Liverpool – Manchester City: Alisson Errors Hand High-Quality City Victory (1-4)
City started very strongly in the match with a good use of width with the ball and solid counterpressing against Liverpool’s transitions. Eventually Liverpool started to take more of the ball and City were content to control the spaces behind their defense. Guardiola’s pressing tweak at half-time preceded City taking the lead through İlkay Gündoğan. Mohamed Salah’s penalty gave City the equalizer, but Alisson then made two crucial errors which helped City to a convincing win.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
November’s meeting between these two sides ended in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. In that match, Jürgen Klopp threw up somewhat of a surprise by going with a 4-4-2 system to include Diogo Jota alongside the usual front three. In that match, Liverpool’s pressing and transition game looked strong, but City were eventually able to find the solution after tweaking their initial shape.
Since then, City’s fortunes have improved considerably after a shaky start to the season. Winning this game would have made it ten consecutive wins in the Premier League for Pep Guardiola’s side. Meanwhile Liverpool have found things tougher, struggling with injuries at the back and going through a five-game winless spell in the league entering the new year.
With the continued absence of Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool started once again with a Fabinho and Jordan Henderson center-back partnership. Ahead of them, Thiago Alcântara was in midfield alongside Georginio Wijnaldum and Curtis Jones. The frontline of their 4-3-3 system was the familiar trio of Mohamed Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané.
For City, there was also a key absence due to Kevin De Bruyne’s injury. Guardiola started without an orthodox striker, as Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden made up the front three in their 4-3-3 starting shape. At the base of midfield was Rodri, alongside İlkay Gündoğan and Bernardo Silva. Rúben Dias and John Stones continued their partnership at center-back after their solid form of late.
City use the width
The game started with City largely controlling the possession and looking more comfortable in buildup than one might expect against Liverpool at Anfield. It was apparent that using the width of the pitch would be key for them in this game.
City in possession.
Liverpool’s pressing shape was the familiar narrow 4-3-3 shape that Klopp’s side are known for. Against this, City essentially set up with a flexible 3-2-4-1 shape. The double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. was formed by João Cancelo stepping into central midfield alongside Rodri.
The other fullback, Oleksandr Zinchenko, did not really play as part of a back three, instead staying closer to the left touchline, with Sterling ahead of him. When City established possession higher up the pitch, he would then operate as an inverted fullback, with Cancelo doing similar in the right halfspace.
Bernardo Silva had an interesting role. His starting position in the 3-2-4-1 shape would be as the right-sided number ten. However, he often dropped deeper and wider into right back positions to give more width to City’s deep buildup. Here he could help create space by drawing out the nearest Liverpool midfielder when the home side were pressing. His strong ball handling skills also meant that City could use him on the right wing to help dissolve pressure in tricky situations.
With this shape, it was not uncommon for City to have double occupation on each wing, with Zinchenko and Sterling on the left, and Bernardo Silva with Mahrez on the right. Once they established possession higher up, Bernardo Silva and Zinchenko would move more central as already alluded to, but the wings were important for City to escape the narrow press of Liverpool, as well as the flat double pivot which City have used to good effect previously.
With Sterling and Mahrez holding the width in more advanced areas, City were keen as ever to use switches of play to get around the Liverpool block and allow their wingers to use their one-versus-one strengths.
City did not create much despite their early comfort though. They were unable to break down the Liverpool block once they had retreated into their own half. As a result, Guardiola’s side ended the first half with only two shots.
Liverpool grow into the game
The home side found it difficult to get into the game in the first 25 minutes or so due to City’s aforementioned possession game, but also the strong counterpressing game from Guardiola’s side, which meant Liverpool could not establish settled possession.
After this time period though, Liverpool actually went on to dominate possession in the latter portion of the first half. Where City had initially pressed high in their 4-3-3 shape, they now sat back slightly, sometimes falling into 4-4-2 arrangements, especially towards the end of the half.
The focus for City was towards protecting the space behind their own defense, which helps explain their deeper positioning once Liverpool had the ball. The main threat here was of course Salah and Mané in behind the defense.
This perhaps contributed to City’s pressing in wide areas as well. This was usually left to City’s central midfielders Bernardo Silva and Gündoğan to pressure Liverpool’s fullbacks when they had the ball. This allowed Cancelo and Zinchenko to stay tight to their center-backs when the ball was in wide areas, minimising the space in the channels for Salah and Mané.
Guardiola adjusts shape
As already mentioned, City already seemed to be falling more into 4-4-2 arrangements as the first half wore on. This adjustment was crystallized in the second half, as after the break City were now clearly pressing in a 4-4-2 structure, not just in deeper areas but higher up too. Foden and Bernardo Silva now acted as the front two, while Mahrez stayed on the right and Sterling on the left.
City’s 4-4-2 shape against Liverpool’s possession.
A possible advantage of this structure compared with the 4-3-3 shape was that City’s wide midfielders were able to more quickly pressurize Liverpool’s fullbacks when they received the ball, as opposed to having the central midfielders cover large distances.
With possession, City’s approach was largely unchanged. They came into the second half with a higher tempo, having faded slightly towards the end of the first period, and they were rewarded with a goal just five minutes into the half. Sterling cut in from the left, ghosting past Alexander-Arnold to set up Foden in the box. Foden’s shot was saved by Alisson but the rebound was picked up by Gündoğan who compensated for a first half penalty miss by putting City 1-0 up.
Liverpool had struggled to access the depth that Salah and Mané thrive on for much of the game due to City’s exemplary control of the space behind the defense described previously. However, just after the hour mark, a hopeful ball over the top by Alexander-Arnold put Dias into an awkward situation which led to him bringing down Salah for a penalty which the Egyptian scored to make it 1-1.
Alisson errors pivotal
After the equalizer both managers decided to make changes. Klopp freshened up his midfield with the introduction of Xherdan Shaqiri and James Milner in place of Thiago and Jones. Guardiola meanwhile brought on Gabriel Jesus with just under twenty minutes left, replacing Mahrez, meaning Foden moved out to the right.
Immediately, Foden was able to contribute from here with a dribble to pounce on Alisson’s poor clearance, squaring the ball for Gündoğan’s second goal. Another error followed shortly afterwards, this time letting Bernardo Silva set up Sterling to make it 3-1.
Foden then capped off an outstanding performance in the last ten minutes as he powered the ball into the roof of Alisson’s net to make it 4-1.
City played to a very high standard in the opening spell of the game. They then lost some control of the ball but did a good job of controlling the Liverpool attacking threat, as the defensive line continued to look solid. In the second half when the goals came, they got some luck with the Alisson errors. However, this should not serve to downplay the level of their performance, including individuals such as Bernardo Silva, Foden and Sterling who were impressive.
Liverpool competed well enough for much of the game but perhaps lacked the edge that they have had in recent seasons. The focus for them is now likely on securing a top four spot with a handful of teams within touching distance of their current 40-point tally. The more interesting debate going forward will be whether this is just a temporarily fatigued Liverpool team, or one in need of a more thorough refreshment in upcoming transfer windows.
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