Match date: 14 January 2018
Both sides have had unbeaten streaks coming into the match: Manchester City remained unbeaten in the league and were on a 33 game unbeaten run in domestic competitions dating back to last year, while Liverpool were unbeaten in 17 games across all competitions, last losing to Tottenham 4-1 at Wembley in October. The two were also the top scoring teams in the league, so the stage was set for a lot of goals and an end to an unbeaten streak.
Klopp and Liverpool were dealt a blow with van Dijk pulling out of the match day squad with a tight hamstring, while the sale of Coutinho for £142m to Barcelona was certainly on everyone’s mind. With that, Klopp lined up in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 with a start for Karius in goal, Gomez, Matip, Lovren, and Robertson as the back four, Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Wijnaldum as the midfield three, and Salah, Firmino, and Mane as the front three.
Ederson started in goal for City, with Walker, Stones, Otamendi, and Delph as the back four, Fernandinho, Gündoğan, and De Bruyne in midfield, and Sterling, Agüero, and Sane as the front three in Guardiola’s 4-3-3.
Liverpool’s Plan to Press
During City’s unbeaten run, they have come up against teams that have been willing to get players behind the ball, stay structured and compact, and force City to try to open them up. However, 90 minutes of almost constant pressure can lead to a number of chances being conceded and City have won some games late on during their run. Liverpool’s approach was different; Klopp both had his team press high and not allow City to play out of the back, but they were also proactive in possession and looked to take the game to Manchester City at times. However, the biggest influencer in the match was Liverpool’s pressing, as summed up in those eight minutes in the second half, which disrupted the dominance that City started to show toward the end of the first half and beginning of the second half. There are a number of specific points to Liverpool’s press, starting with Firmino. The Brasilian forward would dictate the City centre backs decision on the ball, forcing them to either Walker or Delph or into Fernandinho, all of whom would be pressed from the front by a Liverpool player. It looked like Klopp set Liverpool up to get the ball into Fernandinho rather than the fullbacks, however, as the home side wanted to remain as compact as possible and try to overload City’s midfield. When the ball got to Fernandinho, he was pressed in front by anyone of Oxlade-Chamberlian, Wijnaldum, and even Can, and was also pressed from behind by Firmino. A good example of this is immediately after Liverpool’s second goal, when Mane was gifted a chance by Fernandinho, who played a short pass to Walker. Below you will see Firmino had cut off Otamendi’s pass to Stones and the Argentine’s body shape eliminated a pass out to Danilo, who had come in for an injured Delph.
The same compactness and traps in Liverpool’s press were evident in their third goal as well. Again, the ball was forced in Fernandinho, who was pressed by both Firmino and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The compactness of Liverpool’s press forced the ball back to Otamendi, who had a pass hit Salah.
Credit has to go to Mane and Salah as well and Klopp, as the two wide players stayed high throughout the match, waiting to counter and to press on passes out from Fernandinho and passes back from their respective full backs. There were a number of times that Liverpool looked more like a 4-4-2, as Salah stayed high with Firmino in the press as well. The aggressive positioning from Mane and Salah was pointed out in Guardiola’s post match comments: “It was a good game. They started well. We lost a lot of balls because the wide players are so aggressive without the ball and we had problems controlling that.” So, while the press was evident in the central areas of the pitch, the high positioning of Mane and Salah, a lot of times in the half space, allowed Liverpool more control in the spaces that City were allowed to play into.
City struggled to find fluidity in their passing as the compactness of Liverpool’s press did not allow for the quick combinations. Without that quick build up into the middle third, Agüero was left very isolated throughout the match, aside from a few balls into the box from De Bruyne. The best chances for City to break Liverpool’s press came from big diagonals, as the compactness of the side meant that if the opposite side wingers and full backs from City stayed wide, they would have been available. Sane’s goal, although firstly a mistake by Joe Gomez, was a good example of the space that was available, however, it happened numerous times throughout the match, especially when City were able to bypass Liverpool’s press quickly. Below you will see a good opportunity from De Bruyne to perhaps loft a ball into Sane’s path.
Notably it was Robertson’s determined, 75-yard pressing sprint that earned the ‘this sums of Liverpool’s performance’ headlines and gifs, but in reality that was far from it. Liverpool’s press was structured. There were triggers and cues that all the players were able to recognise in unison that made the pressing so affective, with credit fully to Klopp and his backroom staff for getting the players to recognise those details. Robertson’s run was great and admirable, and highlighted the determination that Liverpool showed, but it certainly was not a good example of the work and calculation that this Liverpool side puts into its pressing.
Liverpool Bypass City’s Press
As mentioned, Liverpool got plaudits for their aggressive pressing following the game, but their use of the ball was impressive as well as they looked to beat Manchester City’s press. There were a lot of times where Liverpool showed a good amount of comfort on the ball despite City’s press and were able to find Can with time to turn or Oxlade-Chamberlain or Wijnaldum on the half-turn. However, there were as many times where Liverpool were comfortable going longer, bypassing their midfield and City’s press, and playing directly into Firmino, Salah, and Mane. The first goal of the game is obviously a good example of this as the ball was played up to Firmino from Karius, but it was the second ball, picked by Oxalde-Chamberlain, that caused City the problems on that occasion an throughout the match. City reacted too slowly and were physically outmatched in getting to that second ball. Obviously going long is a way to beat any press, but ideally it is done with a target man who can hold the ball up and bring others into play. For Liverpool it was about pace to hopefully get in behind first, and then the pace to which the second ball could be broken on.
