now sit 10 points behind leaders City, who also have a game in hand, but full-back Alexander-Arnold promised supporters the Reds will improve as they aim to finish the season strongly. 

"We know we've let ourselves and the fans down today. No excuses," the England international wrote in the Twitter post.

"It just has to be better to finish the season strong. We'll give it everything."

Liverpool have won just two of their past eight Premier League games – both away in London – but still remain in the top four. 

Klopp takes his squad to third-placed Leicester City next, with captain Jordan Henderson insisting the players must quickly get the heavy loss out of their system as they focus on the rest of the campaign. 

"When you get beat it’s always disappointing, especially in the manner we did in the end," Henderson told the club's website. "It's never nice. 

"It's hard to take now, but in football you've got to move on quickly. We've got a full week to get it out of our system, train properly – which we haven’t had for a while. 

"So we need to use it the best we can this week to get prepared for a tough game against Leicester." 

Liverpool sit on 40 points in the Premier League table, 27 fewer than they had after 23 games in their title-winning season. That is the biggest drop-off by any reigning champion at the same stage of a campaign in English top-flight history.

Pep Guardiola hopes Phil Foden understands there is plenty of room for improvement but said it is a joy to have the boyhood Manchester City fan starring for his team.  

Foden scored a stunner and set up another goal as Premier League leaders City romped to a 4-1 victory over reigning champions Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. 

Playing in a central role up front, Foden struggled to get into the game in the first half but thrived in the second after Guardiola had altered City's shape. 

His exquisite strike rounded off a remarkable 10-minute spell late in the second half in which the match went from 1-1 to 4-1. 

Two blunders from Alisson had gifted City their second and third goals – Ilkay Gundogan tucking in from Foden's cut back before Raheem Sterling headed home his 100th goal under Guardiola from Bernardo Silva's deft lob. 

Foden lashed in a fourth from a tight angle to wrap things up and condemn Liverpool to a third straight Anfield defeat for the first time since 1963.

Asked about the Englishman's performance, Guardiola told Sky Sports: "He's a guy who keeps the ball really well, he's really aggressive.

"But still he is so young, he doesn't understand in some positions what he has to do, so in the first half he was not in the right positions.

"We worked but he is a little bit distracted sometimes in these positions. Playing wide is more easy for him but he will learn.

"After that, the assist for the second goal and then scoring the fourth goal, we know what a huge talent he is, but he's still young and we are still hopeful that he can understand that he can improve, because in the first half he was not in the position that we needed and that's why we suffered in some moments to get the control."

Guardiola had never before tasted victory at Anfield, City's previous five visits during his tenure having returned four defeats and just one draw.

And, while the Spaniard acknowledged the difference a lack of supporters makes, he was still impressed by his players' ability to overcome in-game setbacks.

He added: "What's important is the three points. Of course I'm so proud of the guys. Anfield with people and without is completely different. It's good, especially when we miss the penalty, concede the goal.

"We react with huge personality. Raheem Sterling, phenomenal. The commitment from everyone. Three points, grateful, happy, but tomorrow feet on the grass and thinking Swansea.

"We are not one player. Gundogan started to be one of the top scorers, we have to do it as a team. We have an incredible captain. In this period, to do wins in a row is so difficult."

Thanks to their win, City sit 10 points clear of champions Liverpool and five  ahead of second-placed neighbours Manchester United at the summit of the Premier League – and with a game in hand on both. 

But Guardiola is not getting carried away as he looks ahead to a testing February fixture schedule. 

He continued: "I said before, I'm not a guy who predicts the future. In February, five points is nothing. Swansea, Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, many tough games. Be calm and keep going. 

"In England you think February will be softer but the schedule is even tougher. One game at a time. The next one is Swansea."

Jurgen Klopp saw positive signs from Liverpool but admitted two "massive mistakes" by Alisson proved their downfall in a 4-1 defeat to Manchester City.

The reigning Premier League champions slipped to a third successive home league defeat on Sunday, with the result leaving them well off the pace in the title race.

City now sit five points clear of nearest rivals Manchester United but 10 ahead of Liverpool, while Pep Guardiola's squad also have a game in hand.

Mohamed Salah's penalty cancelled out Ilkay Gundogan's opener in an eventful second half at Anfield, but two blunders by Alisson helped City on their way to a record-equalling 14th successive win in all competitions.

"When you lose 4-1 it's not your day. Big parts of the game were brilliant from my side, we played really good football," Klopp told Sky Sports.

"In the first half we played really good football, against City it just means you are reading the game. Start of the second half, City changed the system slightly to a 4-4-2.

"It's a little adaptation and at the start of the second half we didn't give enough options to play and gave the first goal away. We just gave them a bit too much of an opportunity.

"We scored the equaliser and it looked like the game could now go in our direction. We made two massive mistakes, it's clear, everybody saw them, they used them, then 3-1 it's tough to take. 

"The performance was good for a lot of time. Really good, high level, if we played more before like in these moments we would not be 10 points behind City.

"The goals - we made massive mistakes, if you make them against City it's the killer. That's why we lost the game."

