“If Manchester City win the match, the title race is over.” – every Premier League pundit in existence.
Well, Manchester City didn’t win the match, so what happens now? First of all, what a match. Second of all, I am of the firm belief that Manchester City thoroughly outclassed Liverpool on the day, and that Raheem Sterling should have been ruled onside from that VAR disallowed goal (surely it’s too close to say clear and obvious?). But I digress. I am not here to talk about refereeing decisions. Instead, the tactics! So let’s jump into it, and discuss whether or not the title race is over, or in fact, still with everything to play for.
MANCHESTER CITY: 4-2-3-1
Throughout the season, any time an outside source has City down as playing a 4-2-3-1, I push back on it, surmising that they’ve changed very little from their typical 4-3-3 approach. This however was a different role for Kevin de Bruyne, who clearly sat in behind Raheem Sterling – the team’s centre-forward. The Belgian roamed around the pitch in a free role that incorporated a variety of attacking positions, but most prominently sought space in and around Liverpool’s ‘number six’ Fabinho. Sterling meanwhile held a much truer version of a ‘number nine’ than what we’ve become accustomed to from Guardiola’s team, meaning they didn’t have several players floating in and out of a false nine position as per usual.Embed from Getty Images
Aiding in the ideologies behind the shape, Bernardo Silva held a more reserved role, pulling the strings from deep alongside Rodri – and spreading those beautiful long looping passes like the Spaniard. This is in fact how City maintained their control over the match throughout the bulk of the ninety minutes, constantly switching play and taking advantage of long diagonals into advanced players down the wings. Stones, Walker, Cancelo and Bernardo each attempted more than 10 long passes during the match, with Rodri, Laporte, Ederson and de Bruyne providing another 26 between them. One particular area in which they were able to utilize these long passes to success came on throw-ins. Liverpool narrowed the space on the near side as part of their compact defensive structures, leaving space on the opposite side to be exploited. And that’s exactly what City did. The Citizens excelled in hitting these switches of play early and quickly, with Stones in particular marvelously locating a teammate with 10 of his 12 long passes.Embed from Getty Images
Beyond this clear approach to break down the wide areas on switches, City were incredibly effective at breaking through the thirds and finding space to the left of Fabinho (City’s right-half-spaces). De Bruyne marvelously maneuvered himself around the pitch to drag Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara out of position, somehow constantly finding space in between the two of them. The Reds could never get a grip of his quick changes of direction and off the ball intelligence, resorting to fouling the midfielder. Miraculously, despite making about five yellow card worthy challenges between the two of them, Thiago and Fabinho managed to escape with only one booking a piece. In addition to De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling also stood out on the day for his electric performance as the number nine in the team – in just his fourth start up front this season. His statistics didn’t pop in the same way as Gabriel Jesus or Joao Cancelo, but Sterling showcased the potential attacking potence of City playing with a true number nine in the future, exciting the crowd with his pace in behind Liverpool’s back-line.
Out of possession, City generally held strong in a 4-4-2 shape, pressing with Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling as the first line of defense. With 55% of the possession, it was the Citizens who held more control, but anyone who knows anything about Liverpool will be able to tell you that beating the Reds requires you to be defensively sound BEFORE you even have time to set up your defensive structures. This is where City excelled from a defensive perspective, reacting quickly and immediately in defensive transitions. The likes of Kyle Walker and Rodri handled those transitional moments expertly well in helping the Sky Blues eliminate gaps and tame speedy sightseers, and it took moments of magic from some of the best in the world to find any sense of space.
On the balance of the match, a draw felt slightly unfair for City, who (by the way) scored an on-side goal.
Liverpool set up in their traditional 4-3-3 shape, with what is probably at this juncture their very best team. There was quite a bit of debate as to whether or not Luis Diaz would hold down a place after his fantastic performance midweek against Benfica in the Champions League, but perhaps that was the greatest indication that he wouldn’t start in actuality. Thiago also claimed the only other position of debate, and had a very typical Liverpool Thiago performance – spraying sideways passes and picking up bookings. But before you accuse us of hating Liverpool, the Reds pressed in one of the most enigmatic ways we’ve seen in years.
At times, the central midfielders rummaged all the way to the top of the press, in line with the front three, with Fabinho holding his own directly in behind. This worked wondrously to combat space and time during initial builds close to City’s goal, and they could have realistically continued this fervid approach in their mid-block, potentially stopping all those long switches from coming to life. With Silva and Rodri low, Henderson and Thiago denied their opposite numbers space, as Salah and Mane covered the fullbacks and Jota pushed against Laporte and Stones. With the press being so high and so advanced, this is perhaps where Fabinho started to slip in allowing De Bruyne space to roam. There was simply too much room for the Belgian to find, even despite Mane’s attempts to situate halfway between Walker and De Bruyne in Liverpool’s mid-block. Mane’s defensive mindset continued when the Senegalese striker swapped into Jota’s position, as he continued to drop into midfield areas to tighten up on City’s central overloads. Salah and Diaz stayed high and wide in these moments, ready to counter attack.Embed from Getty Images
Despite City’s dominance and control, Liverpool also had their moments of brilliance, with Salah exuding utter class with his weight of pass and silky smooth footwork. Trent Alexander-Arnold also played a few smashing long passes over the top of City’s back-line, and Alisson made himself an extra number to release Liverpool from the shackles of City’s relentless pressure. Klopp’s build-up structure stayed course from the norm, with a 2+2 initial build that incorporated moments of a false nine dropping in here and there, or Trent Alexander-Arnold situating himself lower on the pitch. I described it in my notes as a “diamond with a hook”, where Fabinho at the top of that diamond had a sprout growing to his left in the form of Thiago.Embed from Getty Images
Given the evolution of the match, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Reds wasted no time in getting the ball forward to their strikers, despite their elaborate build-up plans. Jota did the whole song and dance false nine automatism of the striker coming toward the defensive midfielder whenever Fabinho picked up possession, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson roamed forward into the attack as expected – sometimes even finding each other on the end of crosses. It was essentially typical Liverpool – including grinding out a hard-fought result from two moments of brilliance. But realistically, a draw means very little to either side. We now wait and see what lies ahead in the race for the Premier League title – with both teams evidently up for the task.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Manchester City’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool. Be sure to check out more Match Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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