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What went wrong for Manchester City against Liverpool?

Tactics? Motivation? It's not exactly clear what went wrong for Manchester City at Liverpool, but something did.

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Here is what happened on Sunday lunchtime at Anfield, in one sentence, a sentence that contains within it everything anybody might possibly need to know about the game that effectively ended Manchester City's hopes of defending their title and, as such, ended their season:

Joe Allen outplayed Yaya Touré.

That's not a dig at the little Welshman, who had an excellent St. David's Day. But in that one inverted mismatch sits all the possible ways in which Manchester City -- champions, more powerful, theoretically better -- were beaten by Liverpool, first disconcerted and then overwhelmed by their opponents.

Much of the immediate post-match criticism focused on Manuel Pellegrini's tactics, and specifically his decision to visit an in-form Liverpool at an in-a-good-mood Anfield and play two strikers. 4-4-2 isn't necessarily a suicidally open approach to playing football -- ask any of Atlético Madrid's opponents -- but Pellegrini's preferred version, involving well-advanced fullbacks, two largely advanced strikers and nobody of great positional discipline in the middle, does come with certain vulnerabilities when not in possession.

Asked after the game about Vincent Kompany's form -- City's captain played, once again, like a man with toothache and a large outstanding gas bill -- Pellegrini, perhaps unsurprisingly, preferred to take a holistic view:

I am concerned about the whole team. We started this week against Barcelona and then today, it was not our team — we cannot lose so many balls with the technical players we have. That is more important than to analyse than the performance of one player. It is more important to think as a team.

In essence, he's acknowledging that whatever the purpose of the 4-4-2 in attack, it's a bit of a mess in defense, particularly against teams playing quick, direct football. It leaves Kompany and his partner exposed, it traps the fullbacks up the pitch, and it leaves huge spaces between the lines of defense and midfield. As such, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling -- who, while no Barcelona front line, are at least happy to try and play in the same places -- were able to drop off, collect the ball, and turn and run at the defense, while behind them Jordan Henderson and our hero Allen always had passing targets available. Perhaps that's why he was able to outplay Touré: he was part of a team in a shape that made sense.

There's a problem, though, with assuming that tactical failings are the extent of a footballing failure. Just as the most willing collection of footballers can be undone by tactical idiocy, so can the best set-up team in the world fall to pieces if none of its players give a toss. Sport watchers are all terrace/armchair/barstool psychologists, self-proclaimed experts at deducing the mental state of athletes from their grimaces and gesticulations, from the slumps of their shoulders. And to any eye on Sunday, City looked not quite there.

Both Silva and Nasri, bearing the creative responsibility, drifted in and out of the game, while Touré himself -- despite having missed the midweek defeat to Barcelona -- never clanked his way up through the gears. Pablo Zabaleta looked as sluggish as he ever has. Kompany did lots of pointing, but Kompany always does lots of pointing. And in comparison to their hosts, who fairly fizzed around the pitch, City spent long spells looking dangerously disinterested. Maybe that's why Allen was able to outplay Touré: the former was straining, the latter strolling.

It is, of course, hard to actually see into a footballer's motivations -- or lack of them -- with any degree of clarity. It wasn't hard to see, however, that City looked at times a beat slower than their opponents. It's been a theme of this season, but the fact that City's squad is aging all together was thrown into sharp relief by Liverpool's youthful buzzing. Martin Skrtel, a veritable grandfather, was Liverpool's only starting player over 26; City, by contrast, started with just one player younger than that mark, the 24-year-old Eliaquim Mangala. An average outfield age of 23.5 played 28.1, though at times it looked more like 38.1. Perhaps that's what this was: Allen's lightly raced legs against Touré's creaking bones.

Pick your favorite. Did Pellegrini's tactics and selections hang his players out to dry, or has his trophy-laden, well-paid, post-title triumph dressing room simply lost its edge? Have City got suddenly old, all together, and has the manager therefore been left exposed by a malfunctioning backroom staff? Could it, perhaps, be a bit of everything? Along with Liverpool playing really well and scoring a couple of absolute belters, obviously. Probably shouldn't forget that. Joe Allen did outplay Yaya Touré, after all, and that wasn't entirely the Ivorian's doing.

How much of this is the manager's fault is debatable: he takes most of the blame for bad tactics; he takes some of the blame for okay tactics that his players can't, or won't, implement; he will carry the can for a lack of motivation, even if that might not be entirely fair; his role in the shaping of the squad is, at most, contributory. But that doesn't matter: this is football, and when football teams go bad, football managers get the blame and the sack. The clock is ticking for Pellegrini. Yaya Touré, outplayed by Joe Allen. Not a great look, however you slice it.