Klopp felt the rest of the team did not help out Alisson for the stray passes that led to City's second and third goals, scored by Gundogan and Raheem Sterling respectively.

The Brazil international is the first Liverpool goalkeeper to make two errors leading directly to a goal in a single game since Loris Karius against Real Madrid in the Champions League final in May 2018.

"It's true as well that we didn't give him a lot of options, especially the first one," the Liverpool boss said.

"I think the second one there is no explanation, maybe he had cold feet or something, it sounds funny but it could be, but still the opportunity was there to kick it into the stands.

"But Ali has saved our lives many times and tonight he made two mistakes."

With a double-digit gap to City, Klopp confirmed his main focus is on sealing a top-four finish and a place in next season's Champions League. 

They return to league action next Saturday, travelling to third-place Leicester City.

"It is of course our main target, that is clear, we will try everything," Klopp said. "We've enough games to play to secure that but we have to win games."

Pep Guardiola noticeably bristled when asked in his pre-match broadcast interview whether Manchester City would ever have a better opportunity to break their Anfield hoodoo.

Not since 2003 had City claimed all three points at this ground, but this time they arrived on a 13-game winning streak to face opponents who have not looked themselves of late. 

Still, their manager did not wish to tempt fate ahead of his side running out at a stadium that has been far from a happy hunting ground for him.

Not only had City never won here under his stewardship, they had been regularly dismantled across meetings in the Premier League and Champions League.

And it was fear of a repeat that no doubt accounted for a cautious start from the visitors that did not reflect the form book.

When the first real chance of note arrived late in the first half, it came for City from the penalty spot, but Ilkay Gundogan could only blast the ball into the Kop from 12 yards. 

Since the start of last season, the Blues have only scored nine out of their 17 penalties – a 53 per cent conversion rate – and this latest miss must have had Guardiola fearing it would be another forgettable visit to Merseyside.

But, as has been the case across a season that started in less-than-ideal fashion for the visitors, both team and player grew from that moment forth.

As such, it was no surprise to see Gundogan on hand to smash the ball home from close range with the first of three shots across the 90 minutes following the restart.

And, though a rare error from Ruben Dias – a figure who has had a transformative effect on City's defence this term – allowed Mohamed Salah to level things shortly after, the idea that it might inspire the hosts on to victory looked fanciful.

So it proved, with Gundogan restoring the lead after Phil Foden showed lovely feet in the aftermath of a poor Alisson Becker kick before Raheem Sterling capitalised on another questionable moment from the Brazilian goalkeeper.

The scoreline then got the gloss it deserved as Foden smashed in powerfully to underline his new-found status as a key man in a refreshed City side which now looks destined to be win the league.

Guardiola and his squad spent last season fending off the critics as Liverpool marched off into the distance to clinch the title in record time.

But, having added Dias and found new heroes in the likes of Gundogan and Foden, it looks like they who will cruise to silverware this time around.

Perhaps Jurgen Klopp can cling to that idea as he reflects on a poor performance that got the result it deserved and ended any hopes of his team taking part in a title challenge this term rather than a scrap for a top-four finish.

Having gone 1,369 days and 68 games without a Premier League defeat at Anfield, Liverpool have now lost three on the bounce at home for the first time since 1963.

Injuries no doubt account for that historic run in some way, evident as they were in the Reds once again naming two midfielders at centre-back.

Yet waiting until deadline day to sign the two defenders they desperately needed looked particularly ill-advised when Klopp revealed ahead of kick-off that neither was considered ready to feature in this game.

And the German will surely have been concerned by the fact that September signing Thiago Alcantara in no way showed himself to be capable of picking up the midfield slack as he put in an unimpressive showing.

In fairness, a lack of both fight and quality was not just a midfield issue for Liverpool, it has spread throughout the team during a run of results that has wrecked their season.

The only hope for the Reds this campaign is that the imminent return of Diogo Jota and the opportunity to restore Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to the centre of the park can help fend off potential challengers for a top-four spot.

Should that happen, Klopp will believe his side is capable of following City in immediately bouncing back into title contention next term with the help of a few tweaks.

If not, then Europa League football and a far trickier rebuild job surely awaits.

Phil Foden hailed Manchester City's "courage" after they inflicted a 4-1 defeat on champions Liverpool to take a significant step towards regaining the Premier League title.

Foden played a starring role as City extended their winning run to 14 matches in all competitions – a joint-record for top-flight clubs in England.

City had to stay patient after Ilkay Gundogan missed a first-half penalty, but their opener arrived when Alisson pushed Foden's shot to the feet of the Germany midfielder.

Mohamed Salah equalised from the penalty spot, Liverpool's first home league goal in 410 minutes, before glaring Alisson errors took the game away from Jurgen Klopp's side again.

Foden superbly set up Gundogan when Alisson gifted him the ball, then the goalkeeper played another slack pass to allow Bernardo Silva to find Raheem Sterling.

England international Foden had the final say with a fierce strike that made him the youngest player to score and assist against Liverpool at Anfield in a Premier League game.

