Dubbed as the “Battle of Britain”, this encounter saw two of the Premier League’s most exciting attacking teams go head to head in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter final. The combined score of the previous two meetings between these two teams was 8-4 in favor of City, which reflected the openness and attack-minded tactics of both teams. Although the previous meeting was a 4-3 result in Liverpool’s favor, the Reds had shown a steelier side to their defense in Europe, boasting 5 clean sheets out of 6 games prior to this one. Meanwhile, City entered this tie having strolled past Basel, with a minor hiccup of losing 1-2 at home.
Despite having the home crowd behind them and playing at home, Liverpool did not seek a strategy of all-out attack. Injuries to Emre Can, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, and Adam Lallana forced Jurgen Klopp to make a change in the midfield, as the dynamic Ox was preferred over Wijnaldum in the center-right of the park, and Lovren stepped in for the injured Matip. A decision that would be vindicated at the start of the game as Ox was electric, pressing in tandem with the two other midfielders.
For large periods of the game, Liverpool were happy to allow City the majority of possession and would choose to engage the champions-elect selectively, instead focusing on staying compact and cutting off City’s passing lanes in the middle of the park.
Manchester City Strategy
City came into this game knowing that they only needed to score, as the next leg would be at the Etihad where they could truly put a stranglehold on the tie if they needed to. Guardiola strayed away from his usual system of inverted fullbacks, in which his fullbacks would slide into midfield while Silva and De Bruyne would attack the space between the opposition’s center backs, as shown below (ignoring the wrong player names):
For this game, Guardiola was wary of Salah and Mane’s pace on the wings, and so he chose to go with a lopsided 4-2-3-1 to provide more defensive cover on the wings.
To cover attacks on the left, Laporte was instructed to refrain from attacking and cover Mohammed Salah. His counterpart on the right side, Kyle Walker, was given more freedom to attack, but would often be left alone on the right side without a winger to assist him.
The heat map of City’s play shows that Sane was the main outlet of their attacks, as Walker was unable to mount successful attacks down the right wing. This situation improved slightly once Sterling came on for Gundogan, but Liverpool were still able to keep the majority of City’s play outside of their penalty box and reduce them to pot shots from distance.
The opening ten minutes saw Liverpool sitting deeper than usual and ceding possession to City, who seemed a little surprised at this tactic were expecting a full-throttle charge from Liverpool. Undeterred, City began to control possession of the ball as they have done in countless games, with de Bruyne, Silva, and Fernandinho moving the ball around the center circle. However with Liverpool choking the space in the middle of the park, City had to widen their play through Sane.
Normally, this strategy would work well for City as Sane and Sterling would stretch an opposition’s defense and force gaps to open up for Silva and de Bruyne to run into. Unfortunately for City, Gundogan is not a naturally wide player and would rather cut into the middle of the pitch instead of having his heels on the paint. This made it easier for Liverpool to stifle City in the middle and on its right flank, without having to worry too much about attacks coming down from the left side. TAA also had a much better game than on Saturday, making smart tackles and staying close to Sane. Ox did his job in midfield as well, quickly running to assist TAA anytime Sane had the ball and forcing him to run either inward (toward the bulk of the Liverpool players) or play the ball back.
Mohammed Salah (1-0)
With Liverpool showing they were willing to sit deep and counter, perhaps City became a little too complacent in defense and thought that it would be another game where they could squeeze the life out of the opposition through possession. Liverpool’s first goal actually came after a stylish dribble by Sane to force a corner. City’s momentum was turned upside-down when Liverpool countered perfectly from the ensuing corner and Salah, who did appear marginally offside, was able to slip Firmino through for a shot. Although the shot was initially saved, Firmino kept fighting for the ball and pick-pocketed Walker to give the ball back to Salah for a straightforward finish.
A few things to touch on – in the initial phase of the counter attack, it’s up to Gundogan to make sure that this pass doesn’t make it to Salah. I’m sure that Guardiola would have instructed his players to stick close to Salah in any counter attack scenario, however in this scenario Gundogan has wandered toward the ball and allowed Salah to dart behind him.
As for Walker, he is thinking that he has to stay with Firmino and that Gundogan will get to the pass. However, once the ball has passed Gundogan, Walker is in a tough spot. He actually does well to make up the ground to Salah, but is left behind by a clever cut inside and pass. If he had gone in with a slide tackle or even a bear hug on Salah for a foul, the counter would have been blunted:
He does neither and takes too long to clear the initial shot, thereby allowing Firmino to steal the ball off of him. It’s difficult to pin the blame on Walker, who worked really hard to stop the attack, but fell short at the very end.
