Liverpool – Manchester City: Guardiola and Klopp’s game plans neutralize each other in very careful Premier League clash (0-0)
The clash of this young Premier League season never took off. City’s Riyad Mahrez had the only big chance in the game, in the form of a late penalty-kick, which he missed. How Guardiola and Klopp’s respect for each other led to a highly anticipated game with almost zero chances.
Football logic is the hardest type of logic, still. Liverpool and Man City are two of the teams with the most attractive, positive playing styles in all of European football. Last year, all four of the meetings between them were among the most spectacular games of the season. So, a fun and dynamic 90 minutes were almost guaranteed, right?
When you least expect it, football logic – that is, the complete absence of any logic; the confirmation that football is still a highly illogical, at times very unpredictable game – will strike. And boy oh boy, did it strike in this encounter between Liverpool and City.
The two top teams in English football – in European football, perhaps – truly canceled each other out in this game. For those who did not watch the game, and are reasonably skeptical about the fact that this game offered little to nothing when it came to tangible changes or exciting moments, because Liverpool and City are usually two of the most fun teams to watch, here is some proof:
An extremely flat line shows the total absence of reasonable scoring attempts, apart from the penalty for Manchester City near the end.
But if you only conclude that this game, especially the first 65 minutes, wasn’t fun to watch – it wasn’t, though – you are kind of missing the point. Because what we did see in this game, from a tactical point of view, is how two of the best offenses in world football can be shut down.
How Liverpool neutralized City: golden attacking trio demands caution and respect
Pep Guardiola is a brilliant coach – we all know that. However, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, with their machine-like well-drilled pressing and ability to dominate games offensively without having possession of the ball, are a mismatch for his side.
Since the start of last season, Man City have played 63 official games against teams not named Liverpool. Guardiola’s side has managed to win a truly astonishing total of 53 of those, drawing five times and losing five times.
After a 5-0 home win against Liverpool in September of last year – aided by an early red card for Sadio Mané – City lost their next three outings against Liverpool, including a knockout in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Of the nine Liverpool goals in those three games, seven were scored by either Mané, Roberto Firmino or Mohamed Salah. With their dynamism on the ball, positional versatility and explosive speed to serve as deep passing options, Liverpool’s golden attacking trio has absolutely murdered City in transition offense in the past three meetings.
In Sunday’s game, Guardiola did not change his offensive formation from the last time City faced Liverpool. Just like in the two Champions League fixtures against Liverpool, Guardiola opted for a buildup from a sort of 3-2-4-1 formation, with left-back Benjamin Mendy, who returned from injury, positioned very high up the field, while right-back Kyle Walker dropped back as a third central defender, whenever City had the ball.
City’s positioning and general movements in possession.
With Salah, Mané and Firmino – who also had the important job of cutting off the passing line towards Fernandinho – initially positioned high up the field, and executing quite an aggressive press, City’s buildup was tested, bent, but never broken. Liverpool’s press forced the visitors to play out of the back quickly, inducing a lot of City turnovers around midfield in the first half hour.
The ‘three plus two’ buildup of City eventually won the war of attrition against the Liverpool press. By consistently playing long diagonal outlet passes towards Mendy and Mahrez on the flanks, outside of Liverpool’s defensive block, City used the width of the pitch to tire out Liverpool’s front six in their pressing. This meant that the passing windows for the center-backs towards midfielders Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva opened up more as the game progressed.
But this game of chess between City’s buildup and Liverpool’s press took more than an hour to be decided. Uncharacteristically, Guardiola never made changes to his team’s tactical setup to get to an offensive solution earlier. The City manager always kept the utmost respect for the speed in transition of Firmino, Salah and Mané. Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva kept dropping deep to collect the ball, and the passing decisions of Walker, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte out of the back never got as assertive as they usually do.
City’s passmap illustrates their cautious build-up play as well as their general deep stance.
City did not take any risks in possession in this game. From a defensive point of view, this strategy worked excellent. Liverpool were not allowed any real chances, at Anfield – any opposing defense dreams of such a scenario.
From an offensive point of view, all of the danger that City was able to create came after the 60th minute, and all of it in transition. Mahrez found space behind Liverpool’s fullback, once on the left, twice on the right, but his attempts were not of the ‘highly dangerous’ variety.
City’s biggest chance came when David Silva was able to launch substitute Leroy Sané in the back of Joe Gomez, after Firmino lost the ball around the halfway line. Virgil van Dijk fouled a fully-at-top-speed Sané in the penalty box. With first choice penalty taker Sergio Agüero already subbed out, Mahrez took the spot kick and missed it, drilling it high over the bar in the 86th minute.
How City neutralized Liverpool: patience, patience, patience
With the danger of Salah, Firmino and Mané up front, and a midfield consisting of players that have the (somewhat unfair) reputations of being workmanlike types, some teams are tempted to aggressively press Liverpool when they are building up play from the back.
This is where Guardiola deviated from his game plan against Liverpool from last year. In the Champions League meetings between these two, City tried to aggressively press and counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. Liverpool, leading to a lot of chances for the Reds out of direct, long passes forward. On Sunday, we perhaps saw the most cautiously defending Man City in the entirety of Guardiola’s tenure.
By their normal standards, City dropped back really deep. David Silva joined Sergio Agüero up front when Liverpool’s defense was in possession of the ball, but the Spaniard’s main task was to avoid Jordan Henderson from getting the ball too far up the field.
Liverpool’s positioning and general movements in possession.
Henderson frequently dropped back in between his two central defenders, and when he did not, one of the fullbacks would stay behind as a third central defender in the buildup. Furthermore, Wijnaldum, Milner and later on the swapt-in Keïta, also dropped back a lot to help in possession. All these patterns meant that Liverpool often committed five players to their buildup, while City effectively only pressed with one and a half attacker.
This extremely cautious status quo meant that City’s last two banks of four always had enough spare men to snuff out any semblance of danger from Liverpool’s attacks. Liverpool’s offense only had three dangerous moments in the game. In the fourth, 62nd and 69th minute, Salah used his speed to wriggle free for a second, but the sheer amount of spare City defenders proved too much, with all the shots not coming close to actually testing Ederson’s reflexes.
If it wasn’t for the late penalty that Manchester City earned, both teams would have had equally little rights to claim that they ‘lost two points’ in this game.
Guardiola will probably be the most content out of the two managers, seeing that his team traveled to Anfield, and did not allow one clear cut chance to Liverpool. The switch to a very passive, cautious defensive strategy, tells you all you need to know about how Guardiola views, and respects, this Liverpool side.
For the second time in five days, Klopp’s Liverpool was shut down offensively. In midweek, Napoli also did not give up a single chance to Liverpool’s high-powered attack. The similarities between Napoli and City’s cautious approach from a medium-height 4-4-1-1 block, feed the thought that Liverpool will encounter this defensive shape a lot more this season.
The international break – and an upcoming softer spell in schedule in Premier League play – comes at the right time for Liverpool. Their attackers seem to be in dire need of some rest, to regain their optimal form.