Victory moved City five points clear of second-placed Manchester United and 10 ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand over both, but Foden urged calm.

"It gives us every chance to go on and win it now but the job isn't done," the 20-year-old told Sky Sports. "[There is] a long way to go – just hopefully keep putting points on the table.

"When you beat the champions, everyone's confidence goes sky high. We haven't won here for a bit."

Foden won 10 of his 15 duels, while earning four fouls, and added: "It's brilliant, every player wants to play in a big game like this; we showed our courage from minute one.

"They played a brilliant game, made it so difficult for us, but we showed our courage to play the football, even when we lost it, and in the first half we still carried on playing our game.

"In the end, it paid off. I feel at times we were the slower team to get going. It was definitely better in the second half, so it's something to work on, to start better."

Foden felt Alisson's errors came due to City's pressing, the Brazil number one the first Liverpool goalkeeper to make two mistakes leading to goals since Loris Karius in the 2017-18 Champions League final.

Alisson made only a single save, the Foden shot from which Gundogan pounced on the rebound.

"We forced the errors," Foden said. "It's something we've worked on in training, everyone worked for each other today, and you get your rewards for it."

Manchester City took another big step towards the Premier League title as they thrashed Liverpool 4-1 on Sunday, a record-equalling 14th straight victory in all competitions.

Only Preston North End, whose run ended in January 1892, and Arsenal in 1987 have ever achieved such a sequence of wins while in England's top flight.

City can now set a new benchmark against Swansea in the FA Cup on Wednesday.

They have moved five points clear of second-placed Manchester United with a game in hand at the top of the Premier League, while Liverpool are back in fourth, 10 points off the pace.

Defending champions Liverpool were undefeated in 68 consecutive home league matches before hosting Burnley last month but have now lost three in a row at Anfield for the first time since September 1963, also being beaten by Brighton and Hove Albion prior to this fixture.

Chelsea, in March 1956, were the previous reigning champions to endure a three-game losing stretch at home in the top flight.

Liverpool at least ended a 410-minute home league goal drought with Mohamed Salah's penalty, cancelling out Ilkay Gundogan's opener.

The Reds avoided going four league matches at Anfield without scoring for the first time in their history, having drawn a blank in a draw with United prior to this losing run, but it counted for little in the end.

Gundogan preyed on an Alisson error for his second, before the Liverpool goalkeeper again ceded possession for Raheem Sterling to net his 100th goal under Pep Guardiola.

Alisson became the first Liverpool goalkeeper to make two errors leading directly to goals since Loris Karius' desperate showing in the 2017-18 Champions League final.

There was still time, too, for Phil Foden to add a spectacular fourth and cap City's first away win in this fixture since May 2003.

Aged 20 years and 255 days old, Foden, who teed up Gundogan's second, became the youngest player to score and assist in a Premier League game against Liverpool at Anfield.

Ilkay Gundogan scored twice as Manchester City secured a record-equalling 14th successive win in all competitions – and a first for Pep Guardiola at Anfield - with a 4-1 thrashing of struggling Liverpool.  

The Germany midfielder made amends for a first-half penalty miss with a brace after the break as the visitors cut loose to march five points clear at the Premier League summit.  

Alisson's poor clearance led to Gundogan's second of the game and the goalkeeper was also at fault for City's third, as Raheem Sterling headed in his 100th for the club under Guardiola. Phil Foden rubbed salt in the home side's wounds with a superb solo goal to round out the scoring. 

The result leaves Liverpool's title defence in tatters; they have lost three successive league games at home for the first time since 1963 and sit 10 points back having played a game more than the leaders.  

Mohamed Salah did end a home league goal drought spanning 410 minutes when he converted a penalty having been pulled back by Ruben Dias, but Alisson’s errors helped City respond in emphatic fashion.

Liverpool have received a triple fitness boost for their clash with Manchester City as Sadio Mane, Alisson Becker and Fabinho return from injury to start.

Fabinho is back following a three-game absence necessitated by a muscle issue, while Mane returns after a similar problem forced him to miss the Reds' last two fixtures.

Alisson, meanwhile, is back in goal after illness kept him out of the midweek defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield.

That trio's availability accounts for three of the hosts' four changes, with 20-year-old midfielder Curtis Jones replacing the experienced James Milner the other.

Manchester City, meanwhile, make two changes to the starting XI that beat Burnley in midweek, with Pep Guardiola opting against naming a recognised striker as Gabriel Jesus drops out for Phil Foden.

At the back, Aymeric Laporte makes way, with Oleksandr Zinchenko his replacement.

 

Budapest will stage the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie between RB Leipzig and Liverpool, UEFA has confirmed. 

The fixture had to be moved after Germany imposed travel restrictions on entry for arrivals from areas affected by COVID-19 mutations until at least February 17 – a day after the game was due to be played in Leipzig. 

Exceptions are in place for German citizens or residents but there are no special regulations for professional athletes, meaning Liverpool's squad would not be allowed entry into the country.

