On the 14th of January, Liverpool handed Manchester City their first and so far the only defeat in the Premier League as Liverpool broke Man City’s unbeaten run of 30 games stretching back to April 2017. Man City were on top form this season having recorded victories in 18 consecutive matches in the Premier League and have possessed such dominance that the Premier League hadn’t seen since its inception way back in 1992.
While Liverpool were just the second team to beat City after Shakhtar in the Champions League, one has to emphasize on how brilliant Liverpool played at Anfield. Having been humiliated by the runaway league leaders back at the Etihad for a scoreline of 5-0 earlier in the season, the reaction was expected from Jurgen Klopp and his men. But the way in which City were dominated was astounding and in this article I try to decode how Liverpool handed City their first defeat in England in the 2017/18 season.
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Liverpool (4-3-3) | Manager: Jurgen Klopp
Karius // Gomes, Matip, Lovren, Robertson // Oxlade-Chamberlain – Can – Wijnaldum //Salah – Firmino – Mane
Manchester City (4-3-3) | Manager: Pep Guardiola
Ederson // Walker – Stones – Otamendi – Delph // De Bruyne – Fernandinho – Gundogan // Sterling – Aguero – Sane
Both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp started the game in their customary formation – 4-3-3. Karius started in goal for Liverpool as Gomes, Matip, Lovren, Robertson started in defense. The midfield three comprised of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Can and Wijnaldum while the attacking trio was constituted by Salah, Firmino and Mane.
For the away team, Ederson started in between the sticks. The defensive line was started by the back four of Walker, Stones, Otamendi and Delph. De Bruyne, Fernandinho and Gundogan started in midfield. The most successful attacking troop for City started in the attacking front as Sterling and Sane played in the wins with Aguero occupying the central channel.
City’s initial high pressing
The plot has always been the same whenever Jurgen Klopp faced Pep Guardiola. The games always contain high pressing, counter pressing, intense positional play and most importantly goals. This game started well with both Liverpool and City trying to play out from the back with ease. During the opening 5-10 minutes, Liverpool looked to play out from the back and City pressed high up the pitch to stop them from starting attacks from the back.
As seen from the below instance, City is pressing high with Aguero leading the line and is moving towards the ball receiver Lovren while Gundogan has come from deep to press the ball carrier Matip. In many cases, it was evident that the ball carrying centre back was pressed by Gundogan once the ball is played by Karius while Aguero pressed the other defensive centre half. The wide full backs were marked by the wingers, Sterling and Sane. Here both the wingers start from the second line and hence are late to reach out to the full backs.
In this instance below, we can see the next move from the previous picture. Here Lovren has received the ball and Aguero starts to press him also blocking the passing lane to Can with his cover shadow. Sterling is pressing the full back in his lane while Sane has dropped deep to stay with Oxlade-Chamberlain. One of the predominant moves of pressing is the movement of Gundogan towards the ball receiving centre back once Karius plays the ball to the next line.
These movements often caused Karius to play long balls into midfield where the likes of Fernandinho and Otamendi can win the clearance as they are strong aerially and very astute in winning duels. In this instance below, De Bruyne who presses through the right half space has carried his run to press Karius. With Aguero marking the immediate passing option, Karius is forced to clear the ball and it is played into the space where Sane is unmarked. This move had not only successfully stifled Liverpool’s build up play, but also provoked Liverpool to play misplaced passes into the midfield and capitalise on it, thereby initiating transitions that could hurt Liverpool.
These were some of the pressing patterns which City carried out in the earlier stages of the game however Liverpool were able to bypass the press in many instances.
Liverpool bypass City press
One of the most improved aspects from Jurgen Klopp’s side from the reverse fixture was Liverpool’s ability to bypass the City pressure and this was evident in some instances. Here we can see Aguero marking the central defender while Sterling has paid attention to his opposition number. Sane is isolated in between the wide full back Cylne and the central midfielder, Oxlade-Chamberlain as he will move press the ball receiver once the ball is played. The ball carrier here is Can and he has Gundogan who is running towards him. But given Fernandinho has to mark Firmino who will drop deep, the centre is left unmarked with Oxlade-Chamberlain occupying the free space.
