Manchester City – Liverpool: Litmus Test Leaves Liverpool In Good Spirits (1-1)
This contest began to restore the standard state of affairs between the two clubs that have led the way in the league. The balance of play might have been with the favorites, but beating the best, rather than being the best, is a quality that Liverpool showed they can call upon if needed.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
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The lunchtime showdown to mark the return of Premier League whets the appetite. The English elite in this epoch had returned to the top two positions and about to chart the latest chapter in their rivalry.
Masters of momentum swings, Manchester City know how to crush the cravings of contenders for the title. That state of sovereignty has not settled for now. At times, comfy control exhibited their brutal best. But with and without their ace anchor, other opponents have played havoc with Pep Guardiola’s plans. How would they cope against the outfit that has had their number most often in recent times?
Closest challengers to the holders in the previous five years, Liverpool’s last season was an anomaly. A shell of their usual selves, the visitors are not even in the Champions League for the first time since 2016. The responsive revamp is underway. Summer signings supplied strength to the midfield, while the monster mentality has equipped recruits well against adversity. Are the Reds close to being back?
Jürgen Klopp picked nine of the eleven men he started in the 3-0 win over Brentford before the break. Kostas Tsimikas continued to deputize for Andy Robertson on the left of the back four. Alexis Mac Allister missed that match, returning from suspension for a fifth yellow card of the campaign. He and Curtis Jones, who had recovered from a minor hamstring problem, worked with Dominik Szoboszlai in midfield. Mohamed Salah, Darwin Núñez, and Diogo Jota held onto the three spots in the offense.
Pep pulled together all but one of the same pieces from the 4-4 draw with Chelsea. He trusted Nathan Aké instead of Joško Gvardiol as the fourth part of the defense. Manuel Akanji and Rúben Dias were the bedrock at the back, while Bernardo Silva supported Rodri in the center of the field. Illness had ruled out Jack Grealish from the squad, so Jérémy Doku began as the left winger. Without Kevin de Bruyne in the picture, Phil Foden and Julian Álvarez were the other attackers behind Erling Haaland.
Doku’s dancing feet complete the composition
The traditional theme of this fixture has been how well Pep’s possession model can hold up against the high press from Klopp. The guests packed the center from their standard 4-3-3 shape and tried to press. The three forwards split to cover the back three; the central midfielders jumped to lead pressure and tighten turning space for the double pivot without neglecting the options between the lines. This pressing scheme required discipline with distances to switch between options and bravery at the back to step into midfield if needed. The manager deemed his men could have been better at both aspects.
City shifted into their usual 3-2-2-3 system to punish such errors on the ball. Akanji moved forward from the center of the defense next to Rodri, while Bernardo and Álvarez were the tips at the top of their midfield box. Within five minutes, several sequences showed how they wished to advance into the final third. The goalkeeper, defenders, and Rodri lured out Jones and Szoboszlai, looking to detach them and the forwards from the rest of the team in their pressing efforts. They repeatedly succeeded.
In these situations, Álvarez was forward looking in his moves. He rarely received the ball but shifted between Virgil van Dijk, Mac Allister, and Szoboszlai as a third man running beyond the back four. He reacted to the free spaces from Haaland’s last line action or tied up markers to allow Foden to roll inside and switch the play from right to left. Indeed, that flank would acquire the most attention.
36th minute: offensive sequence from Manchester City. Rodri drops back between Dias and Walker, encouraging Jones to encroach. Akanji rotates diagonally over to the ball side, so Núñez and Jones converge on the secondary pivot, but his angle of reception retains connection to Rodri, so a turn into the free space ahead is possible. Mac Allister slides to the passing lane to Álvarez and once Akanji is forward facing, he finds Bernardo to his left. Haaland threatens deep; Doku advances on the wing.
Bernardo could serve as a transit to shift the ball to the touchline, but he often dropped toward the ball as an extra connector. He frequently received in the pocket or pulled even further wide, free from the cover shadow of Salah, to exploit the hesitancy of Matip or Alexander-Arnold to follow him on the outside. Above all, the headline grabber remained Doku. City carved out plenty of service for the winger. His seamless shift into direct dribbling angles wastes no time to probe at any half openings.