Rules put in place by UEFA do allow last-16 ties to be switched or, alternatively, moved to a neutral venue. 

In partnership with both clubs, the governing body has announced Leipzig and Liverpool will go up against each other at the Puskas Arena in the Hungarian capital instead.

"UEFA would like to thank RB Leipzig and Liverpool for their close cooperation and assistance in finding a solution to the issue at hand, as well as the Hungarian Football Federation for their support and agreeing to host the match in question," a statement from UEFA read. 

The fixture will remain on the original date on February 16, with the return leg then scheduled for March 10 at Anfield.

Trent Alexander-Arnold says Liverpool can have no excuses for their poor Premier League form as they have failed to do the basics this season.

The reigning champions are fourth in the table and seven points adrift of leaders Manchester City, who travel to Anfield on Sunday and also have a game in hand.

Liverpool have already lost four league games this term, which is one more than in the whole of their title-winning campaign of 2019-20.

That includes back-to-back losses at Anfield in the top flight for the first time since September 2012, having previously been unbeaten in 68 matches on home soil.

After storming to the title last term by an 18-point margin, a year on from going all the way in the Champions League, Alexander-Arnold accepts his side took winning matches for granted.

"Once you get accustomed to winning all the time, which we have been doing in the previous two seasons, you do get used to the feeling and you start to kind of expect it," he told Sky Sports.

"That's probably the trap we fell into this season in that we expected to win games because we're good enough, something will happen and we have that quality to find a goal from somewhere, which happened naturally last season and the season before.

"But really breaking it down, that didn't just happen because we were lucky, it happened because we worked hard, doing the basics and fundamentals right until the very last minute. 

"That really worked in our favour. The fact we were still doing it meant we were creating the right opportunities that we could score from.

"I think maybe this season we've forgotten a few of those fundamentals and we've just expected us to do that because it became so natural for us to do it.

"Every team goes through periods like this. You can't expect anyone to keep winning every single game, especially in a league like the Premier League. 

"It would be wrong of us to expect that from ourselves and for people to expect it of us. We want to, but I think in the back of our minds, we all knew this period would come at some point."

Liverpool have not been helped by long-term injuries sustained by Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez earlier in the campaign, with fellow centre-back Joel Matip now also out for the season.

Jurgen Klopp's men have kept just six clean sheets in 22 league games this term - only seven teams have a worse return - conceding in each of their last four outings.

But Alexander-Arnold, who has come in for criticism this term, insists injuries alone are not to blame for the Reds' drop-off in form.

"We're a team that's not going to sit here and make excuses," he said. "There are no excuses on our behalf because we've lost a few centre-backs and we haven't got fans - that's the same for everyone. 

"We've had a few injuries but that's football, you can't blame anyone for that. It's about us being able to adjust and adapt to the situation. We haven't done that as well as we would have liked to.

"With people talking about our centre-halves, it's not like we're conceding three or four goals a game. It's more about one goal, not keeping a clean sheet and not scoring at the other end.

"It's just about clicking as a full team and getting that rhythm back. I personally feel in the last few games, we have been doing that, bar the Brighton game… It's not as if our performances have been down in the gutter."

Liverpool have also struggled in an attacking sense, failing to score in any of their last three home league matches for the first time since October 1984, a run that amounts to 348 minutes ahead of City's visit.

Pep Guardiola's side have conceded just 13 Premier League goals this term, the best defensive record in the division, but Klopp is confident his attacking talents will soon click into gear.

"The creating of the moment [to score] is not really different and that means we come into similar positions but we don't score," he said. "Can we be more often in these areas? 100 per cent.

"We don't think and don't feel we do everything and destiny is against us, it's just the situation we are in. There's no dreaming or wishing, it's all about working and that's what we do.

"Am I concerned? In a normal way, yes of course, because these are the things we have to do in training. We work on things to bring the boys as close as possible to the point where they have to take the final kick. 

"That's what we've always tried and we'll carry on with that. That we change our approach in moments because of the opponent is clear as well. In the end, we have to make the right decisions."

Liverpool have lost just one of their last 29 home league matches against City - a 2-1 defeat in May 2003.

Will he leave Paris Saint-Germain or not?

That is the question regarding French star Kylian Mbappe.

Real Madrid are keen, but they are reportedly prepared to wait.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID WAITING FOR MBAPPE

Real Madrid have decided to wait to sign Kylian Mbappe until Paris Saint-Germain put the French star up for sale, according to Marca.

LaLiga champions Madrid have been tipped to sign Mbappe, who has also been linked with Premier League holders Liverpool.

PSG are trying to re-sign Mbappe as his contract runs out in 2022, and if they are unsuccessful amid their pursuit of Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, Madrid are ready to pounce.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca says Sergio Ramos' knee injury could spell the end of his illustrious career with Madrid. Ramos is out of contract at season's end and the star captain has been linked to the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, PSG, Chelsea and Juventus.

Liverpool are interested in Leeds United winger Raphinha, reports Football Insider. The Brazilian only moved to Elland Road at the start of the season.

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims Juventus are hoping to sign Roma sensation Nicolo Zaniolo.