Here, De Bruyne could’ve marked him, instead the #8 is slow to react as he is just coming back from pressing high. This is enough for Oxlade-Chamberlain to receive the ball in space and play it onto the next line where he has Clyne to his right who is free in the channel.
This below instance is an example how Liverpool attacked through the centre through long balls. Here Firmino receives a long ball and controls it well to play it on the volley to Mane who has got away from Stones. But the touch from Mane had taken the ball away from him and gave others the time to get back. As 6 City players are committed to the press in the opposite half, Liverpool were able to turn into attack and found themselves in a situational advantage.
The instance below shows the scene from the first goal. The positioning of Salah in the right is so crucial here as his movement had attracted Otamendi which provides the space for Oxlade-Chamberlain to run into as Otamendi will not be able to commit forward for a challenge as this will open up Salah. Here Delph’s positioning must be taken into consideration. This is a problem while utilizing the inverted full back in midfield as City will be outnumbered at the back and will create weaker situations when opposition players utilize widely stationed wingers with more pace and positional awareness. Here, once Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to see off Fernandinho with pace, with Delph failing to get a tackle onto him, the Englishman got into the channel in between Stones and Otamendi and slotted it exactly past Ederson.
These were some of the situations through which Liverpool bypassed the City press and caused problems for City as they could outnumber the defense and arrive at crucial situations.
Liverpool opened the scoring through Oxlade-Chamberlain but the goal had elements much more than just the excellent strike by the midfielder. Salah’s run helped open the space necessary to go with the shot, while Liverpool did excellently well to outnumber City in the midfield. pic.twitter.com/5WRymy4wxO
— Football Bloody Hell (@fbhfootball) January 14, 2018
Liverpool’s high block and pressing
Once Liverpool scored the opening goal and needed just that to put the pressure on City to find the equaliser, they started utilizing a high block to stop City progressing from the back. Liverpool even pressed well as City looked to dominate possession and create chances. This instance below shows an scene in which Aguero drops deep as Otamendi is pressured from playing the ball with freedom and as he can play in only one direction, Aguero drops deep to help out his Argentine teammate. But the pressure from Lovren all the way from the back helped Liverpool as once the ball was played into space, Aguero was pressed by Lovren who won the duel and played it to the next line of attack.
As the game moved on from the 10th minute mark, the pressing from Liverpool was very predominant for the next 30 minutes in the game and their high block ensured that City struggled to create build ups. This instance below is an example of Liverpool pressing the ball as Otamendi looks to play it back to Ederson. Here the team’s attacking front has shifted to the right with Otamendi on the ball in that channel. Delph is marked by Salah with an eye on Fernandinho while Firmino presses the ball carrier as usual with Fernandinho in his cover shadow. Also, Oxlade-Chamberlain is in a position to press the Brazilian midfielder as we can understand how Liverpool have perfected their aim to cover Fernandinho and to not give him any space.
In this instance, Mane is marked by Stones and if the ball is played to him, Mane will reach Stones to press as he is very quick. This situation forces Otamendi to play the ball back to Ederson who will have to play it long into the midfield or play it to Kyle Walker, who in turn, will be free in the right for a short time frame as Mane is in the line with Stones.
The key component for City’s build up play is Fernandinho and Liverpool had done well to shut down the space for him. Liverpool often utilized the 4-2-3-1 instead of a 4-3-3 as both the wingers dropped a bit deeper than their natural position and Oxlade-Chamberlain played as the #10 in between them. Can and Wijnaldum looked to have played as the pivot as the Dutchman was utilized as the Box-to-box midfielder.
