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Manchester City 5-0 Liverpool, 2017 Premier League: Tactical Analysis

City dominated Liverpool at home, hitting their stride as they enter Champions League play.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

5-0! That was an impressive match put on by Manchester City on Saturday. We’ve all been waiting for this team to smash someone but I doubt anyone expected that to happen against Liverpool. It should obviously be noted that Liverpool were down a man for more than 50 minutes, but a five-goal victory is a tremendous accomplishment regardless of the circumstances.

Before Sadio Mané’s red card in the 37th minute, this game was very competitive with both teams having quality chances. Liverpool came out with the same 4-3-3 lineup we have seen from them throughout the season. City countered with a 3-5-2 formation unexpected by many due to the absence of Vincent Kompany. I didn’t expect Pep to stick with the three-man backline if one of the starting center-backs picked up an injury, but this game clearly shows that Guardiola can fit a lineup to whichever tactics he prefers.

Danilo, a natural full-back, played in Kompany’s position on the right side of the backline. He was given the start over Eliaquim Mangala, who clearly has not gained the manager’s trust yet (though he did come in when the victory was in hand), especially in a big game against Liverpool.

City seem to be developing chemistry in the 3-5-2 as this was their most effective version of this formation yet. The relationship between the starting strike partnership of Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero was great this time. Agüero started the game in a deeper position than Jesus, transitioning the formation to more of a 3-5-1-1. As City tend to do, this structure did not maintain for the entire game as Agüero and Jesus played next to each other for long stretches of the game. During this time, one of them would drop deep when the ball was on their side of the pitch.

With a forward dropping in to link up with the midfield, it often completed a diamond in the midfield with Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Fernandinho. De Bruyne and Silva, both of whom are always given freedom to roam, maintained a loose structure in the midfield on the left and right side, respectively. Fernandinho sat in front of the backline as expected, with one of the other central midfielders often dropping deep alongside him for defensive cover.

The final score may indicate a flawless performance by City, but there were several moments of concern in the first 30 minutes of the match. The left side of the defense was particularly worrisome and Liverpool winger Mohamed Salah was arguably the best player on the pitch for the opening half hour. Nicolas Otamendi looked shaky as the center-back on the left and Benjamin Mendy was often too far forward to provide any cover when Liverpool broke on a quick counter. Otamendi earned a yellow card in the 6th minute when he took out Salah on a tackle just outside the box.

Salah continued to exploit space in behind and around Otamendi and City did well to not concede a goal. Liverpool’s best chance came after they were already down a goal when a through ball was played in between Otamendi and Mendy, both of whom were caught flat-footed, to a streaking Salah whose shot on goal was saved by Éderson. The Egyptian attacker found himself in dangerous positions throughout the early stages of the game but John Stones made a few nice recovery tackles on him to shut down the attack.

During the portion of the game with both teams at full strength, City seemed more comfortable allowing Liverpool to maintain possession. Pep generally wants to hold the ball and press forward as much as possible, but was definitely aware of Liverpool’s propensity to effectively counter. Mendy and fellow wing-back Kyle Walker seemed more reserved in pressing forward and City were quick to recover into a five-man backline when the ball was turned over.

The Blues pressed aggressively in defense and attacked quickly upon winning the ball back. A number of chances were set up simply by City being more physical than their opponents. Gabriel Jesus created two corners on his own by pressuring Liverpool defenders and using his body to rob them off the ball. He did this against Trent Alexander-Arnold in the 12th minute as well as Ragnar Klavan twenty minutes later, the latter of which resulted in a Stones attempt on goal that Simon Mignolet did well to keep out of the net.

De Bruyne made a similar play against Alexander-Arnold in the 18th minute when he closed down space quickly and blocked a clearance attempt before recovering the loose ball and winning a free-kick just outside of the box.

City’s first goal came as a result of this physicality as well. Off a Liverpool goal kick, headers were exchanged between Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson. The ball eventually fell towards Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, who was bodied out of position by Fernandinho. The Brazilian placed a header right at the feet of De Bruyne, who played a perfect through ball past four defenders to Agüero, who calmly sidestepped Mignolet and scored the first goal of the game.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Despite the lead, this game was fairly even and City would find it challenging to maintain a clean sheet against a team with the quality of Liverpool. However, this game was changed dramatically in the 37th minute when Sadio Mané received a red card for putting his studs into the side of Éderson’s face. It was absolutely the right call and it forced Éderson to leave the pitch on a stretcher, giving Claudio Bravo his first action of the season.