Klopp’s kings of chaos stay in the game
Structured phases for Liverpool on the ball also followed more of what we have seen in the last few months. Alexander-Arnold rotated to the inside right channel, Jones and Tsimikas exchanged deep support on the left, so Mac Allister pinned deep as the single six. Jota pushed inside closer to Núñez once Tsimikas went up the wing, while the tandem of Szoboszlai and Salah stayed higher on the right. City’s 4-4-2 formation offered few forward routes, but the visitors need little control to cause chaos.
Their chances, despite the risk of a pinpoint pass from Ederson to Bernardo, were virtue of turnovers from higher pressing or in transition. The rarity of the latter type of opening was partly a nod to the evolution of City’s defense. Akanji tracked Szoboszlai into midfield, Dias guarded Núñez, while Aké and Walker were in the right spot to shackle the speed of the wingers. Still, if Núñez had kept his cool in the final third, Liverpool could have leveled the score. As ball dominant as City remained, their productivity was not at its best. An episode of chaos at the back for the opponents opened the door.
33rd minute: transition from Liverpool. Akanji and Bernardo were advancing around Doku but the winger’s through ball meets Alexander-Arnold. Jota motions inside and Alexander-Arnold drives a sweeping pass towards the center circle to pick out Núñez to maximise the 3-on-3 in open ground.
In an attempt to release red shirts into open ground, Alisson miscued his clearance. Aké controlled the ball and channeled his ball playing skills. The fullback skipped between Szoboszlai and Alexander-Arnold, then punched a pass inside Matip into the feet of Haaland. The Norwegian knew what he had to do. He netted his 50th Premier League goal for City in a 48th outing— and started the scoring.
City kept in check
Liverpool were more compact at the start of the second half. Klopp asked for better communication between Salah and Szoboszlai to close the gaps for Bernardo. He also modified the exact role of Alexander-Arnold in pressing phases. The fullback was higher and in a better place to be tight to the midfielder if he wanted to break the press. City’s chase for a second goal to kill the contest continued.
In the 68th minute, it seemed their search was successful. Doku’s drive earned a corner that Álvarez whipped into the box from the left. Alisson could not claim cleanly under pressure from Akanji, and Dias bundled the ball into the net, but the officials ruled out the goal for a foul. Meanwhile, Klopp had brought on three substitutes. Luis Díaz and Ryan Gravenberch operated on the left, while Cody Gakpo replaced Szoboszlai in midfield. Szoboszlai on the overlap or Díaz roaming to the right could change the support around Salah, but the looming threat in dynamic situations was still a primary concern.
Indeed, the next goal was the outcome of these outfits’ inclinations. Doku devastated from the outside again to try and double the advantage. He dribbled into the danger area and carried down the line past Matip, drilling a delivery to the near post. Haaland flicked a foot at the ball, forcing Alisson to sprawl at the shot. Neither Álvarez nor Foden contacted the rebound, and Liverpool latched onto the reprieve. At the other end of the pitch, Salah set the ball across to Alexander-Arnold in the inside right channel, where he rattled a rasping effort beyond Ederson. Would the final phase of this clash deliver a victor?
Pep refrained from turning to his bench, but the hosts kicked on to pursue all three points. Haaland glanced a header past the post deep into injury time, but it was not to be the day of the champions.
From a streak of six wins at the start of the season, Manchester City have dropped points again to lose top spot to Arsenal. The first half warranted Pep’s praises for buildup and defensive transition, but he will know it is not the best version of Liverpool to come to the Etihad. His own outfit still seems in the works to achieve their best. The stairway to the left allows Doku to run riot from the outside, but without de Bruyne and Ilkay Gündogan, it is still a struggle to be as fluid in the final third as before.
At a ground where they have not triumphed since 2018 and not since 2015 in the league, a victory would have been a tough ask of Liverpool— even in their pomp. Their buildup rotations and higher pressing suffered against a team of top tier quality, but Klopp ensured his men could remain in this contest. That possibility was also thanks to their numerous weapons that could turn any break into a transition. It might not be enough for a title, but it is a dynamic that gives them a chance against most.
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