After being heavily criticised for his naïve choice to deploy a 4-4-2 system against Barcelona in the middle of the week, when they somehow escaped with a rather flattering 2-1 defeat at home in the Champions League, Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to adopt a similar shape away at Anfield just five days later seemed even more bizarre. A side full of intricate movement that thrive with space between the lines, Liverpool were given exactly that by Man City and came out on top in a very exciting game.
Supported by only the defensively-suspect Yaya Touré, it was down to Fernandinho (not even a specialist holding midfielder himself) on his own to try and cover the room between the back-line and the midfield two. That’s a difficult enough task against one attacking midfielder looking to exploit those gaps, but as expected the system used by Brendan Rodgers which has given his side such success in the last few months utilised two: Adam Lallana and the red hot Philippe Coutinho, both of whom had excellent games.
That pair and Raheem Sterling, who made up the front three, were given great freedom to counter-attack throughout the game by Liverpool’s central midfielders. Joe Allen was extremely efficient in possession, completing the third-highest number of passes in the game, and he was progressive too – him passing to Coutinho was the third-highest pass combination on the pitch. Jordan Henderson was also good with the ball, but it was simply his all-round game (especially his involvement with the pressing) which was superb. With lots of service from deep and Fernandinho outnumbered, their attacking players flourished.
It was impossible for the Brazilian to pick up more than one of them himself of course, leaving the other Liverpool attackers to enjoy acres of space in their favoured areas. That completely exposed the defence, occasionally leading to Vincent Kompany being typically rash and stepping out to try and neutralise the threat; often then resulting in Eliaquim Mangala having to cover for him during yet another poor performance for the Belgian. The movement from the home side simply made a mockery of any defensive shape which Man City attempted to keep up.
By far the most costly mistake made by Kompany though was undoubtedly for the opening goal, losing possession far too easily in midfield to Coutinho after a sloppy pass from Fernandinho put him in some sort of danger. Coutinho charged forward quickly towards Mangala with the ball, releasing it to Sterling as Kompany chased him back, who then found a clever third-man run (one of many throughout the game) on the left from Henderson – who cut inside and curled a wonderful shot just inside the far post.
Henderson’s initial movement forward in that phase of play was a result of him trying to get close to Touré in midfield to limit his availability as a passing option, and the combination of that with Coutinho’s chasing and winning of the ball really helps to exemplify the effectiveness of Liverpool’s pressing for significant parts of the game. It was particularly impressive in the first-half, though they also did very well to mostly keep it up for the second-half afterwards, limiting Man City’s capacity to facilitate play in more promising areas.
However it was actually from this pressing where Man City’s best opportunities arose – or rather could have arisen. Like with how Coutinho and Lallana continuously found space, David Silva’s brilliant lateral movement between the lines meant there were a number of occasions when he was open after Liverpool’s midfield pushed forward to pressure.
Whilst Man City used this well for the goal, with the lack of pressure on Touré allowing him to pick out Silva’s completely untracked run in behind the midfield, a combination of Liverpool’s excellently sustained pressing and slow ball circulation from Man City (a partly press-related, partly self-inflicted issue) meant Silva wasn’t found in these areas enough after drifting inside. Finding the Spaniard there is what makes them tick, with him dragging players out of position or allowing quick interchanges, and it’s no coincidence that they only had one shot on target in a game where they failed to make the most of his drifting around the pitch.
His and Sergio Agüero’s glimpses of promise (as well as a very well worked goal) were the only real positives to take from an attacking perspective for the team in blue, and there were too few occasions when they got into the half-spaces which they normally exploit so well; something linked to – and also caused by – the issue of not giving Silva service in the right areas. This difficulty to get in there can also be attributed to Liverpool’s three-man defensive system, with the two wide centre-backs, Dejan Lovren and Emre Can, often being positioned in those spots – instead of there usually being a gap between where the centre-back and the full-back are in the back four which Man City typically encounter.
In order to create those largely non-existent gaps against the 3-4-2-1 they faced, Man City could have really done with some form of a natural wide player on the pitch. The narrowness of their team selection (with Silva and Samir Nasri as the ‘wide’ midfielders in their 4-4-2) meant it was down to Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta, who often engaged in one-on-one situations with Liverpool’s wing-backs, to provide the majority of the width.
Had Pellegrini set up in a different way (or simply put Jesús Navas to be available in the squad) which would have enabled them to overload these areas with a more designated wide man however, it could have created two-on-ones against Liverpool’s own single wide player per flank; potentially dragging one of the centre-backs out of position as they tried to reduce Man City’s numerical advantage. That would have instantly created a gap which could be exploited by the movement of players like Silva, but instead they were unable to get between the home side’s defenders as much as they’d have liked.
Playing with two strikers was again detrimental for them in this sense, limiting the ability to perform those sorts of overloads on top of the aforementioned midfield issues which were caused behind Touré and Fernandinho. Edin Džeko did well for his goal, finishing calmly after some good movement, but beyond that he was far too static – and his inability to drop deep and support the midfield as the Liverpool players did meant his contribution was very minimal beyond getting his name on the scoresheet. Really, his inclusion wasn’t justified at all and he had to be substituted for James Milner in the 58th minute before Pellegrini lost even more control of the middle of the pitch.
That unsurprisingly helped balance things out more in a move which seemed obvious to everyone except Pellegrini before the game had even started, but it didn’t stop Liverpool taking the lead with 15 minutes of normal time remaining thanks to another wonderful strike, this time from Coutinho.
His overall contribution was worthy of the man-of-the-match award he received well before that goal, but this winner was a somewhat emblematic reward of the consistency which has finally been added into his game in the last couple of months. He’s shown that he has the majestic technique, situational understanding and work ethic (as demonstrated by his pressing for the opening goal) to be one of the very best in the Premier League, and on his current form he’s right up there.
He kept it up all day and Man City never learnt how to cope with him, but by this point they didn’t need to find a way to do that; they needed a goal. They reverted towards their original 4-4-2 shape with Wilfried Bony and then Frank Lampard brought on, although it was actually Liverpool’s own substitute, Daniel Sturridge, who had the best chance to get the fourth goal of the game after some more excellent pressing by Henderson forced Touré into a terrible pass on the edge of his own box.
Pellegrini’s side began to link up slightly more in the half-spaces from this point as Liverpool understandably dropped off, and it was no shock that Silva was heavily involved in the two opportunities that were made for them in the dying minutes. Both of those went wide however, and in the balance of the game it’s fair that they did as an equaliser would have given them a very undeserved point after a poor performance.
Liverpool mostly did what they’ve done in the majority of games and were rewarded for that, whilst Man City were again heavily punished for their own lack of adaption (for the second time in a week) away from home against perhaps the most in-form side in the Premier League right now. It leaves them five points behind Chelsea having played a game more and their chance of retaining the title is slowly slipping away.
As for Liverpool, they’ve dragged themselves well into the race for the top four again and Rodgers deserves a huge amount of credit after changing things around following their poor start to the season. Performances like this are exactly why they’re back in contention.