Manchester City – Liverpool: Premier League Classic Decided By Better Finishing And Tactical Nuances (2-1)
This game felt so close that it is hard to actually point out the better team. Manchester City beat Liverpool due to more composure on the ball and better finishing. And some luck, too.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
How do you beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City? If you would have to ask any manager on earth, Jürgen Klopp would come to mind pretty fast. His Liverpool went unbeaten in the last four games against Guardiola’s Manchester City, knocking them out of last season’s Champions League. Liverpool acting like pure kryptonite for his possession-oriented approach even led Guardiola to alter his tactics last time around, pressing less intense and leaving more players behind the ball than normally.
This season, Liverpool have changed their nominal starting formation from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. Klopp decided to revert to the good ol’ 4-3-3 shape, even though the last time Liverpool played it was against Napoli, close to a month ago.
It is the system in which they reached the Champions League final last season, with the attacking super trio Mo Salah – Roberto Firmino – Sadio Mané in front of three midfielders James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Partnering Virgil van Dijk in central defense was Dejan Lovren, as both Joe Gomez and Joel Matip were unavailable due to injuries.
Manchester City operated in their usual 4-3-3 formation. Aymeric Laporte played left back, as Vincent Kompany and John Stones made up the central duo. Kyle Walker seems to have been silently dropped from the starting eleven, as Danilo was preferred for the third time in a row. Kevin de Bruyne is seemingly not yet match fit, which meant the midfield consisted of Fernandinho, Bernardo Silva and David Silva.
When Guardiola and Klopp meet, a must-watch game of football ensues most of the time. The fact this game was hugely decisive to this season’s title race in England only added to that. After this match, the difference between these two historically good sides would be four, seven or ten points.
As per 11tegen11’s predictive model, Liverpool’s title odds of 66% going into the game would swing to 88% with a win, while this would drop City’s pre-game title odds of 34% to a measly 12%. By contrast, a City win would really open up the title race, albeit with Liverpool still the slight favorite (54%).
Both teams share the ball, but it does not enter the penalty area
Those who had missed Liverpool playing in a 4-3-3 formation and containing the opponent had a wonderful time in the first half. Liverpool’s attacking trio was working together superbly to cut off passes to the opposing fullbacks and midfielders, but pressed when the chance was there, for instance when a City player received the ball facing his own goal.
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 shape out of possession displayed against Manchester City’s conservative 4-3-3 formation.
Whenever Liverpool tried to build up, City pressed them immediately, much more aggressive than the other way around. Wingers Sterling and Sané would simply track their fullback, while Agüero would drift towards Van Dijk, This left Lovren open, who would often get on the ball and was immediately pressed by David Silva, while Bernardo Silva would step up to press Henderson aggressively.
Weary of Liverpool’s quick attackers, City’s defenders never left their back line which theoretically meant that Liverpool had a spare man in midfield in the form of Wijnaldum or Henderson. That player was seldom found, however, which meant Liverpool played a lot of aerial balls and gave the ball away.
Manchester City’s way of pressing Liverpool, which led to Liverpool giving the ball away a lot.
This made the opening phase of the match a stalemate, as both teams were cancelling each other out in their own, unique way. A brief moment of excitement came after eighteen minutes, which was one of the few times Liverpool managed to bypass City’s press, thanks to some press-resistance from Wijnaldum and a series of third man combinations. A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto.
After Salah had put through Mané with a wonderful through ball, the latter could only hit the post. In the aftermath, Stones booting the ball away but only hitting his own goalkeeper would have made for a comical own goal. Stones himself could save the ball off the line with a last-ditch effort.
Liverpool contain City as match is played in middle third
City could only muster two shots in the entire first half. Their fullbacks Laporte and Danilo played about as conservative as you will see in a team coached by Guardiola. Both did not play high along the touchline to create overloads, When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. nor did they tuck inside to act as extra midfielders.
Wingers Sané and Sterling were not put into one-versus-one opportunities with their fullbacks often, as Liverpool’s disciplined midfielders helped out every time the ball came in their feet. Some uncharacteristic technical mistakes from their entire left side – David Silva in particular – made City’s attacks impotent. The match was therefore mostly played on the middle part of the field, which is not what you want if you are Manchester City.
City’s complete lack of passing through the middle is quite alarming, and it serves as a great illustration of how well Liverpool contained them.
Little City danger
The only danger created by Manchester City in the first half came from passes over the top of Liverpool’s defense. In the 28th minute, Fernandinho played one of those passes in the area behind Liverpool’s fullback Andrew Robertson. Sterling got the best of him and played the ball into David Silva.
