Liverpool versus Manchester City was one of the most entertaining battles witnessed last season, both in terms of tactics and as a spectacle.
Jürgen Klopp’s side were the team which ended the eventual Premier League champions’ unbeaten run in January, and also knocked them out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
Pep Guardiola has had plenty of time to apply his meticulous research and preparation methods to this particular opposition, and even though Liverpool aren’t firing on all cylinders at the moment, he was able to make noticeable progress at Anfield, where Manchester City haven’t won since 2003.
When the lineups were released the unexpected change came in the Liverpool side. Dejan Lovren replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold meaning Joe Gomez would be shifted across to right back.
This suggested that Klopp might be going with a shape similar to the one they faced at Napoli in midweek, when Carlo Ancelotti used Nikola Maksimović as the right centre-back of a three when attacking and as a right-back in a four when defending.
Andy Robertson would play the role of Mário Rui, using his speed and stamina to get up and down the left flank to contribute in both attack and defence.
But instead it was Pep Guardiola who used his back four in this manner, which was surprising given it lined up: Kyle Walker, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, and Benjamin Mendy.
Walker reined in the attacking instincts he regularly shows for Manchester City, and operated in a position more akin to his role for England where he acts as a third centre-back on the right. However, City’s defence was more similar to Napoli’s shape against Liverpool than England’s more orthodox back three.
This is shown by Walker’s actions in the Twelve graphic below (turn off “only important actions”)
Perhaps Guardiola had seen how Napoli had stifled Liverpool at the San Paolo and tweaked his own lineup accordingly?
Manchester City’s full backs are normally the players who venture the furthest forward down the wings or shift into midfield to help with the build-up play, but here Walker was very much part of the back four and his manager made sure to praise him after the game: “I have a lot of credit what Kyle today has done controlling [Sadio] Mané,” he said.
The image below shows them during a transition from attack to defence. Mendy is sprinting back from his attacking position, but Walker doesn’t have to as he’s already stationed close to Stones.
The other notable aspect of Manchester City’s shape was the use of Bernardo Silva in a double pivot with Fernandinho. The Portuguese has gone from wide creator to attacking midfielder, and was now even further back as a deep recycler.
He’s been their best player this season, and Guardiola commented on the reasons for using him in this position.
“Bernardo has this control, the extra pass so you don’t lose the ball, because In these kind of games against Liverpool if you lose the ball in specific positions in the middle, wow it’s so complicated because they win that and they kill you,” he said.
“But to play well the ball has to come in the middle. It’s impossible to play well when the ball goes side and side to the channel.
“We are not built for that, so we need to be in the middle in the right moment, in the right position, and today we read that much much better than in the past.”
The Twelve graphic below also shows that Bernardo’s important actions were defensive. Toggle “only important actions” to see his attacking and off-ball contributions.
Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City: A change of tactics from the champions
Guardiola discussed his general tactics at length in his post-match press conference, and commented on how he tried to slow the game down in order to limit the effect of Liverpool’s counter-pressing, again mentioning Bernardo.
“Yeah [we tried to slow the game down]. If you play so quick they are much better than us,” he added.
“We want to create, but they wait for you to make mistakes in this kind of situation. We like to make the process to build up, to make the space, but if it’s an open game in Anfield, or an open game against Liverpool, you don’t have even one percent chance.
“We control it through Riyad [Mahrez] to give the extra pass, Bernardo in the middle to give the extra pass, it is important to have that base.
“But up and down quickly [Liverpool] are much, much better. They are the best team in the world running these transitions, offensive – defensive; there are no teams better in the world at that because it’s built for that, it’s created for that, it’s what Jürgen feels.”
Guardiola already has the next meeting between the two teams on his mind, and his comments show that Klopp’s Liverpool have provided one of the toughest tests for his style of football. So much so that he went a little more defensive in order to prevent counter-attacks, added a healthy dose of tactical fouling, and used a 4-2-3-1 formation which facilitated build-up play with less chance of an early turnover in a dangerous area.
Liverpool had no shots on target against Napoli, only two here at home against Manchester City, and it was an hour before either goalkeeper had to make a save.
A total of only 10 minutes of attack in the final third for both teams today. #LIVMNC
A lot of time with the ball in the middle of the pitch and in defence, and not just by the visitors. pic.twitter.com/kIH8yogzhM
— Twelve (@twelve_football) October 7, 2018
It’s credit to Klopp and to Liverpool that Manchester City have had to change their system more dramatically than they would against any other opponent. But now Guardiola has worked out a way to tame their attack, he now needs to work out the best way to create more chances for his own side within this system.
Klopp, on the other hand, might need to change things up next time so that his team can reassert their dominance against a side they are hoping to challenge for the Premier League title.