Liverpool 2 -1 Manchester City: Rodgers’ tactics outnumber City’s defensively frail midfield
Despite the millions that Manchester City have spent on their star players, there have been repeated discussions over the years about City lacking a true defensive midfielder, which often leads to the likes of Vincent Kompany stepping out of the defence and taking out the opponent’s striker.
With the likes of Javi Garcia, Gareth Barry and Rodwell leaving without fulfilling the expectations of the management, the current defensive midfielder Fernando has also had a mixed season.
Pellegrini received a lot of criticism for his midfield choice against Barcelona on Tuesday, and again against Liverpool on Sunday, when the City manager chose not to start a proper defensive midfielder and instead started both Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.
Though midweek games have obviously affected this choice, Brendan Rodgers’ continuing tactic of packing the midfield worked perfectly because of this team selection by Pellegrini.
Pre-match both teams looked well balanced. Despite Liverpool having more numbers in midfield, the style of Silva and Nasri’s play meant that they would drift in and occupy the midfield spaces left vacant due to a front two playing for City. This would have left a head-to-head battle between City’s fullbacks and Liverpool’s wingbacks.
But the match turned out to be quite different, mainly due to two reasons: City lacking defensive awareness in midfield against Coutinho, Lallana and Sterling, and more importantly, Liverpool lacking a playmaker in their midfield duo of Henderson and Allen.
Despite both teams suffering losses in the midweek European games, it was Liverpool who came bursting into this game. Rodgers again started with what is now his established 3-4-3, with Henderson, Allen, Lallana and Coutinho pressing City’s midfield and fullbacks right from the start.
Part of the reason why Liverpool looked dangerous initially was City’s shape at the back. Both Zabaleta and Kolarov pushed out wide and took positions higher up the field, leaving Yaya Toure to fall back deep between two very stretched out centre-backs. With only Fernandinho pressing in front of Toure, this left City with three defenders against Liverpool’s triumvirate in attack.
Despite being outnumbered by Henderson and Markovic’s constant running from midfield, City’s defence was let down on multiple occasions by the individual positioning and erroneous judgements of two players, in particular, Fernandinho and Kompany.
The captain Kompany’s main problem was with Raheem Sterling running into the space being vacated by Zabaleta at right-back. Most of Sterling’s darts were from behind Kompany into the right flank of City’s defence, which repeatedly pulled Mangala out of position.
In such circumstances, neither Kompany nor City’s defensive midfield were able to check the runs of Lallana or Markovic, and as usual City were content with defending at the edge of the penalty box. Again, Liverpool’s lack of players in the box cost them quite a few simple chances.
Fernandinho on the other hand has made it a habit of rushing into tackles in midfield. The Brazilian almost every time receives a card for such tackles, but trying such lunges into players like Coutinho often leads to the latter coming through successfully. Coutinho broke free in midfield under similar circumstances for the first goal.
Here again Zabaleta and Nasri were caught higher up the field, leaving no one to track back with Henderson. Coutinho’s dart into the left-flank was enough to occupy Fernandinho and open up space for Henderson’s sublime effort.
As is often the case, City do start big games slowly in midfield. With David Silva slowly popping up more often in the No.10 role, City were able to retain possession much better. With Silva almost permanently stationed in the “hole” and Nasri hugging the right touchline in an attempt to cover Moreno’s runs, it was often left to Dzeko alone to cover the left flank when Liverpool were on the ball.
This overloading of the right flank could easily be a tactic to target Liverpool’s weakest links in defence, Lovren and Moreno. Sergio Aguero spent most of the first half next to Dejan Lovren, and Nasri took up a similar role close by on the right flank.
This meant that whenever Silva received the ball in front of the defence, the Spaniard now chose to drift into the inside-left channel of Liverpool’s defence, and hence moved alongside Aguero, helping outnumber Lovren and Moreno. Zabaleta was the beneficiary of this outnumbering as the Argentine was released freely down this flank on multiple occasions.
The away team’s goal also arose from similar circumstances when Silva received the ball right in behind Liverpool’s midfield and drifted to Lovren’s flank before passing it on to Aguero, who was positioned just in front of Lovren. Aguero was able to drift across Lovren and Skrtel before playing a reverse pass to Dzeko who ran in behind Skrtel.
This goal clearly exposed an area of Liverpool’s midfield that Silva could take advantage of repeatedly. With Liverpool’s midfield quartet pushing up to press City, there were huge gaps being left in front of their defence. With the likes of Skrtel and Lovren rarely pushed up, due to the threat of City’s two-pronged attacks, Rodgers was again missing a full-fledged defensive midfielder to shield the back three.
Another aspect glaringly missing in Liverpool’s midfield was the playmaking abilities of Gerrard. With Henderson playing the role of closing down Yaya Toure at the halfway line, it was left to Joe Allen to mop up the threat of Silva in midfield.
And though Rodgers’ tactic here was to play more passes into the feet of Coutinho and Lallana rather than picking them out with long passes, against a high backline like that of the Sky Blues’, the pace of Sterling and Sturridge could be used more effectively with better distribution from midfield as was shown by both Yaya Toure and David Silva for Manchester City, as they were able to pick out Dzeko and Aguero on multiple occasions with long balls over the defence.
The most obvious change expected in the second half was for Pellegrini to match his numbers in midfield by dropping a forward. James Milner was brought on at the hour mark in place of Dzeko, and the English winger started on City’s left flank with Silva now playing as the No.10.
Milner was expected to start the game, considering Liverpool were playing with quick wingbacks. He was then brought on with clear instructions of tracking Adam Lallana playing on the left. So now, the away team had equalled the numbers in midfield, but still the likes of Toure and Fernandinho lacked the defensive mindset of tracking back once they had lost the ball.
Liverpool’s second goal came under similar circumstances when Nasri allowed Coutinho to run past after Sterling had popped up just in behind Yaya Toure. Coutinho’s finish was out of this world, but surprisingly, it was Mangala who stepped out of the City defence to close down Sterling initially, rather than the error-prone Vincent Kompany.
In a game that looked evenly poised, the match was turned by Liverpool’s direct attacking play in the final third of the pitch and Henderson’s pressing in the centre. City did have a decent outing in terms of their midfielders creating for Aguero and Dzeko, but neither Yaya Toure or David Silva or Fernandinho showed the defensive discipline necessary to track Liverpool’s runners from midfield.
All pictures describing player movement and comparing passing statistics have been taken from Squawka