Manchester City vs Liverpool has become, over the past few years, a must-see game in the Premier League. It would be fair to say that Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Anfield wasn’t quite as exciting for the neutral as the four meetings last season between the two North-West sides. This isn’t to say that the game wasn’t tactically intriguing. In my tactical analysis today, I will take an in-depth look at why two of the most free-flowing and high-scoring teams in Premier League history, in Manchester City and Liverpool, came to play out a 0-0 draw.
It may sound slightly ridiculous to say it because when is it not, but, the 1st half in this game was vitally important and it was clear that both Manchester City and Liverpool, and in particular, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, were aware of this. The first 10-15 minutes of the game were nervy and cautious from both sides, but in particular, from Manchester City. The Blues struggled to get into their regular passing game and found it difficult to find any rhythm. Many of the players appeared nervous on the ball with the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero struggling to find their respective passing ranges.
City were able to ride out the awkward first 15 minutes or so and began to gain a bit of control over the game whilst also restricting Liverpool to harmless possession. Manchester City began to bypass Liverpool’s initial press and were beginning to find Fernandinho on the half-turn in the centre of the field who could then shift the ball to Walker or Mendy. Due to the way Liverpool attempted to press City, with Firmino shadowing Fernandinho and Salah and Mané attempting to prevent City’s centre backs from finding their full-backs, Stones and Laporte saw a lot of the ball in City’s half. On the chance that Firmino would sense an opportunity to snatch the ball from one of the centre-backs and begin to press them more aggressively, Manchester City were able to move the ball into Fernandinho with more ease. As Salah and Mané had positioned themselves high and in between the full-backs and their centre-backs, once the ball was moved beyond Firmino into Fernandinho the two full-backs had spaced to advance in behind Liverpool’s wide-men. Manchester City tried to use this avenue to advance the ball up the field and it proved quite effective.
Manchester City’s pressing was also slightly more reserved. Without the ball, City moved into a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 (image above) with David Silva moving forward to link with Sergio Agüero. The pair remained fairly passive in their passing and were happy for Liverpool’s back four to rotate the ball around. When the ball was moved into the Liverpool full-backs, Manchester City’s wingers Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez used the touchline as an extra defender while Agüero and Silva moved across in an attempt to force Liverpool into low-percentage passes down the line. Both Walker and Mendy are extremely quick and both were able to deal with hopeful balls down the channel.
Manchester City: Attacking Styles
When City had the ball they tended to set up somewhat in a 3-4-2-1. (below)
Manchester City employed two styles of attack for the majority of the game while the starting 11 remained on the field. When City had the ball Kyle Walker would tuck into a right-sided centre-back position to form a back three with John Stones and the impressive Aymeric Laporte. Whilst on the other side, Benjamin Mendy would push forward in his usual left wing-back role. Ahead of Walker and Mendy, there was different combinations and movements. On the right-hand side, Riyard Mahrez remained wide and received the ball into feet directly from either Stones or Walker, in particular. From here Mahrez was tasked with driving at Liverpool’s left-back Andy Robertson who had been pinned back by the high positioning of Mahrez. Bernardo Silva would also move towards Mahrez to support him in his attacks, however, would rarely move beyond him and mostly acted as an option to recycle possession.
On the left-flank, it was a different story. Manchester City often like to overload one side of the field in order to create spaces elsewhere, this was a clear plan by Pep Guardiola in this Premier League game. Mendy would push high and hold his width while the combination of Sterling, Silva and Agüero would look to operate in the left-half space in Liverpool’s half. In the first-half Manchester City had little success in terms of generating chances, however, they managed to control the ball and restrict Liverpool’s counter attacking threat.
Walker and Mendy’s contrasting positions are displayed below.
After a relatively tentative half of football, it was going to be interesting to see if given 15 minutes with their players, Guardiola or Klopp would alter anything about their teams game plan. Both sides began the second half without altering all that much. Raheem Sterling was taking up some more central positions behind Sergio Agüero in the early stages of the second half with Daivd Silva dropping a little deeper to get the ball, however Sterling returned to his wide position thus it was unclear if this was a programmed switch or whether it was simply due to Sterling recognising some space.
Manchester City did, however, begin to press Liverpool a bit more aggressively. They targeted their press on poor touches and sloppy passes by the Liverpool back four. The midfield trio for Manchester City, Bernardo Silva, David Silva, and Fernandinho, in particular, began to force Liverpool’s midfield further back and Fernadinho, in particular, wasn’t allowing Keita or Wijnaldum to turn and dribble which is these players strong suits. This pressing forced Liverpool into playing more long balls towards their forwards as they couldn’t build through midfield. These long-balls were bread and butter for Laporte and Stones up against Salah and Firmino. This also lead to Liverpool’s defensive transitions not being as they would have liked them. The spaces between their players were becoming bigger and bigger and City had some joy in exploiting these spaces as exemplified below, which lead to a good chance in the box for Riyad Mahrez (no, not the penalty).
Midway through the second-half, Manchester City brought on Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane. Sergio Agüero hadn’t had his best game in a City shirt nor had Raheem Sterling this was one of the reasons for the changes. The other reason was that City could now operate in a more direct manner. Leroy Sane has scary pace while Jesus has the ability to beat a man one v one. With Sane’s introduction, this gave Mendy a more reserved and inverted role which is probably an indication that Manchester City were happy to walk away from Anfield with another point added to their Premier League total. Both the increase in pressing and the added directness of Leroy Sane led to the biggest chance in the game, Riyad Mahrez’s penalty. Dejan Lovren was forced to play a direct ball into the feet of Salah who couldn’t control and was dispossessed by Fernandinho, Sane and Silva played a quick one-two and Sane drove at the by-line and was taken down by Virgil van Dijk. Unfortunately, as we all know, the penalty was missed.
Manchester City almost totally nullified Liverpool in the second half, something which is rarely done in the Premier League. This will of course please Pep Guardiola and it may also give him some confidence that if City need to perhaps play a little more cautiously and set up in a manner which is designed to stop their opposition they can do this. In particular, if City are drawn in the Champions League against high-intensity pressing sides he can look at this game as a good example to build from.