The Spaniard received the ball in a closed manner – instead of opening his body up – which meant he could only shoot with his weaker right foot. Receiving the ball correct in the penalty area is one of those small details that make all the difference in close games like these.
A little over ten minutes later, Alexander-Arnold was targeted, as Sané beat him in a foot race. After a failed cross that was deflected by Alisson, the ball was still at the feet of Bernardo Silva in Liverpool’s defensive zone. He played a hard ball into Agüero, who expertly came in front of his defender and fired past Alisson. We won’t put all the blame on Lovren just yet, and just state that this was a wonderful goal from Agüero, which would turn out to be the only goal of the first half.
Klopp’s choice of formation
Klopp deliberately selected his workhorse midfield from the 2017/18 season, relying on individual mistakes by City’s players to capitalize on – something Mané almost did. City’s hyper-aggressive press in Liverpool’s early buildup meant that his side gave the ball away to easily.
Wijnaldum, Milner and Henderson can perform their pressing duties and man-marking tasks in the 4-3-3 shape in their sleep, but offered too little throughout the entire first half in terms of possession. Once again, a deliberate choice made by Klopp, which we should not judge solely on the outcome.
We’ve seen this countless time by now, but once more Liverpool’s fullbacks were their de-facto playmakers.
Switch to 4-2-3-1 leads to goal
The first ten minutes of the second half were an exact copy of the first half: City had the ball, Liverpool retreated and neither team created chances. It gave Fabinho the time to warm up and come into the match in the 57th minute for Milner, meaning Liverpool switched to their 4-2-3-1 shape.
Fabinho and Henderson acted as the double pivot, Wijnaldum played as a drifting-inside left winger, Mané moved to the right and Firmino played closely behind striker Salah.
Liverpool 4-2-3-1 formation, which has been their usual shape in recent months.
Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 is a lot more attacking, direct and hectic than the more controlled 4-3-3 shape. Less players are situated in central midfield and more are playing in higher positions. This advanced positioning allows those players to be fed quicker, which can also result in those quick passes being intercepted or misplaced, ultimately leading to a fast-paced contest.
Due to two holding midfielders now being in place instead of one, the fullbacks can also play even more attacking. A direct result of this could be seen during Liverpool’s equalizer. Trent Alexander-Arnold – effectively Liverpool’s best playmaker, fielded at right back – played a wonderful crossfield pass into his fellow fullback Robertson, who arrived late in the penalty area. He put it back for Firmino to head it into an empty net. The score was level with more than twenty-five minutes left to play.
Fine margins make for fine games
It has been detailed earlier that Klopp’s 4-2-3-1 shape has not yet been tested against big teams. It can be vulnerable at times. When both fullbacks join the attack – which was the case at the equalizer, for example – Liverpool have only four players behind the ball in Fabinho, Henderson, Van Dijk and Lovren.
After scoring the equalizer, Liverpool did not change their rest defense. A team’s defensive organization at the moment that the ball is lost to the opponent. This meant the match was more open, chaotic and at an even faster pace than it had been the entire first half.
A little over seventy minutes in, Ederson swept up a through ball into Salah and passed it into Danilo. Liverpool’s four most attacking players pressed forward, while the remaining six went backwards. Never a good combination. Danilo found Sterling, who was played onside by Lovren. The young English winger could easily dribble inside as both Fabinho and Henderson were a second too late to cover, which is another one of those tiny details that decide matches like these.
With Sterling coming inside, Agüero made a run that should have earned him an assist as well, as he completely opened up the space for Sané. His driven effort went off the post as well, just as Mané had done on that same goal in the first half. The difference being that this time, the ball went inside the net instead of ricocheting back into the field.
Now leading, City retreated into their own half in their 4-1-4-1 defensive shape, leaving the ball for Liverpool. Klopp’s men could not create any more chances. On the other end, Agüero and Sterling had the chance to put City up by two, but could not, which meant the game ended 2-1 to the home side. Fine margins make for fine games, and this was one of them, ultimately being decided on all those small little details.
If Mané converts his big chance around the twenty-minute mark, this might be a piece about Klopp’s perfect plan to contain Manchester City and striking them on the counterattack. If Mané’s chance goes in off the post while Sané’s chance bounces back into the field, we draw a different conclusion altogether, based on a couple of centimeters.
Let’s salute both teams on their performance on the night, as it was one of the best Premier League games from recent history. Complemented by some wonderful individual performances (Bernardo Silva, Fernandinho, Firmino and Robertson in particular), this was a true cracker that once again opened up the Premier League title race.
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