Raheem Sterling's lack of goals at Anfield is of no concern to Pep Guardiola head of Manchester City's crunch trip to face Liverpool on Sunday.

The England forward has scored three times in his past four Premier League appearances, helping to prolong a nine-match winning run that has put Guardiola's men on top of the table.

Sterling is his club's top scorer in all competitions this season with 10, although his record against the team he left to join City in 2015 is paltry.

In 14 matches for City against Liverpool, the 26-year-old has scored twice - the opener in the 2019 Community Shield at Wembley and the second in a 4-0 win over Jurgen Klopp's freshly crowned champions at the Etihad Stadium last July.

Six return visits to Anfield have drawn a blank, but Guardiola believes Sterling's performances overall have been up to the mark - highlighting his contribution as City went down 3-1 last season on Merseyside.

"I remember last time, when we lost 3-1 there, he made an incredible, exceptional game," Guardiola said of an all-action display culminating in a flashpoint with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez, an incident that infamously spilled over into England duty the following week.

"With this, I am more than satisfied.

"Of course, I want my strikers and attacking midfielders to score - everyone, two goals a game.

"That's what I want and he wants more than me. He likes to play on the biggest stages.

"I don't have doubts about this. But what I want is us to do it all together."

Indeed, the goals that have fired City back to the summit following a poor start to the campaign - they can go 10 points clear of fourth-placed Liverpool with a game in hand if they prevail this weekend - have necessarily been a collective endeavour.

Sergio Aguero, the club's all-time leading scorer, remains on the mend following a bout of coronavirus, his season having already been decimated by knee and hamstring problems.

City's leading creator Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring) will also miss out this weekend, although the likes of Phil Foden (nine goals in all competitions) and Ilkay Gundogan (nine in all competitions, seven in the Premier League) have come to the fore.

Of City players to have scored six or more goals this season - Ferran Torres (eight), Gabriel Jesus (seven) and Riyad Mahrez (six) complete the group along - Sterling has the best shooting accuracy (excluding blocks) at 72.7 per cent.

Gundogan, whose first Premier League goal of the campaign only came in the 1-1 draw against West Brom on December 15, has the best conversion rate of 24.3 per cent, with Foden and Sterling together on 16.7 behind Jesus (18).

Sterling has registered the most shots on target with 32 but has missed 14 of what Opta classes as "big chances", scoring seven.

Foden, Gundogan and Torres have only missed 10 big chances between them. On that metric, Gundogan has the best conversion rate of 62.5 per cent (scored five, missed three).

Spain international Torres, whose campaign was interrupted around the turn of the year by a positive COVID-19 test, has the best minutes-per-goal rate of 169.6, ahead of Gundogan (188.4).

One goal every 220.6 minutes places Sterling fifth out of the six, ahead of only Mahrez on 303.2. This is down on 2019-20, when he averaged a goal every 128.7 minutes en route to 31 in total - the most prolific season of his career.

"Our top scorer in the Premier League is seven goals, maybe in 14th or 15th position [in the league overall]," Guardiola said.

"If we don't understand what we have done so far, all together, we are going to drop.

"Everyone is going to solve for us, everyone is going to save us. It's going to be the team, the group.

"When that happens, we can compete. When we believe, for myself, I am going to do it or this guy alongside me is going to solve the game, we are going to lose."

He added: "Our success all the time when we are together was the quality we had as a players in a team.

"In the individual statistics we are far away from the best clubs. But our statistics as a team are really good. That is why we are first."

Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden wants to spend the rest of his career with the club and cannot imagine playing anywhere else.

Boyhood City fan Foden came through the youth ranks and served as a ball boy at the Etihad Stadium before breaking into Pep Guardiola's first team as a 17-year-old.

This season he is enjoying an increasingly prominent role in Guardiola's plans and made his senior international debut with England.

Last month's 5-0 win at West Brom was Foden's 100th appearance for the City first team and, ahead of Sunday's crunch clash with champions Liverpool at Anfield, he told BBC Football Focus he is in it for the long haul.

"I can only see myself playing for Manchester City, considering how much I've supported them from a young age," he said.

"It always helps when you play for a club you support.

"When I was younger, it was a dream to play for the club, so never did I think I would make it to 100 appearances so early.

"I gave the shirt from that [West Brom] game to my family and they got it framed."

Foden was named player of the tournament when England won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and since then, both from the City fanbase and those outside the club, there has been a clamour for Guardiola to grant him more playing time.

Only Rodri and Raheem Sterling have made more than Foden's 27 appearances in all competitions this season, while his 1,836 minutes played are the sixth most in the squad.

A chunk of his 20 starts came earlier in the campaign in midweek cup encounters as City moved towards a fourth consecutive EFL Cup final appearance and negotiated a favourable Champions League group they shared with Porto, Marseille and Olympiacos.

However, since making a spot on the left wing his own in mid-December, he has unquestionably become one of Guardiola's go-to men.

In the Premier League, City's win percentage rises from 63.6 to 70 when Foden starts, while they average 18.2 shots across those games - up from 13.6 when he does not feature in the XI.