The most important thing to look at this high block set up is its compactness both vertically and horizontally. The horizontal compactness here is around 18-20m while the distance from Firmino to the line of Can and Wijnaldum is around 20-25m. This compactness mainly helped to lower Liverpool’s disadvantage as the participation of Mane and Salah is lesser in tracking back. Also this compactness helps in recovering the ball better when it is played through them and also lowers the chance of losing ball when they are counter pressed.
The below instance is another example in which Liverpool have executed their high block well. Here Firmino marks the ball carrier Otamendi while Salah is in line to press Delph once he receives the ball while he also marks the space in which Otamendi can run into should he bypass Firmino. As seen here Fernandinho is once again marked compactly as Can has come forward to mark the Brazilian along with Mane. This was a clear indication that Liverpool had put more emphasis on marking Fernandinho, who is the most important connect between City’s defensive and offensive side.
As Gundogan is also marked by Oxlade-Chamberlain, he has to drop deep in order to effectively receive the ball in space and then play the ball forward. Here Walker on the right is left free as Otamendi is not pretty strong in playing aerial passes with his left foot and he has to turn and create space to play it to Walker who is free with his right foot but this time frame will allow Firmino to get closer and put more pressure on him.
These were some of the instances by which Liverpool restricted City’s build up however City utilized direct long balls from behind to counter this situation and were very effective in these situations.
The game plan from Liverpool was clear in terms of their press. They looked to force City into unstable patterns in build up while marking out Fernandinho in the process. This ensured that City were not able to advance the ball cleanly to the second line and further into the final third. Liverpool were able to make use of this and win the ball back comfortably, trying to hurt City in transitions.
City try diagonal balls
As Liverpool stayed compact in the front, Guardiola’s men tried diagonal long balls which have been one of the weapons used by them in this season. Whenever City bypassed the compact Liverpool set up from the front, the Reds managed to form a line of five in front of the defense in the transition. Otamendi was notably the main user of these long diagonal balls who always used Sterling as his target to find in the right.
Just as seen from the instance below, Otamendi has played a long diagonal ball towards Sterling who is free in the wings and has space in front of him. This is the main reason why City uses the diagonal as they can find more space between the lines. Here Sterling receives the ball and plays it to De Bruyne who arrives in that space in front of Robertson. Here Sterling has two options, he can stay wide and provide width and then play the one-two with De Bruyne allowing the latter to get inside the box. The other option here is to run into the box early just after he had passed to De Bruyne believing that De Bruyne can play it into his path.
The two images below show De Bruyne playing a diagonal to Sterling quickly after the second phase. As Liverpool forwards are committed to posing a high block, they had less numbers at the back and City made sure to make use of it to create space. Once De Bruyne plays the long ball from the left, we can see Walker on the far side starting his run and once Sterling receives the ball at his feet, he would provide Sterling an option on the overlap.
As seen in this instance below in the next move, Sterling has played the ball to Walker on the overlap, and this sudden transition left spaces in the middle. Sane came into the centre from the opposite flank, while Aguero dropped to the left. This movement helped Walker to play it onto Sane, who used the space and time to turn around and directed a shot on towards goal which was deflected off a Red shirt.
This instance below shows the instance through which City scored the equaliser through Sane. Apart from the brilliant finish by the German winger, the setup for him should also be analysed as it was a well worked move from City. Here Liverpool is seen to have stuck to the left and City are compact enough to load the area. This left huge space for Sane to work on the other side as City have followed one of the basics of Guardiola’s principles – overload one side and underload the other side.
“You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other.” – Pep Guardiola
And City had exacted their plan to the maximum here as City made the most of spatial control on one side to find the player on the other side and finish from the other side.
Though Liverpool made good use of their high block and well structured defensive shape, City were able to bypass it by using the diagonal long balls and also were effective as they found in the equaliser through these movements.
