Manchester City – Liverpool: Interiors Give City Stable Ground To Attack (4-1)
Mohamed Salah’s curled effort tried to change the narrative, but Liverpool had no solution to stop Kevin de Bruyne from being engaged. He and İlkay Gündoğan stretched their double pivot, built the pathways to the wingers and arrived in the box as Manchester City cruised to victory.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
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Long have these two set the example at the forefront of football, but the Premier League has not been closer to a change in axis than now.
To an extent, the current champions have upheld their end of the bargain. Pep Guardiola’s chess moves have left his pieces too static at times, something which has led Arsenal to build an eight-point advantage on top. However, City went into this game picking up steam and consistently solid in the defense.
The regression of Liverpool has been more dramatic and more of a puzzle. Jürgen Klopp’s team is still able to launch effective counterattacks, but other elements in their play appear more fragmented: none more so than their press losing its coherence. In a season where they can trash Manchester United 7-0 and follow it by losing to Bournemouth, which version of Liverpool would turn up to the Etihad stadium?
Having withdrawn from international duty, top goalscorer Erling Haaland was unavailable due to a groin injury. He was one of six changes, from the team that faced Burnley in the FA Cup. Ederson, John Stones, Manuel Akanji, Nathan Aké, Jack Grealish and Gündoğan all came back into the team.
Liverpool made two changes to the team that was knocked out of the Champions League, away to Real Madrid. James Milner and Darwin Núñez were replaced by Jordan Henderson and Harvey Elliott.
Klopp deploys the 4-2-3-1 formation
Earlier in the season, Klopp called his players to go back-to-basics, so a return to a 4-2-3-1 formation off the ball seemed fitting for a more reserved strategy. He also had his forwards assembled in a slightly different manner, with Mohamed Salah central, Cody Gakpo behind and occupying John Stones (who appeared next to Rodri), whilst Diogo Jota played left and Harvey Elliott on the opposite side.
With sporadic pressing moments, attempting to force City inwards, Liverpool boxed around the double pivot and also committed Fabinho or Henderson in situational phases. However, this was not met with the same intensity or coherence as yesteryear. City was not stopped from engaging shortly as they moved into their 3-2-4-1 system: Akanji, Rúben Dias and Aké were the established backline.
In possession, the dynamics of the team were more common of the Liverpool side we have seen as of late. Gakpo dropped out of the center space onto the left side of the pitch, much like a false nine without the heavy ball interaction, whilst Jota and Salah took up either the middle of the field or stuck out wide.
16th minute: Buildup to Liverpool goal. Fabinho was left free to pass to Alexander-Arnold, whose long ball exploited the defensive shifting that took place within City’s backline.
Nevertheless, it is working the ball into chaotic areas where Liverpool can still play effectively. An aggressive City counterpress forced their buildup backwards, but Kevin De Bruyne was left with both Henderson and Fabinho in the center. Fabinho played vertically to Trent Alexander-Arnold, which dramatically altered City’s defensive line. Aké stepped up and Jota charged straight through the middle as Dias followed Salah. Akanji may have recovered, but the ball sat perfectly for Salah to meet on his left foot.
De Bruyne drifts into action
The game state was not changed after the Liverpool opener. City continued to flow through Liverpool lines and it was thanks to central movements that carved through the defensive block. Rodri and Stones were hardly static, but even micro-movements gave City access, due to Gakpo’s left-sided orientation and Salah unable to close the gap quickly enough. The double pivot was certainly attached to the passing framework and the consequence came from De Bruyne’s increased influence in front of the Liverpool center-backs.
Once the lane was open to the center-midfield duo, the next ball up to Julián Álvarez was open too. A wall pass from Álvarez was often met by De Bruyne, able to move inwards due to Gündoğan drawing Fabinho and Henderson engaging ahead of him. On the ball, Man City was tilted more towards the left side, which led to shorter exchanges on that side and slightly longer passes on the right. With the tilt on the opposite side, De Bruyne could receive in more space and face the goal.
20th minute: Example of City breaking Liverpool lines. Stones moved out of Gakpo’s cover shadow, to pass to Rodri facing forwards. De Bruyne laterally runs infield to connect to the wall pass from Álvarez, before playing the ball out wide.