"I wouldn't say I'm doing anything different this season, just playing more of an attacking role," said Foden, who is joint-second in City's scoring charts in 2020-21 with nine goals.

"In previous years, I've played in the middle. Now I'm out wide and you always get confidence when you score in back-to-back games.

"Sometimes you get lucky when chances fall to you. I just enjoy scoring goals and that's what I wanted to add to my game."

City only won three of their first eight Premier League games this season, culminating in a 2-0 loss at Tottenham in November.

They have only dropped four points since then and boast a nine-match winning run in the top flight.

Guardiola's men are three points better off than Manchester United at the top of the table and seven clear of Liverpool in fourth, with a game in hand on both.

Pep Guardiola does not enjoy press conferences at the best of times.

As he sat down, drew his hands across his face and squeezed together a furrowed brow after Manchester City's 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City last September, he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else in the world.

"After 2-1 and 3-1 we were not strong enough to be stable and be patient," he said, having watched Riyad Mahrez fire his team into an early lead before they collapsed shambolically and gave away three penalties.

"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad."

The lack of belief Guardiola eluded to owed much to City playing through a fog of bitter disappointment that still cloaked them following the 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon the previous month.

A short turnaround to the new campaign was compromised by coronavirus cases and the overall impression was of something broken within a squad Guardiola was taking charge of for a fifth season – his longest spell at a single club.

At that moment, if you had been told one team would be unbeaten in 20 matches and the other would be seven points off the pace in the title racing heading into this Sunday's showdown between Liverpool and City at Anfield, your first reaction might have been surprise that the team from Manchester were only seven points behind.

THE ENFORCER

Two days after the Leicester debacle, Ruben Dias became City's record signing for £62million.

The void left by long-serving captain Vincent Kompany was considerable during 2019-20, with a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi's erratic form compounding matters at centre-back.

Wanting Dias to improve things was not too much to ask. However, his impact has been utterly transformative.

An instant mainstay, he has started three more games (26) than any of his team-mates across all competitions. Dias' one substitute outing came with City 1-0 down and facing FA Cup embarrassment at Cheltenham Town last month. They won 3-1.

The Portugal international's 2,298 minutes on the field are 228 – or two and a half games – more than any of his colleagues.

He leads the way in terms of headed clearances (34), while 57 aerials won and 32 interceptions have him second only to Rodri and Joao Cancelo within the City squad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his time on the field and position, Dias' 2,241 passes – at an accuracy of 93.4 per cent – are the most in the City squad, while his confidence in carrying the ball out from the back to start attacks underlines his suitability to Guardiola's style.

Dias' 470 carries – instances of him moving with the ball five metres or more – are the second best in the division, while he leads the way in the Premier League in terms of carries shifting the ball up field between five and 10 metres (177).

"He’s not just a player who plays good, he's a player who makes the other guys play good too," Guardiola said.

"It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.

"When that happens, it's difficult for me [to pick anyone else] and [Dias becomes] un-droppable."

This Dias effect is probably easiest to spot in John Stones, who is similarly one of the first names on Guardiola's team sheet this season, having been frequently passed over despite the sorry state of the defence last time around.

In the 11 Premier League matches Stones and Dias have started together in defence, City have won 10, drawn one and conceded just once – an injury-time consolation for Callum Hudson-Odoi during a 3-1 win at Chelsea.

Such dominant form did not simply come packaged up with Dias' transfer fee, though. During England's autumn and early winter months, Guardiola had another problem.

The team that pilfered 102, 95 and 106 goals in the previous three Premier League were struggling to find the net.

THE ARTIST

If getting hammered by Leicester marks the first pivot point in City's season, December's dour 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford is the second.

"There was no intent there, whether it was on the pitch, or from the managers to win that match," an unimpressed Gary Neville said on Sky Sports afterwards.

"If Jose Mourinho was the manager of either one of those two teams, we'd be killing them now. We'd be saying it's not good enough, it's boring, it's parking the bus."

Along with bringing in Dias, Guardiola tweaked his team structure after the Leicester game. Generally, Rodri would be accompanied by a second holding midfielder and his wingers would be inverted to guard against counter-attacks.

In the nine Premier League matches played after the Leicester game, up to and including the Manchester derby, City won four, drew four and lost one.

Over this period, they had the joint-best defence in the division with five conceded, level with Tottenham despite playing a game more. However, 12 goals scored was joint-ninth in the division alongside Crystal Palace, who managed the haul in eight outings to City's nine.

In terms of minutes per goal, City's 67.5 made them the 11th most prolific team in the top flight, below Newcastle United (65.45).

The creative burden sat largely with Kevin De Bruyne, who claimed five assists during these matches. No other City player supplied more than one.

On the face of it, the following game against West Brom suggested the pattern was set to continue. A 1-1 draw after dominating possession but creating relatively little until a stoppage-time flurry amounted to a dispiriting night's work at a soggy Etihad Stadium.