City were sluggish in the first half, up until the last ten minutes or so, and then started the second half very brightly, only to be halted by about eight minutes of extremely good counter attacking for the second goal (and City’s lack of organisation to counterpress) and intense pressing for the third, a seized upon mistake for the fourth. Going back to that note in the parentheses, City were not really able to develop their structure in the first half. This is credit to Liverpool’s pressing as it disrupted the flow of City’s movement and passing, but it also meant that City were extremely cautious and aware of Liverpool’s counter attacking abilities. This seemed to play a big part in the match as a lot of City’s attacks in the first half went through Sterling. Never mind Sane’s goal, it was Sterling that saw the ball the most and this was likely down to two things from a City perspective: 1) Robertson (and Lovren) was maybe seen as a weaker link in Liverpool’s back four, one that Sterling would be able to more easily dominate, although this ended up not being the case as Robertson played extremely well throughout and 2) City did not want to play with the ball too much of the opposite side of the pitch because of fear of counter attacks through Salah. Mane up against Walker is a good battle for pace, but Salah against Delph and then Danilo is a much clearer contest and one that City seemingly looked to avoid.
Guardiola had to make a few adjustments to deal with Liverpool’s press. Gündoğan had to drop deeper to assist in the build up phase, which meant that De Bruyne had to move more laterally, which again, likely took away from the structure that City tried to build. On Gündoğan, the German played well, but the thought must cross Guardiola’s mind at some point that Fernandinho is not press-resistant enough to play against a side that is going to press as much as Liverpool, while Gündoğan would likely do better in that role. It would have also allowed David Silva to be on the pitch, which would have likely made De Bruyne and City’s attack a bit more dangerous.
City weren’t able to play out from the back with consistency against Liverpool, but unlike against Spurs, who also pressed, Ederson did not really have the opportunities to play long. In that game, Ederson attempted 19 long balls (when his season average at that point was 4) and completed 15. Against Liverpool, Ederson attempted 13 and completed 7: above his season average, yes, but not as accurate or as effective in breaking Liverpool’s press.
De Bruyne’s Influence
Despite being on the losing end of the game, De Bruyne had another very good game for the current league leaders. There were a number of times throughout the match where he was able to find space beyond Liverpool’s press, especially when Emre Can went beyond Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wijnaldum to close down Fernandinho. In fact, the moments where De Bruyne was able to find this space was when City looked their most threatening, but at times there seemed to be a lack of full commitment from the attacking players to get beyond De Bruyne as he drove forward, perhaps wary of Liverpool’s ability to counter, as mentioned above. Below are just two examples of De Bruyne getting behind Liverpool’s midfield three and dribbling at the back four.
De Bruyne was the only City player that was really able to unsettle and drag Liverpool out of their shape with his positioning in the half spaces and his runs into the channels when the ball was moved wide, stretching Liverpool’s back four. Some of City’s best chances (aside from their goals) were from De Bruyne’s low, whipped crosses into the box that were usually just out of reach of Agüero.
With Liverpool up 4-1, Klopp started to make changes that had a bigger influence on the game than Guardiola’s. Can was the first to be taken off in the 79th minute for Milner. Klopp would later explain that Can was sick coming into the game and, while Can gave Liverpool a huge amount of energy and presence in the first half and was one of the best players on the field that half, his influence on the game dropped off a bit in the second half. However, Milner did not give Liverpool the same amount of energy and City were much more easily able to dominate the midfield. Notably it was Milner that tried to dive into a tackle to stop Gündoğan in the build up to City’s second goal, but the German evaded the challenge and drove towards the Liverpool penalty area, played a one-two with Agüero, and had his shot blocked, which fell to Bernardo Silva for the goal. Silva had come on in the 71st minute, but it seemed to be as much about offering City a different option in attack as it was to keep Sterling from getting a second yellow.
Perhaps the second influential change was Lallana on for Salah. Now, Liverpool had a more limited out ball. Whereas Salah was willing and able to run down clearances and pin City back a bit, Lallana does not offer that same option.
Klopp noted that Liverpool’s pressing was ‘from another planet’ and it really was. Liverpool were able to cause one of the best sides in the world, a side that had not lost in the league, to make three crucial defensive errors in the space of eight minutes. There were many pundits saying that this was the way to beat City, however, it needs to be remembered that Klopp and his coaches work tirelessly at coaching their pressing and counterpressing methods, triggers, and cues and it really cannot simply be applied to another side. Viewers should not be expecting the likes of Swansea and Stoke to be pressing with the intensity and structure that Liverpool displayed, but rather should fully expect that those sides continue to defend deep and force City to try to create openings in very small spaces in order to break them down.
Now, Guardiola and Klopp have met on 12 different occasions. Klopp has won six times, Guardiola won five times, and one draw. Those six victories for Klopp are the most that any manager has against Guardiola over the Spaniard’s managerial career.
And a question for all you readers, would Liverpool have done as well in the game with Coutinho in the starting XI?
In the end, it was an excellent tactical game and ‘a nice commercial for Premier League football.’
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