Manchester City – Liverpool: Fourth Round Thriller At The Etihad (3-2)
Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp do not know how to disappoint. Shaking off any malaise from the World Cup, their men produced a thriller in which the more dominant outfit got their way.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
From the pinnacle of the international game, attention turns back to the club arena. Aptly, two outfits that have been a benchmark toward the top of the European game were ready to lock horns again.
However, neither has hit the same heights in the recent past. Manchester City acquired the services of Erling Haaland in the summer, bringing in an old school striker to push the boundaries of their new age style. Their new talisman has delivered the goods, racking up a tally of 18 goals within a mere 13 games, but the team sit five points adrift of the top of the table. In order to set the tone for their assault on the summit in 2023, another step toward a successful bid for the Carabao Cup would not go amiss.
Liverpool’s falloff has been far more blatant. Languishing in sixth place, they are further ten points behind their hosts. At times, Jürgen Klopp’s men have shown their strength. Yet, too often, frailties at the back and stagnancy in possession have hurt their displays on the field. Nevertheless, all is not lost. Four victories from their last six league fixtures suggested mounting momentum in the prelude to the World Cup. Have they shaken off their sleepy start to the season, or are there more bumps in the road?
Klopp picked a senior side to defend the trophy. James Milner filled in at right back, Joël Matip and Joe Gomez were in central defense, and Andy Robertson was on the left of the back four. Tested out in the Dubai Super Cup, youthful prospect Stefan Bajcetic sat at the base of midfield behind Thiago Alcântara and Harvey Elliott. Mo Salah, Darwin Núñez, and Fábio Carvalho featured in the attack.
Pep Guardiola followed suit. Once more, he gave Stefan Ortega and Rico Lewis starting spots in the Carabao Cup, while Nathan Aké and Aymeric Laporte comprised the left edge of the back four. Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gündogan had been back from World Cup duties for a week, taking to the pitch in front of Rodri. Cole Palmer flanked Haaland to his left, and Riyad Mahrez operated on the right.
City start with intent
Having failed to win the Carabao Cup only once in the last five years, City were intent on taking back their annual crown from Liverpool. At the heart of their dominant opening to the contest was Lewis. The right back has shown himself to be comfortable operating from the inner and outer lanes of the field on the ball under Pep, whose praise centered on his defensive work after the final whistle.
Pep Guardiola on Rico Lewis: "Without him we couldn't play the way we played. I was really impressed. He'll be an incredible player for #ManCity in the next few years. He's so intelligent, so humble. He's 18 and he was outstanding, he was man of the match." [via @TyMarshall_MEN]— City Xtra (@City_Xtra) December 22, 2022
However, his role in possession was more prominent in the first quarter of an hour, thanks to City’s control. On the ball, his team rotated into a 3-2-4-1 shape. This structure did not rely on a midfielder dropping next to Rodri like at Anfield in October. Instead, Lewis moved into the right halfspace and formed a double pivot with the defensive midfielder. Gündogan and de Bruyne were at the top of the box in the middle of the park, while the depth from Palmer, Haaland, and Mahrez stretched the field.
Klopp sent out his men in a 4-3-3 formation but noted compactness issues that City exploited. Pep’s men broke the lines time and again, and in the end, the hosts took the lead within the first ten minutes. De Bruyne had roamed over to the left flank, received a pass down the line from Palmer, and whipped a cross toward the near post. Haaland was on the blindside of Gomez, then attacked the space where the ball was about to drop and forced an effort beyond Caoimhin Kelleher into the back of the net.
6th minute: offensive sequence from Manchester City. Núñez stepped forward to engage Laporte, so Lewis dropped deeper and hits a first time pass into the path of Rodri. The striker and Thiago both retreat to cover, so Rodri and Lewis can work the ball backwards again to Laporte. Carvalho then sprints in an arcuate manner to increase ball pressure, but City can get free on the outside. Akanji pivots to his right, de Bruyne drops off on the flank to lure out Robertson and Haaland runs deep.
Núñez encourages the direct approach
Off the ball, City set up in an asymmetric 4-2-3-1 system. Mahrez moved inside to support de Bruyne’s coverage of Bajcetic and Thiago. The right winger moved forward to press Gomez while Lewis jumped higher to close down Robertson and Akanji shuffled to take care of Carvalho. On the other hand, if the ball were on Liverpool’s right flank, Palmer watched out for Milner, and Lewis dropped off into the backline to allow the central defenders to stem the threat of Salah and Núñez.
3rd minute: pressing sequence from Manchester City. Lewis stood detached from the rest of the back four to be able to press Robertson once he received the ball and Akanji marked Carvalho. Pressure from Haaland and Mahrez, who split coverage of Thiago with de Bruyne, managed to force the play outward to Liverpool’s left back. He turns inward to break the lines, but Rodri intercepts his pass.
But gradually, the visitors gained a foothold in the contest. Once they forced City deeper into a more standard 4-4-2 formation, their asymmetries on the ball targeted the channels. Thiago rotated deeper than Elliott in the left halfspace, Robertson loaded the right edge of City’s defense as the higher of the fullbacks, and Matip drove forward with the ball at his feet on the right. From here, Liverpool found joy in the channel to the inside of Aké. Firstly, Núñez hit the outside of the post from this zone as a warning signal. Minutes later, Milner assisted Carvalho with a cutback toward the edge of the box.
The two teams went level on the score line at the break, but both had shown how they could muster a threat. City were more dominant, continued to move the ball patiently through the thirds, and found the wide men with frequent switches of play as an outlet. Conversely, Liverpool’s forwards, and above all Núñez, could breach gaps in more transitional circumstances. So who would come out on top?
Klopp made a double substitution ahead of the second half. Bajcetic made way for Fabinho, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on in place of Carvalho on the left of the front three. But the first three minutes of action after half time indicated neither outfit had fully learned to stifle the other’s weapons.
Rodri’s pinpoint switch picked out Mahrez in the 46th minute. The winger chopped onto his left foot with an exquisite first touch that removed Robertson from the game then whipped a strike into the corner of the net. However, moments later, guests responded. Oxlade-Chamberlain wriggled away from the pressure of Rodri before arrowing a pass down the channel for Núñez to chase. The striker stole a march on Laporte and squared a cutback to Salah for the second equalizer of the night.
The final say would fall in favor of the home team. De Bruyne had again drifted to the left flank, earning a corner. Liverpool were slow to prepare for the set-piece routine, and City duly punished them. De Bruyne bounced the ball off Palmer to work a better crossing angle, then delivered to the far post. Nat Phillips leaped but could not clear the danger, letting Aké stoop and bury a headed effort.
Club football is back. 🥰 pic.twitter.com/vRHEoOBh5d— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) December 23, 2022
While both teams would have enthralled the neutral, Manchester City will be glad to have won in this duel. Their pressing and use of the ball look different from game to game, and the first quarter of an hour in this game presented problems that Liverpool needed time to solve: the work of Lewis took the limelight as the academy product impressed. Some figures in the setup will require time to get back to full speed, but it is a solid first step for Pep in what he will hope is a rampant backend to the season.
It is a frustrating result for Klopp. Systemic issues held his men back at the start of the match, and individual flaws were costly in the buildup to all three goals— especially the winner from Aké. At the other end of the pitch, Núñez was profligate in the final third, and his manager will wonder what could have been if he was wearing his shooting boots. And yet, Liverpool still managed to pose problems in shorter spells, staying on City’s coattails till the final whistle. A lack of dominance did not render them without a threat, but the aim will be to fit all the pieces together more consistently.
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