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Manchester City Tactics : Scoreless Draw at Anfield

An unfamiliar gameplan from Pep Guardiola produced a surprising result on the road.

Liverpool FC v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

If you told me before this match that the final score would be 0 - 0, I probably would have bet you a large sum of money that you would be wrong. But here we are, with Manchester City and Liverpool producing the most unpredictable scoreless draw in recent memory. The result will likely be frustrating for City fans (especially considering the late penalty miss), but I personally wouldn’t have complained if you offered me a point beforehand. This game is encouraging for the Blues on a number of different levels.

The major takeaway from this game is Pep Guardiola’s adaptation to Liverpool from a tactical perspective. Liverpool have been City’s kryptonite because the Spaniard’s normally great style of play becomes a weakness against the intense pressure Jurgen Klopp implements. Emphasizing attack-minded possession and playing out of the back has historically provided Liverpool with great counterattacking opportunities that players like Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah regularly convert into goals.

However, Pep adjusted his strategy into a much more conservative approach that completely stifled any semblance of an attack from the opponents. He actually set his team up to defend in a 4-4-2 with David Silva up top next to Sergio Aguero. City prioritized keeping their shape above all else and limited their aggression committing numbers forward. The possession was methodical at the expense of the standard freedom we see a Pep Guardiola team move with, but this left City in great position to thwart out attacks from Liverpool when the ball was turned over.

Ederson played more balls over the top of the defense than we are used to, but City did not completely abandon their method of playing out of the back. Jurgen Klopp’s press focused on Fernandinho as the link between the defense and attack, so there was often a Liverpool player within close proximity. In response, Pep pulled Bernardo Silva from his standard attacking role into a double pivot alongside Fernandinho. His ability to operate in tight spaces was massive in this deeper position and forced Liverpool to pull another midfielder forward if they were to shut down the connection through the center of the pitch. This would leave a lot of space between the Liverpool midfield and backline for City to exploit.

Bernardo Silva heat map against Liverpool w/ City attacking right to left.
WhoScored.com

City kept a compact backline and shifted their midfield around the periphery of the defense to close down on Liverpool possession. Wide midfielders Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez were instrumental in helping their fullbacks. Liverpool thrive when they can pull fullbacks out of position so this was a crucial aspect of City’s gameplan. When the Blues did recover possession, they would move forward conservatively as a group or send a few attackers for quick counters.

Liverpool were similarly hesitant, obviously aware of City’s attacking prowess. Klopp even started Joe Gomez, who has spent much of the season as a central defender, at right back. This came at the expense of Trent Alexander-Arnold, a player with stronger attacking abilities but perhaps not the defensive quality of Gomez. His presence in the lineup actually helped City, who also congested the midfield during Liverpool’s buildup play, severely limiting Jordan Henderson’s ability to get involved. This forced them to work down the flanks and Gomez was needed to take the wide space more than Klopp likely intended.

These dramatic tactical shifts from both managers resulted in a fairly boring match. Each team has two shots on goal and they were particularly high quality chances. The expected goal (xG) totals were 0.43 for Liverpool and 1.07 for City (0.31 xG if you take out the penalty), illustrating the lack of excitement. Overall, the Blues did slightly appear to be the better side, especially in the second half when the field seemed to tilt towards Liverpool keeper Allison Becker. The chances weren’t great but City maintained their patience better and were able to attack in more situations when the opponents had lost their shape.

The penalty miss by Mahrez truly is disappointing, because a victory at Anfield in this manner would have crucial for City’s title defense. I personally would have chosen Jesus or David Silva ahead of him, though I don’t lack confidence in Mahrez’s ability. It’s unfortunate as well because the miss may overshadow what was overall a strong game by the Algerian. His selection in the starting eleven was a puzzling one, but he proved himself well on both sides of the ball.

Benjamin Mendy also had a promising performance that eases some of my doubts about his defense. He was obviously held back from making the attacking runs he is so well known for, but the Frenchman was great in this stay-at-home role. With 3 clearances and 2 interceptions, he showed a defensive awareness that he hasn’t been able to showcase frequently in a City shirt. Mendy being able to put in this defensive effort will be important when the Blues come up against strong opponents like Liverpool.

Altogether, Manchester City proved to be able to succeed with this conservative strategy. Pep Guardiola’s willingness to play this way shut down an attacking trident for Liverpool that regularly terrorizes defenses. These tactics may come in handy in the Champions League, where grinding out non-flashy results is often necessary. Though I doubt Pep will have City play like this frequently, showing the aptitude to do so is a strong wrinkle to have in the repertoire and can be gone to when the game needs to be settled down.