It’s been a tough week for Manchester City with the 3-0 loss in the first leg of the Champions League followed by relinquishing a 2-0 half-time lead against their bitter rivals at home. Unaccustomed to the shock of losing, it was now up to Manchester City to take the initiative in the return leg with the support of their fans behind them.
With this in mind, Guardiola marked clear attacking intent in his starting lineup for this game. He reasoned that Liverpool would set up to counter attack and that the pace of the game would have to be dictated by his players. To this end, Bernardo Silva and Sterling were brought into the starting lineup to provide much needed width and stretch Liverpool’s defense.
In the back, the defense reverted to three center backs with Kompany dropped from the first leg. Any time Liverpool would attempt to counter, Fernandinho would drop into the defensive line as a center back, marking Salah or Mane’s runs expertly. For Guardiola to be able to set up his team in this fashion speaks to the tactical intelligence and flexibility of his players.
Due to Henderson’s ban and piling injuries in the midfield, Jurgen Klopp was forced to play Gini Wijnaldum in the center defensive midfielder role that Henderson and Can have so often played in the past. The rest of the team remained unchanged from the first leg, with Ox retaining his starting position in the midfield, and Salah & Firmino restored to the starting lineup. The message from the start was clear – stay compact and look for opportunities to counter through the front three. It was also important for the center midfielders to support the fullbacks in any 1 v 1 situations and try to reduce City’s attack into shots from outside the box or hopeful crosses into the box.
Gabriel Jesus (1-0)
Calamity struck Liverpool almost instantly, as Karius and Van Dijk were too casual in moving the ball out from defense. Karius can see that Sterling is looking to pressure Van Dijk and should just boot it long. Whether or not Sterling fouls Van Dijk, it’s up to the Liverpool defender to quickly get the ball out of the danger zone and not rely on the referee to relieve the pressure. Once the decision isn’t made, Sterling does well to attack the space left behind and lay the ball off to Jesus. This goal could have been easily avoided and really came down to individual errors.
City First Half Strategy
At all times, Sterling + D. Silva + B. Silva + Jesus + Sane were meant to occupy the spaces between Liverpool’s back four while de Bruyne and Fernandinho would serve the ball into those five. This overload allowed the City players to attack the spaces between the fullback and the center back on both sides, and to harrass the Liverpool players in those spaces if they lost possession. We can see an example of that in this clip:
These sort of attacks were absent in the first leg, and created a lot of issues for the Liverpool defense in this game. The Red’s midfield couldn’t handle these runs and were overrun by the sheer number of attacks that City was throwing their way.
Sane Disallowed Goal & Guardiola Expulsion
With the overwhelming number of attacks from City, Liverpool were on the ropes and looking for half-time in order to reorganize. The biggest moment of the game came when Sane tapped in a rebound from James Milner toward the end of the half. Despite the 4th official being in a perfect position to see who the ball rebounded off of, the referees make a major mistake and disallow the goal. In the clip below, we can clearly see Karius punch the ball down into Milner’s thigh.
Since the ball is played back by a player in the defending team, Sane is thereby not in an offside position and the goal should stand.
Although this was a terrible refereeing mistake, Guardiola lost his head and raged at the referees after the whistle for the half blew. With his team playing immensely and really looking up for it, Guardiola set the wrong tone for the second half by being sent to the stands – a mistake that would severely hinder his team.
With his team rattled at the half, Jurgen Klopp needed to make tactical changes to get them back in the game since there weren’t any substitutions he could make. That being said, he did brilliantly to adjust his team’s positioning to counter City’s threats on the flanks by moving Firmino to the left side and Mane to the right side to operate more as midfielders than attacking wingers. Instead of operating higher up the field and pressing the City back three, their focus shifted to supporting their fullbacks and providing an outlet to relieve pressure.
Due to this switch, City players struggled to use numerical superiority on the wings to overwhelm Liverpool’s defense. In the opening 10 minutes, the Liverpool defense successfully repelled a few Manchester City attacks and it became clear that this half would not follow the same trend as the first half. Liverpool were much more composed with Mane and Firmino doing very well to hold the ball, and the two fullbacks had more freedom to go forward and provide outlets on the wings as well.