But Ilkay Gundogan's performance against the Baggies was indicative of the shackles being loosened. The Germany international scored and has not looked back.

From the West Brom match onwards, Gundogan has netted seven goals in 10 appearances – more than any other Premier League player during this time – to swiftly rack up the most prolific season of his professional career.

A look at the playmaker's pitch maps if we split the season in this way shows a deliberate effort from Guardiola to get further up the field a player he credits as having "a special sense of finishing".

Before facing the Baggies, Gundogan made more than 70 per cent of his touches in the middle third of the field, with fewer than 20 per cent in the final third. These figures have now shifted to 50.5 and 41.2 respectively. This has not only yielded an increase in Gundogan's goals return, but his chances created (22) since being granted a more attacking role can only be bettered by De Bruyne (23), although injury means the Belgium star has played three fewer games.

It is to Gundogan's credit that the PFA Players' Player of the Year is not being especially missed right now, while his smooth style wreaking havoc in the small pockets of space that deep-lying defences allow means David Silva's close-season departure is no longer being so keenly felt.

"Ilkay was one of the best players I ever coached. Especially in the 2012 season, he was unbelievable and played pretty much like he is playing now," said former Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp ahead of this weekend's reunion.

"Then he had, unfortunately, some injuries, really tough injuries, but that's now all sorted. He was always that player.

"When you are smart and experience comes into play as well, then it's another jump in your performance level. I'm not surprised at all."

THE WONDERKID

Actions do not happen independently within Guardiola's playing style of Juego de Posicion, where team structure is paramount.

In other words, Gundogan hasn't just been told to run into the box more often and see what happens. Changes have taken place to shift his position higher up the field.

One of these is a more aggressive approach with wingers.

"I didn't like much the way we were playing. We've come back to where we were in the previous seasons with the wingers wider and higher and come back to our principles," Guardiola explained.

"For many reasons – little rest, a lack of physical condition, the COVID many, many players had – we had to adapt the way we play for the quality of the players we had in that moment in better conditions.

"In the end, I felt wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and have more control in many aspects."

One of the players to thrive more than most within this set-up is Phil Foden.

Guardiola used the boyhood City fan in a variety of attacking positions before leaving him as a frustrated unused substitute at Old Trafford. Since then, every start Foden has made in City's on-going winning streak of nine Premier League matches has been on the left wing.

It marks a departure from the inverted wingers earlier on in the campaign, with the left-footed Foden generally deployed in parallel to Raheem Sterling on the right, the two England stars serving to stretch the area opponents have to defend and open up space for the likes of Gundogan and Bernardo Silva inside them.

Again, starting after the Leicester game and applying the same pre- and post-derby split as we did to Gundogan, Foden's numbers are on the up.

During City's period of consolidation, he created three chances in eight appearances (two starts) at a shade under one every 90 minutes. Since then he has created 18 at an average of 3.2 per game. With him in the side in the Premier League this term, City's shots per game rise average rises from 13.6 to 18.2

Foden's most important contribution during this period was the only goal in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion. He is another player helping to share the goal burden and make light of Sergio Aguero's on-going absence, with nine in all competitions.

Guardiola feels Foden's energy and dribbling ability, along with this goalscoring knack, gives City a vital attacking edge, even though he still views him as a "number eight" in the long term. For now, his right-back very often fills the latter position.

THE WILDCARD

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him," the City boss said of Joao Cancelo last month.

Now it is opponents who find themselves repeatedly baffled by where the Portugal full-back crops up on the field.

Creative use of his wide defenders is nothing new for Guardiola. During his time at Bayern Munich, he shifted the likes of Rafinha, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm inside, with the dual benefit of swarming central areas when in possession and having bodies to thwart the counter if the ball was lost.

Fabian Delph, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all operated in a similar fashion at times for Guardiola's City, although always with the primary aim of assisting the holding midfielder. While Cancelo does this to fine effect – another factor in Gundogan being unleashed – he also operates with a broader attacking brief.

Walker and Cancelo's touch maps for this season illustrate how Guardiola has used his senior right-backs differently.

Walker plays a full part in City's build-up from deep but the majority of his touches – 54 per cent – come on the right flank either side of the halfway line. This is the return of a fairly conventional right-back.

Cancelo's numbers are spread around, in part because of the games he has started at left-back. But 187 of his touches (12.5 per cent) have come in attacking central areas between the halfway line and the edge of the opposition penalty area, compared to 97 (7.6 per cent) for Walker.

Despite not always starting at right-back, Cancelo (231) also has slightly more touches than Walker (228) on the right-hand side of the final third, along with 162 in advanced positions down the left flank.

In short, he's everywhere and his value to attack and defence simultaneously is underlined by a high ranking within the City squad across a number of categories.

Cancelo is third among his team-mates in the Premier League this season for passes (1,108) and recoveries (88), joint-second for dribbles attempted (49) and chances created (31), second outright for tackles (32) and leads the way with 24 interceptions.

Some of those close to Guardiola believe the Catalan's innovations with full-backs are his greatest tactical contribution to football. With Cancelo, he is pushing the envelope once more.

