Liverpool fans were having a year of their own in 2019. That is until they ran into Pep Guardiola’s team at the Etihad. Aguero scored, like he always does against Liverpool at Etihad, as did Sane, who has more goals against Liverpool now than any other opponent in the League. If one had to simplify the result, we could say that Liverpool came up against City at the wrong place and the wrong time. However, the chance they lost to increase the gap on title rivals City can not be ignored. Therefore, simple analysis will have to be replaced by a thorough look into what transpired in the game City won.
Liverpool were Blunt Upfront
The front three of Mane, Salah and Firmino is prolific. Together, they have scored 28 goals amongst them. City’s attack is more evenly spread, Sterling and Aguero being the most lethal with 9 goals apiece to their names. Sane, David and Bernardo Silva and Mahrez have all contributed in good numbers. However, Liverpool didn’t have the teeth to cut through City’s defence. It could be said that Liverpool lost and City won the game in the attacking third.
Liverpool depend on slick passing and penetration from their incisive and fast trio of forwards. Sadly, they left their passing skills in the locker room. While the scales were evenly balanced in midfield and defence (at least in terms of touches), the Front three of City linked up much better among themselves and with the men behind them.
Aguero and company did it so well, they made 53 more passes in the final third than Liverpool. That’s an entire player’s number of passes. If you look at the heat map above, you will realize it was also in more dangerous areas than Liverpool. Tellingly, City had 9 shots to Liverpool’s 7. Further, 8 of those shots came from open play.
Liverpool, on the other hand, were disjointed. Not only did they pass less effectively, they remained mostly out of the danger areas. In short, City made more passes in more dangerous areas than Liverpool on the day. In doing so, City made sure they were more productive where it matters the most: in front of the goal.
Liverpool’s problems begin in the final 3, but they go deeper
Now that the attacks are out of the way, you can’t just win a match by scoring more goals than the opponent (or perhaps you can) but there’s more that happened at the Etihad. Klopp whined post match about Kompany and City’s brash handling of Liverpool players. What he probably brushed under the carpet is how thoroughly Liverpool’s midfield were outwitted. If you look at the number of touches by the midfield three of both teams, you’d be forgiven to think it was even stevens. You’d be wrong though, and grossly so.
We saw above that City’s attack was more effective. The reason it was so effective lies in the so-called battles that took place in the midfield. City’s middle three made 188 touches of the ball amongst themselves. That is almost similar to Liverpool’s own 181 touches between Milner, Wijnaldum and Henderson.
The Mastery of Pep’s Possession
However, there is a very sound reason behind the statement that “numbers can be deceptive”. At-least on the surface. Beneath the surface, Manchester City played Liverpool out of the game in the midfield. Modern pressing teams, for instance, give a lot of emphasis on retaining and regaining possession in the opponents half. It is a fact that possession regained in the final 3rd leads to a lot of goals for pressing teams.
It should, therefore, be noted that the possession was overturned 44 times in the games, evenly between the teams. All numbers are not made equal, especially on the football pitch. Of the 22 times that both teams lost and gained possession, City gave the ball away in their own half only six times. They won it 9 times from Liverpool in the other half. To put it in another way, Liverpool lost the ball in dangerous places more often than they managed to win.
Digging deeper into midfield stats, we see that City made 12 interceptions to Liverpool’s 10. In this statistic as well, City managed to intercept 6 balls in Liverpool’s half. Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho were monumental in these efforts. Amongst both midfield trios, Bernardo Silva alone made 4 interceptions, compared to a grand total of 1 by the entire Reds midfield. It is in the finer details, that City’s domination of the game becomes apparent.
In addition to all of this, City had the measure of Liverpool in Aerial duels as well as fouls. Liverpool won the ball in air nine times, City won possession in the air 19 times in comparison. Second balls are important in a game of tight margins. In breaking up play as well, City did the job well, without breaking the disciplinary code.
Liverpool were stifled and fouled 12 times, while making 7 fouls of their own. It becomes clear that Pep Guardiola played an equal midfield to match Liverpool but tasked it perform chores that stymied Liverpool in the middle. Thereby, putting pressure on the defence while negating the attack altogether.
What went wrong in the defence?
Both the teams were defensively overloaded on the wings. While Van Dijk, being the superman he is, was standing tall. The same can’t be said of Dejan Lovren. City got into the box and finished their chances. While Liverpool were kept at arm’s length from the City box, with some great defending, strategic fouling and physical brilliance.
Liverpool’s problems rose from their strengths. Pep Guardiola knew that the two full-backs playing for the reds were attackingly intent. He tasked his full-backs, one of them being a make-shift left-back with staying deep and defending well. Sticking to their man. They performed his instructions to the T. At the same time, his wingers, especially Sane were given the job of exploiting space left behind by the Liverpool marauders. That too went according to plan. In essence, Liverpool were a victim of their own strengths.
This game shows that Klopp needs to be a lot more adaptive and responsive in his planning of games. Especially when the match is against a title rival or for a knock-out round berth. He needs to adapt to the opposition at times, instead of imposing his style on every opponent. Chelsea had almost punished his rudeness save for Daniel Sturridge’s goal which had a hint of fortune. In the long run, as Manchester City displayed, fortune favours the brave. The brave who are not too stubborn to the point of being foolish.
Liverpool can not forget they are the one team who didn’t win the league after being on top on Christmas in the last decade. It may be a different time, a different team. But football is about respecting the opponent as much as believing in your own abilities.