Mohammed Salah (1-1)
This goal really comes down to excellent play from the whole team, starting with a Firmino tackle and ending with a Salah tidy finish. Firmino starts the move off by sprinting back to make a questionable tackle on de Bruyne, which the referee is in a good position to judge. Some referees would call it a foul, others would not and this referee was of the latter group, however Firmino still does very well to keep up with de Bruyne’s run.
Once the ball is recovered, Liverpool begin to possess the ball in no hurry; Wijnaldum does exceptionally well to hold the ball in several high-pressure situations, thereby increasing Liverpool’s confidence on the ball and willingness to attack. The team actually holds on to the ball for almost two whole minutes leading up to the goal while City are unable to win it back. In the end, a quick change of pace by Ox and a bit of trickery by Mane gives Salah the chance he needs to score the equalizing goal.
With this goal early in the second half and Guardiola sent to the stands unable to reorganize his players, Manchester City is defeated mentally and the tie is effectively over. From this point on, City plays to just not lose a third game in a row.
The game began with a Liverpool defensive error that resulted in a goal, and it ended with Manchester City mirroring the error to end the game. Otamendi took far too long to clear an easy ball, and Firmino, who was slowly closing down the space, saw his chance to dispossess Otamendi and forced the defender into an error. Despite that, Firmino has to place his shot inch-perfectly to avoid Ederson’s outstretched hand and Fernandinho’s tackle. All in all, another clinical finish from the Liverpool forwards.
Over both games the two teams produced some top class football that all neutrals enjoyed. Both games followed the pattern of a strong start from the home team and then the away team taking over the game in the second half. It has to be said that the aggregate score of 5-1 in Liverpool’s favor is not a good indication of how close these games were. Had Sane’s goal been allowed, the second leg could have taken a very different turn.
In the first game, City did not play fully to their strengths and adopted a more cautious approach that blunted their attack, but also did not solidify their defense. In thirty minutes, Liverpool punished their mental frailty and ran away with the tie. Desperation forced Guardiola to play an all-out attacking team in the second game; a decision that was almost vindicated. City did dominate the opening 45 minutes of the penultimate game and seemed well poised to continue in the same vein for the second half, however a rush of blood from their manager and a poor refereeing decision contributed to a crumbling morale. The final nail in the coffin came with Salah’s goal.
While Liverpool rode its luck at times, the team as a whole fought tooth and nail to win the tie. Liverpool’s biggest weakness over the season, its defense, rose to the occasion and played very well to stop City’s waves of attack. A lot of credit for this achievement has to go to Liverpool’s coaching staff, as they demonstrated tactical flexibility over both games to make life as uncomfortable as possible for City while accommodating a long list of injuries/suspensions to key players. The discipline drilled into the team by the management to press as a unit, stay compact, and make it as easy as possible for their defense were all on display.
- Although City boasted higher rated attacking players and were widely-lauded offensively, their effectiveness in front of goal was underwhelming compared to their opponents. Liverpool scored 5 goals with 12 total shots, while City scored 1 (off of a major mistake) with 14 shots. That’s an effectiveness rate of 41% for Liverpool, and 7% for City.
- Liverpool outran City in both games, although both teams almost doubled their intensity in the second game:
DISTANCE COVERED (km) Leg 1 Leg 2 Liverpool 60.5 116 City 59.5 114.9
- The two legs saw an interesting tactical battle between Guardiola and Klopp. Both managers adapted their usual tactics to the occasion, and both teams demonstrated solid flexibility in adopting these changes.
- Wijnaldum was missing in the first half, however he stepped up considerably for the second half and was instrumental in retaining the ball for Liverpool . He beat Manchester City’s press several times during the build up of the first goal, which was crucial for the growing rhythm of the team as a whole. Here we see him do very well in keeping the ball:
His coolness under pressure leads to the passing combination for the equalizer:
- The Liverpool defense was immense over both legs. Going up against the best attack in the Premier League, all four defenders acquitted themselves magnificently. TAA, in particular, responded to criticism from the Crystal Palace game admirably and demonstrated why he is a top talent for seasons to come.