THE MENTOR

One of the biggest reasons Guardiola felt comfortable doubling down on his footballing vision during – within the context of his career – a time of crisis can often be found sitting on the other side of a vacant, social-distance enabling dugout seat in animated conversation with the City boss.

Juanma Lillo was appointed as assistant coach at City last June. He and Guardiola go back much further.

When he played for Barcelona, Guardiola was so struck by how impressively Lillo's Real Oviedo played during a 4-2 defeat in September 1996 that he sought him out after the game.

A friendship was formed, and Guardiola closed out his playing days with Dorados de Sinaloa, purely so he could play under Lillo. Alas, there is no Netflix documentary for that period of the Mexican club's history.

Alongside the late Johan Cruyff, Lillo is considered to have had the most significant shaping influence upon Guardiola the coach, which makes his presence as City tried to plot a route away from mid-table earlier this season feel significant.

"It would not have been possible, what we have done so far – which is nothing [in terms of trophies], but being there in the table – without his influence on me," Guardiola said of Lillo last week.

"He knows exactly what I need to hear in the right moment. He sees something that I am not able to see, he has a special sense to read the game that is difficult to find worldwide.

"Especially in the bad moments, he is a guy who makes me feel calm and makes me see the real situation of the team. Juanma's influence during this period has been so, so, so important.

"He's important to me and that is what I need."

Watching the superb wins over Chelsea and at Manchester United in the EFL Cup after the turn of the year was to witness a realisation of the vision Guardiola and Lillo fanatically share.

An array of central midfielders streamed into the space where there was no specialist centre-forward, Cancelo roved with abandon and Dias and Stones launched attacks from in front of their bolted back door. Everything was connected.

In an interview with The Blizzard in 2012, Lillo was asked to qualify his assertion that there is no such thing as attack and defence.

"Of course. How can attack and defence exist if we don't have the ball. How can one exist without the other?" he said.

"You can't take things out of their context because they are no longer the same thing, even if you then plan to piece things back together again.

"You can't take an arm off Rafa Nadal and train it separately. If you did, when you put it back in it may create an imbalance."

Guardiola hasn't taken to hacking limbs off his players as with Lillo's Frankenstein Nadal, but he believes a key to their success lately has been using their legs less.

"The reason why we played not good was because, when we had the ball, we moved too much and ran too much. Football, when you have the ball almost you have to walk and run in the right moment," he explained, in a succinct summary of his and Lillo's philosophy.

"When we don't have the ball, we have to run like the last ball in your life. With the ball now we are more calm, more passes, everyone is more in the position and that's why we are able to play a little bit better."

Through standing still, City have taken a huge leap forward over recent weeks. If they are able to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003 – a game that launches a sequence of Premier League games against Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United – it will become a little bit harder to see anyone catching them.

Jurgen Klopp will not throw in new signings Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak for Liverpool debuts alongside one another against Manchester City on Sunday.

Davies and Kabak completed moves to Anfield from Preston and Schalke respectively on transfer deadline day, as Klopp moved to address an injury crisis in the heart of defence.

Joel Matip will miss the rest of the season with ankle ligament damage, joining long-term absentees Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez on the sidelines.

Davies was an unused substitute as a Liverpool team with Nat Phillips and captain Jordan Henderson at centre-back went down to a 1-0 midweek defeat against Brighton and Hove Albion - a result that leaves the champions seven points behind Premier League leaders City having played a game more.

Klopp conceded it will be helpful when he feels able to play the likes of Henderson and Fabinho in their favoured midfield roles but he will not make those switches at the expense of his team's overall stability.

"Now we have different options and that's good, the best news we could get," he said.

"Now we have to make sure the new boys get all the information they need as quick as possible.

"In another position, you can say 'play, try, we will see' but in defence the things we do are really clear.

"It's about holding the line, it's about dropping at the right moment - there are a lot of things that all teams do differently. We will see how quick we can do that."

Asked whether he would like to play two new central defenders at the same time, Klopp shook his head and replied: "No, if I don't have to, no."

City are on a winning run of 13 matches in all competitions and Klopp knows his men have to be on the money at the back, whoever is selected.

"Obviously City at the moment are in a slightly different moment than we are. We should not forget that," he said.

"One thing is clear, if you do not defend on your highest level against City you cannot even think of getting anything out of the game.

"But then there are the other moments where you have to be brave and that's what we try to be as well.

"There are other moments where you have to control, not the game but the situation, and we'll try that as well."

City last won at Anfield in 2003 and Guardiola has drawn one and lost five of his encounters against Klopp on Merseyside.

For plenty of those games, the visitors have been confronted by a febrile atmosphere - something that obviously will not be a factor this time around.

"Our situation is not talking about supporters in or out because we all know how much they help," Klopp said.

"We knew it always. For a long time we could ignore that, at least results wise. Now not in the last few weeks.

"We have to make sure that atmosphere, good or bad, doesn't make a difference.

"It's a football game. They don't have an atmosphere, we don't have an atmosphere. Let's go for it with all we have."

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