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Tactical Analysis: Fine margins decide top of the table clash between Manchester City and Liverpool

Written by: Anjishnu Roy

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Pep Guardiola's substitutions proved pivotal for the Cityzens as they clawed their way back into the Premier League title race.

Last year’s champions Manchester City took on Liverpool who were sitting comfortably on top of the table unbeaten until the game at the Etihad Stadium. Ahead of the game, both Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp beat the drums on how their compatriots’ sides were the best in the world and after the ninety minutes of action, you could feel the battle of chess and with that they engaged into on the pitch. The game was as close and as tight as any and there was no clear better side on the night. Manchester City won the game thanks to better finishing, more luck and Dejan Lovren thus closing the gap at the top from seven to four points and springing the Premier League race open again.

The result has opened up the Premier League title race

Sadio Mane had the first real opening in the game when some fine football from Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino and ultimately a delightful through ball from Mo Salah found Mane 1v1 with Ederson. His shot hit the post but John Stones was too eager on the rebound and his initial clearance deflected off Ederson and was just a centimetre away from travelling inside the goal. Sergio Aguero drew first blood just before the halftime when Bernardo Silva’s cross found him just a few yards away from goal and he finished the move with tight, powerful finishing.

Watch: Manchester City 2-1 Liverpool

Jürgen Klopp stirred things up in the second half as his side chased the game. Liverpool’s dynamic fullback duo stepped up to the task. Trent Alexander Arnold’s precise and delightful cross-field diagonal found Andy Robertson inside the box who teed it up for Firmino to finish with just the sweetest of touches. Their lead did not last for long however and Sane found himself in space to finish after a brilliant run from Raheem Sterling. The remainder of the game turned to a classic English game where both sides abandoned tactical nuances. Liverpool hoofed every ball into the box, looking for the likes of Van Dijk, Fabinho and Firmino’s heads and City cleared it as far as possible, holding on to the lead until the referee blew the whistle for the final time.

Lineups and formation

Despite mostly playing a 4-2-3-1 this season, Jürgen Klopp reverted back to the old 4-3-3 for the game against Guardiola’s City. The conventional 4-3-3 with the trio of Milner, Henderson and Wijnaldum in midfield and Salah, Firmino and Mane upfront was common practice last season and even took them to the Champions League. However, the last time Liverpool tried this approach this season was in the game against Napoli almost a month ago. Dejan Lovren partnered Virgil Van Dijk in defence and was definitely Liverpool’s Kryptonite on the night.



Pep Guardiola also went with a 4-3-3. Aymeric Laporte started as left back in the absence of the injured Bernard Mendy. Kompany and John Stones formed the partnership at the back and Danilo was surprisingly picked ahead of Kyle Walker at right back for the third time in a row. Kevin de Bruyne hasn’t returned to complete match fitness yet and that meant Fernandinho, David Silva and Bernardo Silva started in midfield.

Things got cagey in the middle

Liverpool’s front three and Jordan Henderson were on hand to cut out passing lanes from the City defenders to opposing fullbacks and midfielders and prevented them from building from the back. This meant City playing a conservative 4-3-3 and John Stones and Kompany did not progress too much with the ball and held their line.

Whenever Liverpool tried to do the same (build from the back), City pressed them even more actively and intensely. Sane and Sterling shadowed and took out Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson respectively and Sergio Aguero went to press Virgil Van Dijk. This left Dejan Lovren seeing most of the ball who did not know what to do with it and often squandered possession away when pressed by David Silva.

Bernardo Silva was very crucial to this pressing and the Portuguese midfielder played out of his skin. He started on the right flank and would often drift in centrally to press Henderson or Milner aggressively. Fernandinho had a masterclass on the night and knew extremely well where to position himself and whom to chase effectively forming a brick wall at the centre of the park. Liverpool also resorted to the long ball approach and couldn’t hold on to possession for long this way or carve out meaningful chances either. This pretty much made the first quarter of the first half an impasse where both sides cancelled each other’s plans out.

