Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 2-1 Liverpool, Title Race wide open after Guardiola wins the tactical duel
The new year began with one of the biggest matches of the 2018/19 Premier League as defending champions, Manchester City hosted the table leaders, Liverpool. The build-up to the match showed how important the game was for both teams.
A win for Liverpool and they would be ten points clear, a win for Manchester City and they will be able to bridge the seven-point gap between themselves and Liverpool to 4 points.
With two of the most elite managers reigniting their Bundesliga rivalry, the match was sure to be a treat for football fans around the world. With a series of systems employed in the game and adaptive changes from both managers, both teams gave it their best to gain probably the three most vital points of the entire season.
Pep Guardiola lined up as a 4-3-3 which is the usual structure of Manchester City. The return of Fernandinho in the heart of midfield was important as David and Bernardo Silva would then have more freedom around the pitch and occupy the half spaces between the centre back and fullback of the opposing team.
With Delph suspended, Mendy injured and Zinchenko's mistake against Southampton, Pep Guardiola was forced to use last season's January singing, Aymeric Laporte at left back. City lined up as a 3-4-3 in defence, with Danilo pushing up and Laporte dropping in with Stones and Kompany. This compact shape made it possible for the sky blues to deal with Salah, Mane and Firmino.
Liverpool employed a 4-3-3 but due to the high, energetic press of Manchester City, they were unable to display their attacking prowess. They often had to sit deep and defend. Milner and Wjinalumd were employed alongside Henderson to not allow any space in the half spaces for the two Silvas. This is similar to what Sarri did during Manchester City's visit to Stamford Bridge.
However, after going 1-0 down in the first half, the Reds switched to a 4-2-3-1 with Wjinaldum on the left, Mane on the right, Firmino dropping in and Salah playing as the striker. This allowed them to create central overloads, an important factor behind their equaliser as Robertson got yards of space to cut back to Firmino.
Let's look at the key elements that decided the game and ensured Pep Guardiola and his men got all three points at the Etihad.
City's High Energetic Press and Wide Overloads
City started the game very well as they usually do. They pressed high up the pitch and ensured that Liverpool didn't get as much space and comfort to truly control the game. This saw Liverpool lose the ball several times in the opening 20 minutes. However, Manchester City never really created a clear-cut chance.
However, an important factor behind Manchester City's attack was to create wide overloads with 3-4 players on one flank. As mentioned before, City likes to play Bernardo and David Silva in the half spaces between centre back and fullback.
With the quick wingers in Sterling and Sane, the space on the flanks and the numerical advantage was necessary. Both wingers played on the side of their stronger foot, meaning their role will mostly be to find space on the flank and cut a ball in. Aguero's movement was also pivotal in this build up.
It was often seen that Aguero, Silva and Sane would form overloads on the left side of the pitch. The casualty of this was Dejan Lovren, who was the weaker of the two defenders. So, by gaining a numerical advantage they were able to quickly move the ball and create space for Silva, who would find Aguero and the Argentine beat Alisson at the near post.
City inviting Liverpool's press
While one approach was to create these overloads and then feed the ball into the box for Aguero, another approach that Manchester City employed was the use of Sterling and Sane's pace. In my previous article, I talked about how Sterling played in the false-9 position and his main objective was to find space that was left behind by Chelsea's full-backs. Manchester City used a similar attacking approach in this game as well.
The idea was to invite Liverpool to press high up the pitch, which would mean the duo of Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold would also join the press, leaving space behind for Sane and Sterling to run into and cause danger. So, Manchester City played out from the back. Ederson would pass the balls to the centre-backs and the centre-backs would pass the ball around in their own half to invite an aggressive Liverpool press.
As soon as the fullbacks were caught out of position, they would play a long ball to Sterling or Sane. However, Klopp was quick to recognise this tactic and Liverpool did not press as high up as they did in the opening 30 minutes when the ball was played out from the back.
Guardiola also mentioned this tactic when he was questioned over his 'direct' style of play.
Bernardo Silva employed as the complete midfielder
Bernardo Silva had four interceptions in the game (highest in the game) and ran a total of 13.7km, the most distance run by any individual player in a Premier League match this season.
Many doubts have been raised over the Portuguese and whether he will reach his best at Manchester City. After rarely featuring last year, Bernardo Silva has made a huge impact this season.
Owing to De Bruyne's injury, Bernardo Silva has gotten quite a few starts for Manchester City and has shined this season. The Liverpool game, however, might have been his best game in a City shirt.
Bernardo Silva had four interceptions in the game (highest in the game) and ran a total of 13.7 km, the most distance run by any individual player in a Premier League match this season. He was challenging Virgil Van Dijk in aerial duels, dribbling around the left side of midfield and not allowing the midfield trio of Wjinaldum, Milner and Henderson to get much of the ball. He also dictated play when he had the ball and played as a complete midfielder.
Guardiola showered praise on the 24-year-old central midfielder and he deserved every bit of the plaudits he received for his stunning performance.
Liverpool's attacking approach
While Manchester City created wide overloads, Liverpool created central overloads. Salah and Mane often drifted in to occupy the half spaces between centre back and fullback. This dragged the fullbacks in and created space on the flanks.
Playing a three-man midfield this meant that there were nearly six people centrally and so the entire shape of Manchester City became very compact. So space was created on the flanks and this space was attacked by the two industrious fullbacks, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold.
Firmino's goal was a direct consequence of this space created. The goal involved both fullbacks as Alexander Arnold played an inch-perfect cross to meet the end of Robertson's run into the box. Robertson cut the ball in and it was an easy tap-in for Firmino. So, the attacking approach proved successful for the Reds.
But City played quick counterattacking football and scored on the counter for the second goal. After this, they were happy to sit back and defend their lead. With a vital three points at the end of the game, Manchester City is now only four points adrift of table toppers, Liverpool.