After the ball left his feet, the Belgian continued to charge forward, regardless of what side he worked towards. He could assist the winger with a direct run in the fullbacks blindside, a vintage run from a City attacker, or wrap around as Jack Grealish or Riyad Mahrez dribbled infield. Minutes after going a goal down, De Bruyne helped orchestrate a move down the left, moving inside of Grealish as the winger dinked the ball into his path. His cutback was mishit by Gündoğan and nearly connected with Álvarez, with Mahrez in a shooting position.
However, it did not take long for City to equalize. As the ball funnelled towards Akanji, De Bruyne signalled, to the wide center-back, to find Mahrez, who moved behind Andrew Robertson. The Belgian helped the ball along, as Klopp held his head in his hands before Mahrez dribbled inside and Gündoğan put the ball behind the last line for Grealish. Alexander-Arnold kept him onside, as Grealish found Álvarez for a comfortable finish close to goal.
Liverpool had brief phases on the ball before the first half came to a close; but after they scored, the wide split around Alisson Becker, followed by a long ball towards the forwards, was very ineffective in creating chances. Man City was able to rapidly progress up the field, once their opponent’s block had unravelled.
Interchangeable City run riot
45th minute: Buildup to City’s second goal. High pressure from Alexander-Arnold, off a City goal kick. Pass down towards Grealish remained open and De Bruyne turned up in a similar position as to Jota in the first half.
Fifty-one seconds into the second period and Guardiola’s team completed the turnaround. It wasn’t the first time that Alexander-Arnold has been positioned in the final third, on opposition goal kicks, but failed to cover the space as he counterpressed on Gündoğan’s interception. A channel pass from Aké found Grealish and Álvarez, against a poorly staggered Liverpool defense. De Bruyne sprinted into the striker position, Álvarez switched to Mahrez and Alisson just missed the low cross for De Bruyne to knock the ball in.
As the half continued, the ground was built for a more interchangeable City started to come through. Distances between Rodri and Stones grew, in phases where Rodri tucked between Aké and Dias, Stones moved towards the ball side and De Bruyne came closer to the defensive line. The third goal would soon come after a long possession spell, with Stones higher up the pitch than De Bruyne and Aké positioned next to Rodri in the midfield. Mahrez dribbled and Álvarez shot, but the ball landed at Gündoğan’s feet on the edge of the six-yard box to score.
In the next phase, Jota found Gakpo from Van Dijk’s long pass, the effort from Gakpo deflected but bounced just wide. Not only was this their first attempt since Salah scored, but it would be their last with just under forty minutes still left to play.
60th minute: Example of City’s tilting against Liverpool’s passive defense. Gündoğan came ball side, as Rodri was positioned in the backline to stretch. Overload was created and progression was made to Mahrez, before he switched to Grealish.
City found a different rhythm in their ball circulation. In the first half, their positions appeared a lot stricter when orientated around the ball. In the second, more rotation was showcased, with the aforementioned movements between Rodri, Stones and De Bruyne, as well as Gündoğan who could also move towards the ball side when the ball was positioned with Akanji.
Guardiola kept the ladders towards the wingers, through vertical passes or interiors in the halfspaces, but his players added more flexibility through Liverpool lines. In the second half, the players tilted in both channels and freely kept the ball in opposition gaps that were far too large. With Rodri positioned in the defensive line, this forced Liverpool to cover more space out wide and positions back inside continued to open.
The fourth goal came through City stretching Liverpool and overloading on the switch. Rodri tucked in on the left side as Gündoğan moved towards Akanji in possession. With Stones keeping Henderson deep, Gündoğan had the time to set and switch play towards Grealish and De Bruyne against Alexander-Arnold. Grealish played De Bruyne inside and returned the favor, as the winger slid the final goal into the back of the net.
A big win at an important time for City. Just when momentum is needed, seventeen goals in three home games is proof their 3-2-4-1 framework is more than just static pieces. In the second half, City dominated even more possession through a slight midfield tweak, and keeping Liverpool to just four shots, even in their current form, is impressive.
In the post-match interview, Klopp described a team whose gaps were too big and lucky they had only conceded one more (from the 3-1 game state that he was referring to.) Yet these are problems that Liverpool has experienced for a while and his team has failed to stomp out. Games against Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Brentford will all be crucial if they are to return to Champions League football next season.
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