At this point, it’s ten minutes in, the Anfield crowd is roaring in your ears, and your team is down a goal already. City are rattled, no doubt, but not collapsing. They make a few good plays and look to be shaking themselves awake when Ox finds a tiny bit of space to make it 2-0.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (2-0)
This goal was down to individual class and quality, rather than a defensive lapse like the previous goal. When Mane has the ball on the touchline, City are in a decent defensive shape. Laporte knows where Salah is, Kompany is aware of Firmino and actually steps forward to tackle him, and Sane is close enough to Ox to mark him.
Although Gundogan is weak in his challenge while Milner is not, it is not expected for him to be stronger than Milner in that scenario. When Sane sees the ball rolling toward Gundogan, he is thinking about attacking the space in front of him and is thus off balance when the challenge rolls the ball to Ox.
Ox does really well to take a good touch and immediately shoot. Kompany, who is struggling to see the ball through the gaggle of players in front of him, tries to close down the shot and block it, but it’s too late at that point.
Sadio Mane (3-0)
Twenty minutes in and already two goals down, Manchester City looked on the verge of mental collapse. Still, they stuck to their principles and duly went back to moving the ball around, probing for openings in the Liverpool defensive block. Unfortunately, the collapse was completed ten minutes later when Salah picked up the ball on the edge of penalty area and chipped the ball into the box for Sadio Mane to nod the ball past Ederson.
While Laporte needs to do better to close down Salah’s cross, Milner does exceptionally well to read the situation and block Walker off from getting to the cross. He darts ahead of him while Mane does well to peel off of Fernandinho for the far post header. I’m not entirely sure what Otamendi is doing in this scenario as well, as he allows Firmino to run past him and suddenly Fernandino is dealing with two forwards, one in front of him and one behind him.
The second half saw Liverpool content to let City control the ball and choose moments when to engage defensively. It was risky for Liverpool to follow this strategy over an entire half, as it has potential to backfire. However, the team held together and contained City’s attacks, despite City doing a much better job of working both flanks and winning second balls than they did in the first half.
Liverpool Defensive Shape
Liverpool’s overall defensive strategy was fairly consistent over both halves. The press would begin with the attackers closing the space on City’s back four, and force them to play the ball. The midfield would see the press by the forwards and keep two men on City’s midfield players while the third midfielder would quickly close down the space on the City player with the ball. This tactic prevented City’s midfielders time and space to pick out a killer ball, and forced them back toward their defense. Whenever City tried to play to Jesus, Van Dijk or Lovren would quickly use their physical strength to shut him down.
A prime example of this in action is in this clip:
Even when Sterling is introduced for some much needed width on the right, Liverpool adjusted to this new attacking threat brilliantly. Henderson was constantly supporting his defenders in all areas of the pitch, while Milner worked tirelessly as well to cover gaps.
This defensive work-rate was rewarded as the game ended with a clean sheet for Liverpool,
Kevin de Bruyne
Potentially the Premier League player of the season, de Bruyne was kept largely quiet during this game. For large parts of the game, Guardiola deployed him as a holding midfielder next to Fernandinho to move the ball from defense to attack quickly, and to beat Liverpool’s press. Liverpool allowed him to control the ball as much as he liked in his own half, but he was largely frustrated when entering Liverpool’s half. He did not occupy his usual space between the opposition’s center back and fullback, during this game.
Milner was a work horse in the midfield throughout Saturday’s game and his intensity was kicked up a notch during this quarter final. His crunching tackle of Gundogan spilled the ball for Ox to belt it in for Liverpool’s second, and his run to cut off Walker to open up an opportunity for Mane to head it home for Liverpool’s third showed his experience.
The young fullback responded to criticisms of his performance on Saturday with thunderous aplomb. The ninteen year old was absolutely fantastic, and the stats absolutely back that as he lead the team in interceptions and clearances.
Sane had brief flashes of brilliance, but TAA kept him largely in check throughout the game.
Liverpool adapted its game to the occasion, smashed three goals and then locked up shop – something not many people expected out of a Liverpool defense that is infamous for leaking goals. On the other hand, Guardiola failed to craft a convincing strategy for Liverpool’s dynamic attack and a mental collapse of 30 minutes was enough for his team to let the tie slip away from them.
Make no mistake, Manchester City is not out of the tie just yet and while this is an excellent start for Liverpool, next week will feature a home team full of wounded pride and fan base that demands excellence. Liverpool must snatch an away goal to take the sting out of Manchester City and steer themselves into their first semi-final appearance in the Champions League in eleven years.