City arrived at crucial spaces but lacked cohesion in the second half
The second half started with the scoreline at one goal each as both the teams started with a similar system with Danilo being the only substitution for Delph at the half an hour mark. City started as the better side after the break as they found space in dangerous areas. As Liverpool looked to pile up more pressure on City, they committed men forward in pressing and City were able to attack Liverpool back in quick counters.
In this image below, we see an instance in which Ederson throws the ball directly into to the feet of Kevin De Bruyne who moves into the free space behind Can. This is an ideal counter attacking situation and has given City more space to operate. With Kevin De Bruyne’s ability on the ball and 3v3 in s positional advantage, this is pretty effective for City as they can exploit the space.
The start of the second half often saw City get into crucial spaces and the next image is another example of such situation. Here Sterling is seen to have received the ball from De Bruyne and now has Sane free to his right and Aguero to his left. He should’ve played the ball early to Aguero but then he dragged the ball and the played it to the striker to his left, by that time, the opposition defenders were able to regroup themselves.
Still then, Sane was free in the right but his poor decision making in the end cost City the price of getting into more dangerous position and create a chance to score. City’s combinational play in the final third was not consistent as they failed to score again until the 84th minute when Liverpool were already leading them by 3 goals.
This image below shows the positioning of City’s attackers. Kevin De Bruyne is found here in the space between Can and Wijnaldum and though his positioning is oriented well with respect to the three forwards, their positioning is not optimal that the Belgian cannot make most use of it. Both Sane and Sterling should move 10-15m forward if De Bruyne decides to allow them time by keeping the ball to his feet.
Once Otamendi plays the ball into the path of De Bruyne, the movements should have been much better from both the wingers. Here De Bruyne plays the ball into the path of Sterling however the City No.7 lost the 1v1 against Robertson as City failed to make use of the space that was given to them.
Liverpool counter to score three quick goals
In the second half, City failed to reorganise quickly in the defensive transition and it came to haunt them as Liverpool took the lead once again, this time through Firmino. The below instance shows the instance before Firmino received the ball from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain were involved in a 2v1 overload against De Bruyne and won the ball back. Wijnaldum played the reverse ball to the Englishman who found that his attacking players were involved in a 4v3 against the City back four.
In this instance, Firmino was able to outrun Stones in the 1v1 as he received the pass from Oxlade-Chamberlain as he moved into the space. Firmino’s well timed curler went past Ederson as City failed to reorganize into defensive shape immediately just after losing the ball in the opposition half.
The image below shows the instance where Liverpool scored their third goal on the day. Salah pressed Otamendi who just received a back-pass from Gundogan who was pressed in the central midfield. Otamendi’s clearance hit Salah and fell into his feet who found Mane in huge space in the opposite flank. Here Salah moved a bit further into the area where Stones was put into a dilemma where he had to either stay with Salah who was on towards goal or mark the space in which Mane will arrive.
Stones chose the first option as Salah found Mane and he perfected the shot with his left foot. Walker’s positioning has to be put into question here as he was high up the pitch when City were overloaded by Liverpool played in central midfield. Once Salah wins the ball against Otamendi, Walker should have dropped deep to mark the free man. Instead he arrives late opening up the space and time for Mane.
The next Liverpool goal certainly came out of nowhere as Ederson’s clearance coming out from his position for a Liverpool long ball, fell at Salah’s chest which the Egyptian controlled well and scored into the open goal.
Bernardo Silva’s substitution helped City’s combinational play in the final third and it was evident when he scored the second goal for City. As Liverpool’s complacency in defensive aspects towards the end started showing, City scored two goals in the final 10 minutes as Gundogan found the back of the net to score the third goal. City exposed Robertson’s naivety in the final minutes but Liverpool were able to stick to their task.
They avenged their defeat at the Etihad back in September as they became the first and only team so far to beat the Cityzens in the Premier League. Though one may argue that City have a massive aggregate of 8-4 in their favour of the two fixtures, the Champions League Quarterfinals is going to be nothing like it as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are once again up against each other in football’s Elite Cup competition.