As his side became the first to defeat Liverpool in the league this season, Pep Guardiola was asked why he changes his tactics when he plays them. It was a bold question, and one which was thrown straight back by the City manager.
“What did I change today? From the way we normally play? At Anfield I would agree with you, here no way”
“More direct?” came the reply, and Guardiola explained why this may have appeared to be the case.
“Yeah they stay high, we spoke with [Raheem] Sterling and Leroy [Sane] to make runs in behind.”
“Today I have the feeling we tried to do what we have done in sixteen months, that is my feeling but maybe I’m wrong.”
He had played a different system in the draw at Anfield earlier in the season, using Bernardo Silva as a holding player in a 4-2-3-1 but here he took a risk, and commented that if Fernandinho did not win his duels his defence would be isolated against some of the best attacking players in the world.
It was a risk he felt he had to take, and he also mentioned that a loss here would put them almost out of the title race, but it didn’t seem like he fancied a draw either.
Their ability to not just avoid defeat, but to emerge victorious, was in a big part thanks to the performances of Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva, who had returned to his more familiar role as an attacking midfielder in a 4-1-2-3.
The Brazilian defensive midfielder won seven of the ten duels he was involved in, and Bernardo broke the record for distance run in a game this season, covering 13.7km (or 8.5 miles — Fernandinho was second in this game with 11.9km covered).
There were moments where Bernardo, playing in his usual position on the right of the attacking midfield two, looked like the Portuguese Popeye, having downed several tins of spinach prior to the game. He even sent the man mountain that is Virgil van Dijk crashing to the turf twice.
“I don’t know what this guy has done today,” said Guardiola in disbelief. “He was incredible.”
His coverage of the pitch is shown below.
The extra control and superior technique provided by Bernardo and his namesake David Silva in midfield played a part in this, even though this was not David’s best performance. But the real difference for City was their finishing.
This was demonstrated by the expected goals data, with all xG algorithms — including Caley Graphics, Infogol, and Understat — all showing Liverpool on top by a narrow margin, with the biggest chance of the game being Roberto Firmino’s goal for Liverpool.
xG map for Man City – Liverpool
What a game. Classic example of how basically any result is possible in a match where two good teams play well. pic.twitter.com/1Yi33SLwvJ
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) January 3, 2019
There were two big chances apiece, and only Firmino’s found the net, with Sadio Mané hitting the post early on, and Sergio Aguero and Bernardo both having big chances saved by Alisson.
City’s goals were certainly not clear-cut chances, with Infogoal giving Aguero’s excellent left footed finish from a narrow angle 11%, and Sane’s goal with the same foot even less of a chance of finding the net with 5%.
Other than their goal and the early chance for Mané, Liverpool’s other chances were scrappy.
“They [City] were making sliding tackles and blocks in their own six yard box and that doesn’t happen too often for City, so credit to my boys that they did that,” said Klopp.
This scrappiness doesn’t necessarily mean Liverpool were second best, but they did struggle in midfield prior to the introduction of Fabinho in the second half.
Before this they appeared to have a gap through the middle, as James Milner often drifted wide and to the left in attack, as shown below. This left huge gaps in the centre of the park (where the referee is in the image), and Firmino was often tight to Fernandinho when he dropped from his centre forward position in the 4-3-3.
The switch to 4-2-3-1 saw Georginio Wijnaldum move to a more advanced role on the left, one that he didn’t seem entirely comfortable with, but this switch allowed the full-backs to come into the game.
Trent Alexander-Arnold had given City a couple of warning signs with great balls into the box prior to the one which led to the goal. He found the buccaneering Andy Robertson with a cross-field pass, and the Scotsman showed great technique on the run to feed it into the area for the biggest chance of the game — Firmino’s goal.
Klopp spent much of the game barking orders from the touchline, as if his players were not following them, and was even joined by assistant Peter Kraweitz on occasions. There will be plenty of work done on the training ground this week, and though Liverpool weren’t bad overall, Mané and Dejan Lovren were especially poor on the night.
Another player who stood out, though, was John Stones. He was obviously aggrieved that everyone had picked Van Dijk, and Aymeric Laporte (the latter who played at left back here) in their combined City/Liverpool XIs prior to this game, and his performance was at times majestic.
It was he who scrambled to clear Mané’s shot as it rebounded off the post in the game’s opening stages, then having to rescue his own clearance as it hit Ederson and was millimetres from crossing the line for the most comical of own goals.
The English centre-back completed 95% of his passes, completing eight of nine long balls, and had more touches in the game than any other player with 108 including 98 passes. He made nine clearances and one block in an all-round performance which marked him out as one of the game’s best players (and Twelve’s man of the match) along with the likes of Van Dijk, Robertson, Fernandinho, Bernardo, and Aguero.
But it was the ruthless xG defying finishing which won City the game, and some carelessness in defence, and occasionally in attack, which lost it for Liverpool, who remain four points clear at the top despite the defeat.