This play does exemplify why having Éderson in goal is so important for City. Joel Matip played a ball over the top of the defense that Mané was going to run onto right outside of the box. Maintaining a high line will make the Blues vulnerable to balls over the top all season and I’ve been surprised teams haven’t tried to exploit this more often. But Éderson’s awareness to come off his line to clear these balls is vital in shutting these chances down, which is exactly why this clash occurred.

Éderson, who had cleared another ball in similar fashion earlier in the game, rushed out to head the ball clear of danger and arrived just ahead of Mané before taking a cleat to the face. His ability to make these plays will impact City’s success and he will hopefully be back sooner rather than later.

Once Liverpool were down a man, the game flowed in City’s favor. In the sixth minute of stoppage time in the first half, Mendy played a ball down the left wing to De Bruyne, who played in a right-footed cross after losing Alexander-Arnold on a nice cutback. His cross found an unmarked Gabriel Jesus right in front of goal for one the easiest headers he will ever have and the second goal of the game.

Being down a man does not necessarily condemn a team to defeat, we saw that with City when they managed to get a draw against Everton despite being down to 10 men during the entire second half. But it was very clear early on in the second half that Liverpool did not have the defensive aptitude to survive the game down 2 goals. City completed dominated the second half of the game and gave fans one of the most comfortable and enjoyable halves of football they will experience.

Liverpool came out with an eye for counters, but City altered formations into primarily a flat 4-4-2 formation with Danilo stepping forward as a defensive midfielder next to Fernandinho. Otamendi actually switched from left to right on the defense, likely to match up the pacier John Stones up with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who came on in place of Salah. Similar to previous games, we saw a lot of interchanging during the second half and the formation was fluid, with Danilo dropping deeper at times, reorganizing into a 3-man backline.

With each additional City goal, the team found more comfort and fluidity with the outcome already determined. The third goal came from a thwarted Liverpool counter in the 53rd minute. Stones cut out a pass through the center of the pitch and found Fernandinho with plenty of space. He played a gorgeous through ball into a tight window between two Liverpool players to a running Agüero, who found himself alone on goal with teammate Gabriel Jesus. Agüero unselfishly played the ball to Jesus for a clear look and his second goal of the match.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Gabriel Jesus was taken off for Leroy Sané in the 57th minute, but City did not skip a beat. Sané matched Jesus with two goals of his own before it was all said and done. Sané primarily occupied the left wing but wandered into midfield and was even positioned as the central striker at times. Regardless of his position on the pitch, Sané was great and definitely gave Pep something to think about when he picks the starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Feyenoord.

The left side of City’s attack was terrific all game and it was hard to keep track of how many chances developed down that side of the field. Sané provided a great cross to an unmarked De Bruyne in the center of the box in the 65th minute, but the finish was blasted well over the bar.

Mendy was particularly dangerous and was placing powerful crosses into the box all game. He makes chances happen by simply playing the ball in because he has such pace on his crosses that defenders often don’t have time to adjust their bodies to properly clear the ball (Joel Matip had this problem in Saturday’s game). No one should be surprised if Mendy has the most assists of any full-back in England this year.

Sané’s first goal actually came from one of Mendy’s dangerous crosses. De Bruyne played a ball to Leroy who had space to turn and run at the defense. The ball was passed out to a streaking Mendy on the wing who took a touch and played it right back to Sané, who had continued his run towards goal. The German attacker placed a perfect shot right off the first touch into the bottom corner of the goal.

The final goal of the game also started from a Mendy cross, though this one was well overhit; the ball fell to the feet of Kyle Walker who had maintained width outside of the box. Walker then played a simple pass to Sané right outside the box, and the Liverpool defense showed no urgency in closing him down. Sané responded by curving an absolutely delightful shot into the top corner.

You may hear some people (Liverpool fans......) say the result of this game was heavily influenced by the red card, and it obviously did play a role. But scoring 5 goals on any team, regardless of circumstances, deserves praise. We’ve seen much weaker teams than Liverpool maintain defensive shape and competitiveness being a man down. It’s hard to say if the lack of defense was more from the players not caring or if there are deeper problems with Liverpool’s backline.

It’s worth mentioning that a victory of this magnitude could influence the table later in the season as City and Liverpool will surely be in competition for Champions League spots. Though it is early, Manchester City were able to swing a +10 goal differential in their favor over Liverpool which may come in handy at the end of the season.

For Manchester City, this game provided a glimpse of what this team can do when they get into a flow. The Blues are becoming the team Pep envisions and we may have seen it all finally click in this game. If City can maintain this chemistry with the squad rotation we will see going forward, both the Premier League and Champions League better watch out.