Manchester City – Liverpool: Frenetic and Furious Fight To The Finish Yet To Climax (2-2)
Duking it out for the top spot in the league, Manchester City and Liverpool went toe to toe at a critical juncture in the narrative. What manifested over the 90 minutes was a thrilling contest. An equal split of the four goals might not have produced a winner at the Etihad Stadium by the final whistle, but the manner of this tactical duel promised many more twists and turns ahead.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
April 2021 marked the advent of the Super League: a warped brainchild of elite executives. American owners bore the brunt of British wrath, but a year later, a redraft of their master plan has whetted the public appetite. At the apex of football, the paths of this pair of clubs have usually crossed in the last five years. But amid a fixture list akin to a playoff series, has this clash ever drawn more anticipation?
Manchester City, standard bearers for the game in England, are hunting for a treble. A point clear at the top of the table ahead of kickoff, wins over Southampton and Atlético Madrid have boosted bids for cup glory at home and in Europe. Indeed, chasing their fourth league title in the last half decade, they have crafted a ruthless regime of excellence to set themselves apart from the rest of the best in the Premier League. And yet, the sum total of their rival’s successes this season could trump it all.
How merciful will history be to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool? Their triumph in the Carabao Cup was more silverware for a manager whose leadership has rolled back the years for an institution of the English game. The crude numbers of the trophy hauls leave this outfit trailing in the wake of the Mancunian automaton, but a fabled quadruple is still on the cards. To have trumped City on all fronts by May 2022 is to take control of the master narrative of this era: the stakes have never been higher.
Pep Guardiola inevitably rotated the side that fought to a first leg victory in midweek. He called on the services of Kyle Walker at right back, forcing João Cancelo to swap to the left. Bernardo Silva dropped into the middle of the park, displacing Ilkay Gündogan, and only Raheem Sterling held onto his place in the front three. Hence, Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus made up the numbers in the attack.
Klopp likewise brought three men into the starting eleven. Joël Matip came in for Ibrahima Konaté as the right hand man next to Virgil van Dijk. Jordan Henderson also stepped back in to lead the guests, featuring on the right of the three in midfield in place of Naby Keïta. Upfront, Luis Díaz had dropped to the bench. So, Sadio Mané moved out onto the left flank, leaving the central spot for Diogo Jota.
City imitate Liverpool’s flow
The opening five minutes of the contest seemed to set a familiar tone. Keen to make City earn their gains, Liverpool pressed high up the field in their 4-3-3 formation. But they soon fell foul of their hosts’ quality in the final third. Alisson smothered an effort from Sterling in a 1-on-1 duel, only for a deflected strike from Kevin de Bruyne in the next phase of play to squirm into the back of the net.
Pep had plotted smartly. Rotating from a 4-2-3-1 block off the ball, his men deployed a double pivot to overload Jota. The lateral roaming movements of Kevin de Bruyne between the halfspaces loaded Liverpool’s midfielders, wary of the Belgian in their back and a free man ahead of them. Such central dynamics were familiar, but Pep went for a change of tact against the high block of the away team.
Having put Sterling into the striker role at half time against Atlético to create more depth in the attack, Pep placed the forward centrally again. Jesus was an ideal fit to post up against Andy Robertson and turn to the sideline from the right flank, while Foden had tormented the high line in the reverse clash in October. Long balls in behind the back four and switches offered City a different focus on the ball.
19th minute: offensive sequence from City. A third man rotation in the buildup forces Henderson and Salah to block progressive passing lanes, triggering the dropping movement from Bernardo to pick up the ball. The narrow front three creates space on the right flank, where Bernardo switches to Walker.
Continuity and change
If City intended to play more like Liverpool, turning to longer balls more often than usual, then the visitors sought to play, in turn, a little more like City. The intent in counterpressing to prepare for second balls was on show, but Klopp’s men caused problems with their changing outlook on the ball. Thiago’s dropping movements in the left halfspace, the flexible rotations on the right edge, and Matip’s ball carrying helped Liverpool break the lines to work their way into the final third.
A swift reply in the 13th minute highlighted their quality. Thiago’s pinpoint passing initially shifted the focus of the play to the right flank, a fullback to fullback switch drew attention away from Jota, and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cutback put the forward in acres of space to draw the sides level. But City refused to hand chances to their rivals to muster a threat, strangling dominance over the play.
29th minute: offensive sequence from City. Foden’s halfspace positioning pins Henderson, letting Laporte find Rodri, whose layoff engages Bernardo. His dribble draws the midfield laterally enough to open up the lane from Laporte to Foden again. If Alexander-Arnold drops off too early, Foden can receive the ball, pinning him long enough to give Cancelo license to make a diagonal run in behind. Notice how Stones widens to possibly connect to de Bruyne, delaying pressure from Liverpool’s left.
The left edge held the key. Rendering Henderson more passive, City targeted the room around Jota. Foden and Cancelo then struck up a clinical axis from the flank, doubling up on Alexander-Arnold to exploit room behind the back four. Indeed, it was a deep Cancelo run that led up to the second goal.
The sequence following from a corner off the back of his parried shot gained City another set-piece. The right back picked up the ball on the left, whipping a delivery to the far post, where Jesus had strayed free to clip the ball over Alisson in the 37th minute. How would Klopp’s men now respond?
Neutrals none the wiser
‘Perfect’ is the only way to describe Liverpool’s start to the second half. From their first attack after the break, Alexander-Arnold slipped a pass round the corner to Salah, whose gaze caught sight of Mané. In the blindside of Walker, the left winger bore down onto a through ball, slotting past Ederson. 2-2.
In the same way that they had grappled back control in the 2-2 draw at Anfield, Liverpool fought back at the Etihad. Ready for the long balls over their rearguard, the guests did not allow as much headway on their right flank. City took time to regain momentum, signaling an enthralling second half.
Just past the hour mark, it seemed the lead had swung back in favor of City. De Bruyne sent away Sterling, whose cool finish through the legs of Alisson put his old club on the back foot. The most marginal of offside calls kept the score the same, prompting both managers to turn to their bench.
It was a substitute that nearly decided the game at the death. De Bruyne surged away from Fabinho before dishing a through ball to Riyad Mahrez. The winger cut to the left of Virgil van Dijk, dinking an effort over Alisson, but a decisive block from Matip stemmed the danger. Parity again at full time.
Two heavyweights. Epic rivalry between Guardiola and Klopp but incredible respect also. pic.twitter.com/NpoO7RnodL— DaveOCKOP (@DaveOCKOP) April 10, 2022
The shifting playing field of this fixture speaks to the nous of the men in the dugouts. The former’s devotion to structure, patient buildup play from the back, and short passing persist. However, growing pragmatism on both sides of the ball has paved new ways to win. In the same way, Klopp’s men are not the heavy metal, full-throttle outfit of 2017. Still drawing strength from pressing and intensity, the development of player profiles in the squad and gameplans have molded a much more complete unit. From the crises both managers had endured in the last two campaigns, they have come out stronger.
The draw leaves us no closer to finding out who will win the Premier League in May. The FA Cup semi-final brings together these two clubs again at the end of this week, and the possibility of a seismic clash in the Champions League Final is still on the horizon. Bring on the final furlong.
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