Manchester City – Liverpool: Guardiola’s Box Midfield Rains On Liverpool’s Title Parade (4-0)
Manchester City performed a guard of honour for Liverpool before the game, but there was no title procession for Liverpool once the game began. City had an attacking scheme designed to find weaknesses in Liverpool’s compact 4-3-3 system and overwhelmed Liverpool to take a 3-0 lead in the first half, with Kevin De Bruyne being instrumental for Pep Guardiola’s side. City topped things off with another goal midway through the second half to seal the 4-0 victory.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
When the fixture list was drawn up for this season, a Premier League clash between Manchester City and Liverpool with seven games left to play would have been expected to be a potentially decisive match in the title race.
Instead, there is no real title race this year, and due to City’s defeat at Chelsea last week, they now hosted Liverpool with Jürgen Klopp’s side having already mathematically secured their title win. Liverpool themselves got off to a slow start post-lockdown with a draw at Everton, but then recovered to demolish Crystal Palace 4-0 in the subsequent match.
Perhaps the most notable team news for City was the inclusion of young center-back Eric García for his first start since sustaining a head injury against Arsenal. Phil Foden, who scored in the same game, also started. Pep Guardiola opted for a 4-2-3-1 system, placing Foden on the right alongside Kevin De Bruyne at number ten and Raheem Sterling on the left, supporting Gabriel Jesus up front.
Liverpool meanwhile started with the established first eleven in the 4-3-3 system that one would expect. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson made up the backline. In defensive midfield was Fabinho with Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum either side of him. Up front there was the familiar super trio of Mohamed Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané.
Pep looks for the pressing antidote
Last week against Chelsea, Guardiola already experimented with a box midfield against a 4-3-3 pressing system. In that match, it was Bernardo Silva playing as a false nine A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. who joined De Bruyne between the lines to create this shape.
City in possession.
This idea of a box midfield with two players in front of the opponents midfield and two players behind the opponents midfield between the lines is seemingly an idea that Guardiola has liked for a while as a potential antidote to the compact 4-3-3 pressing system deployed by the likes of Liverpool, which due to its aforementioned compactness can be so awkward to beat.
This idea has theoretical merit. The double pivot allows playing through the gaps either side of Firmino in the front line, where a lone six would probably just get marked out of the game by Liverpool’s striker.
City forming 4-2-2-2 shape on occasions in the first half with KdB and Foden between the lines. IMO, 4-2-2-2 can have potential against a narrow 4-3-3 pressing to help beat the first line and possibly create decisional crises for the FBs and CMs. pic.twitter.com/GGjDh6cO5p
— JM (@JMftbl) July 2, 2020
Furthermore, the fact that there are two players positioned both directly in front of, and directly behind the Liverpool midfield creates a potential decisional crisis for the midfield. If they drop back to cover the opponent’s attacking midfielders, they afford a lot of space to the double pivot, Two central midfielders next to each other. whereas they push forward onto the opponents double pivot, they leave large spaces behind them for the attacking midfielders to exploit.
The presence of two strikers in the channels threatening the space in behind the defense makes it harder for Liverpool’s defenders to push out to mark the attacking midfielders, or for the fullbacks to push up and pressure their opposite numbers.
City punish Liverpool’s defense
The foundation offered by the double pivot and fullbacks allowed City some stability with the ball, although not perfect. It is still always difficult to build cleanly through Liverpool because their pressing instincts are so strong.
Nevertheless situations arose – often in transition moments rather than organized possession – where City were able to expose Liverpool’s backline. On these occasions, they targeted the runs in behind fairly well, and the quality of the front four allowed them to make the most of these low number situations against Liverpool’s defenders.
The aforementioned 4-2-2-2 shape was not always the arrangement, especially in more transitional situations as it required Sterling and De Bruyne to cross over from their nominal positions, for example.
So there was also some variability in the positioning of the front four, where De Bruyne might stay more central and Sterling would drop in the left halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. as opposed to in their 4-2-2-2 shape where Sterling moved up front alongside Gabriel Jesus and De Bruyne played as a number ten alongside Foden.
Liverpool seek the direct route
Having operated with a 4-3-3 high pressing system post-lockdown, Guardiola returned to a slightly more passive 4-4-1-1 pressing shape for this game. Of course, the word ‘passive’ here is used in relative terms, as City’s pressing was still quite proactive and aggressive compared to the vast majority of teams.
Liverpool in possession.
City still tried to remain vertically compact and squeeze the game by pushing the defensive line up where possible. Naturally then, Liverpool looked to target them with direct passes, with Salah and Mané getting into the channels between center-back and fullback, stretching them with runs into depth.
City’s defenders were able to deal with the duels in most cases though. Liverpool were also somewhat forced to play more direct as City’s control of Liverpool’s defensive midfield space was quite strong, meaning the likes of Fabinho struggled to make meaningful contributions with the ball. Liverpool therefore created relatively little throughout the game.
City had taken the lead after twenty-five minutes thanks to a De Bruyne penalty after a foul on Sterling by Gomez. Ten minutes later, Sterling followed with a goal of his own with a close range finish. Then just before half-time, Foden added City’s third, playing a nice one-two with De Bruyne before beating Alisson with his less favoured right foot.
Klopp tried to add an attacking spark by bringing on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at half-time. This change saw Fabinho move back to center-back, and Henderson shifting to defensive midfield so that Oxlade-Chamberlain could play in central midfield.
Truthfully though, there was never a stage where Liverpool ever looked like getting back into it, and the game somewhat fizzled out as time went on. This was accelerated by City grabbing a fourth goal just after the hour mark. Oxlade-Chamberlain was unfortunate enough to divert the ball into his own net while sliding to try and block Sterling’s shot in the Liverpool box.
Sterling was playing up front for City as Gabriel Jesus had been replaced by Riyad Mahrez, which prompted a reshuffle as Foden moved over to the left to accommodate Mahrez playing on the right. Klopp had also made more changes prior to the goal as Naby Keïta and Divock Origi made appearances to replace Wijnaldum and Firmino.
The game was effectively over at this point, and more changes followed for both sides. João Cancelo, Nicolás Otamendi and Bernardo Silva made entrances for City. For Liverpool, promising right back Neco Williams replaced Alexander-Arnold, and Takumi Minamino was given a short run out in place of Salah. The game’s result was long since decided though, as City ran out 4-0 winners.
A win like this obviously carries a bittersweet taste for City. It does not make a meaningful difference in terms of the Premier League table, as the title is out of reach and European qualification is likely irrelevant too due to ongoing legal proceedings. What Guardiola will hope for though is that it can give them confidence which can be carried through the rest of the domestic season and beyond into the remainder of the Champions League games.
Furthermore, on a basic psychological level, such a resounding win will be very satisfying after having to give a guard of honour to Liverpool before the game. Tactically, Pep’s idea of using a box midfield to beat Liverpool was given some further validation, and the evolving tactical duel between these two coaches will hopefully continue to entertain in seasons to come, as it has been one of European football’s defining narratives in recent years.
For Liverpool, the performance was obviously below their standards. It is perhaps understandable that the first match after their title celebrations would turn out to be like this. The result will be frustrating, but in the grand scheme of things, it does not register compared to what they have achieved.
Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.
Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.