City’s failure to advance down the wings cost them a lethal edge and pace to their attacks

Liverpool’s intense press meant Danilo and Laporte couldn’t advance higher up the pitch and were stuck in their conservative fullback zones. Laporte not being a natural left back and Danilo’s lack of technical quality meant they couldn’t bypass the first press and risk providing offensive overload or extra midfield personnel at the cost of defensive solidity.

In the first half, City tried to play a lot through the left channel through Laporte, David Silva and Leroy Sane. However, they could not carve out 1v1 opportunities with the chance to run at the fullbacks. This was down to Liverpool’s vigilant midfield being on hand to help the defence out every time City tried to advance. David Silva did not have the best of games on the night on the left flank and City missed Kevin de Bruyne’s creativity and measured passing.

Raheem Sterling was left isolated on the other wing and underutilised. Therefore, most of the match boiled down to the centre where City players failed to stretch and exploit holes in the Liverpool defence.

Klopp’s switch after halftime brought the equaliser

The second half started in the same way the first half ended: Manchester City dominated possession, Liverpool pressed and neither time could create chances. Klopp brought on Fabinho in the 57th minute for James Milner thus restoring the shape to a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Fabinho and Henderson acted as pivots in the middle of the park, Wijnaldum played ahead of them and was active in the final third along with Firmino, Mane and behind striker Mo Salah. This allowed them to be more direct and attacking as opposed to the 4-3-3 which is more reactive as Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner are workhorse midfielders and the bulk of their labour is reactive and not, proactive. The change in formation allowed protagonism back to Liverpool’s dazzling attacking trio with quick, short passes, smart exchanges and fluid positional play interchanges that have become the trademark of Jürgen Klopp’s heavy metal football at Anfield.

The two defensive midfielders also allowed Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson to push higher ahead and provide offensive overload down the wings as they had Henderson and Fabinho to cover for them at the back. Liverpool’s equaliser came from this new-found freedom allowed to their dynamic fullback duo.

The rest of the game was decided by better composure and finishing

The shift to 4-2-3-1 with the fullbacks now tucking higher up the pitch also meant defensive vulnerability and while Van Dijk blocked everything that came in his path, read the game well, positioned himself accordingly and distributed effortlessly, Dejan Lovren was a heap of mess on the night. He was at fault for both the goals his side conceded.

At the 70-minute mark, Raheem Sterling found himself with acres of space to run after Danilo somehow bypassed the initial press and took out four offensive players. Sterling beat Fabinho and Henderson for pace and drifted inside. Sergio Aguero displayed his fine instincts as an off-the-ball striker and made a dummy run that allowed Sane to burst into space. Dejan Lovren played him onside and Sane’s deft finish hit the post and went in: fine margins- Mane’s didn’t, Sane’s did. It was that close of a game.

Takeaways

Both sides deserved equal merit to win the game. Had Sadio Mane’s effort gone in inside instead of staying a few centimetres out or had Vincent Kompany been brandished a red card for the lunging challenge on Salah, you could argue that Klopp’s men would still have been unbeaten and 10 points clear at the top of the table.

Fernandinho was immaculate on the night. The Brazilian read the game brilliantly for his side and had the perfect match for a defensive midfielder. He ended Liverpool build-ups, blocked out attacks, shadowed the front three, offered extra defensive support and dropped deep to build up play and had a general good passing game on the night. Bernardo Silva also caught the eye. His relentless stamina meant he pretty much played a free role, starting from the right, drifting in centrally and often finding space on the left. He was crucial to City’s press and did the job efficiently even until the 95th minute of the game.

Virgil Van Dijk was a brick wall at the back for Liverpool. He positioned himself well to stifle out City attacks and won every duel against the likes of Aguero, Sterling and Sane. Andy Robertson also displayed why he is the best left-back in England at the moment and had yet another spectacular outing.

Published: Fri Jan 04, 2019 06:52 PM IST

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