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Manchester City Tactics : Title Race Is On

The Blues battled their way to 3 points in a must-win situation in one of the most intense matches you’ll ever see.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

What a match! I’m writing this the day after Manchester City took 3 points from Liverpool and my body still hasn’t returned to its regular state. This match was so intense over 90 minutes that I’m sore from just having watched it. Many of you reading this may have had a similar experience. I venture to guess that there was quite the combination of sweating, yelling, and pacing.

But all that stress has paid off because City took away the 2-1 victory and shaved Liverpool’s lead in the Premier League to 4 points. Simply put, this was a must-win situation for the Blues. A loss puts City 10 points back and ends their title defense while even a draw would have left Liverpool with a 7 point lead, close to insurmountable given their current form.

Pep Guardiola’s squad came up clutch though, and the title race is most definitely back on!

It definitely didn’t come easy, however, as the margins in this match were as tight as you will ever see them. Just watching the game, you could see how close these two teams are in quality. But the statistics bear that out as well (City stat mentioned first).

49% to 51% in possession.

578 to 583 passes.

4 shots on target to 5.

1.18 expected goals to 1.38.

Although I personally thought City were the better side over 90 minutes, this match really could have gone either way. That being said, luck is part of the game’s natural variance and that has been something Liverpool has had in their favor while City has not this season. On Thursday, the ball bounced the Blues’ way. John Stones cleared a ball off the line in the 18’ that was reported to be 1.12 centimeters from being a goal. Furthermore, Leroy’s Sane goal in the 72’ hit both posts before going in, a few centimeters further to the right and that ball doesn’t go in. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say this to take anything away from City’s performance, but it is absolutely wild to think that this match was so tight literal centimeters differences decided the outcome.

Pep Guardiola definitely got his tactics right against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, but he certainly had to gamble to do so. He decided to start Aymeric Laporte at left back and leave Kyle Walker out of the starting eleven after resting the previous two matches. I had really thought we would see Danilo (who started at right back) switch the left side of defense and see the re-introduction of Walker after some much needed time off. But Guardiola must have liked what he saw from Danilo recently while simultaneously wanting to get his best defenders on the pitch regardless of natural position.

His gamble paid off as this backline, featuring John Stones and Vincent Kompany at center back, held one of the most dangerous front threes in European football to a single goal. It didn’t hurt having Fernandinho in front of them to boss the deep midfield and prevent attacks from ever getting to the defenders,

Defensively, City actually set up in a 4-4-2 with Sergio Aguero joined by David Silva (later Bernardo) up top as the primary components of the aggressive press applied throughout. Wingers Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling dropped into the midfield, though frequently pressured up the field to funnel the attack central. Doing so prevented the fullbacks from being caught on an island and also pushed Liverpool’s buildup right into Fernandinho instead of making him chase.

Klopp returned his squad to their familiar 4-3-3 at the expense of the recent 4-2-3-1 he has recently preferred which includes Xherdan Shaqiri in the midfield. City were well set up to cope with this, as the fullbacks played the position traditionally. This may have surprised Klopp, it appeared there was an expectation from the Liverpool players that Laporte would adopt a different role from the left back spot. But he really mirrored Danilo as far as maintaining width and getting forward when the opportunity arose. Their heat maps are almost identical in fact.

Combined heat map for Danilo and Aymeric Laporte against Liverpool (attacking left to right).

Moreover, City squeezing the buildup inside restricted Mo Salah and Sadio Mane’s opportunities in wide spaces. When forced to defend in their own third, the midfield and defensive lines preferred to stay narrow and clog the central channel. This tended to give freedom to Liverpool’s fullbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. The Blues had a heavy size advantage in the box and likely were not worried about crosses but it did eventually cost them. Liverpool’s lone goal came from a fullback-to-fullback cross in which Robertson got in behind and flicked it back across to Roberto Firmino for the easy header.

Going forward, City were successful because they didn’t allow themselves to get caught in tight spaces. Liverpool’s press was less active than we are used to seeing on Thursday, but they are excellent at identifying when the opponent is in vulnerable spaces and amplifying the pressure. Guardiola defused this by keeping a healthy distance between the lines of his team. Generally, the Blues avoided possessing in the corners where Liverpool could squeeze them and brought players into the central passing channels. Bernardo Silva would routinely sit alongside Fernandinho in the defensive midfield when City had the ball in their own half and Aguero looked for pockets as well.

City were incredibly patient on the ball though, there was little worry of the Klopp’s press. The great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, would famously tell his team, “Be quick, but don’t hurry”. And that is exactly how City played with the ball at their feet. A quiet confidence was apparent that hadn’t always been there in previous encounters with Liverpool, allowing them to dictate the pace and wait for the best opportunity to move forward.

When they did transition into Liverpool’s half, the attack was heavily concentrated down the left side. Avoiding Virgil van Dijk is generally a good idea and Guardiola did just that. Sergio Aguero spent much of the game outside of Dejan Lovren and 46% of the attack came on the left flank. The opening goal finished with Bernardo finding Aguero sneaking in front of Lovren, but actually began with Laporte finding Sane over the top that put the Liverpool defense into recovery mode.

The Blues were also quite dangerous on the counter, often originating from their own press. Several opportunities emerged after a Liverpool turnover or thwarted attack. Sane (4 dribbles) and Sterling (9 dribbles) were going at defenders all match and making incisive lateral runs that unlocked tons of space. The game winner came on one such move where Salah actually almost got in behind. Ederson cleaned up well and moved it wide where Danilo found Sterling within Liverpool’s backline. Sterling immediately turned and attacked while Aguero and Bernardo made runs to pull the defense back. Sane ran in late to a nice chunk of space, more than enough space to get a shot off for the win.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

Pep Guardiola’s tactics certainly contributed to Manchester’s City victory, but the primary reason the Blues won was because they outworked Liverpool. I usually try to avoid platitudes like that, but it is appropriate here. This team showed so much heart and worked incredibly hard, scrapping and clawing for every inch out there. There was a physicality among the team that made you think there was no way they were going to lose this game, regardless of recent form.

Vincent Kompany, the captain, comes back into the team when they need him most after not playing most the season and was a beast. Fernandinho still hasn’t returned the lunch money he just took from several Liverpool players. I’m still trying to understand how Stones could have even physically gotten back to clear that ball of line.

But I have to give Bernardo Silva his own paragraph here, because I have real questions whether he’s a human being or not. It’s hard to even put into words how good he was in this game. He ran 13.7 kilometers, which is more than any other player has all season in Premier League, beating his own record. Bernardo had the assist on Aguero’s goal, started playing as a defensive midfielder, but finished up top in the press. He was an absolute menace, leading the team in tackles attempted (8) and interceptions (4). City are incredibly lucky to have him.

Who knows what will happen the rest of the season, Liverpool may not even drop four points. But right now, Pep Guardiola and his squad can only worry about taking care of their own business. Manchester City showed their championship pedigree on Thursday, and I’d bet a large sum of money that they are going to be nipping at Liverpool’s heels the rest of the way.