The build-up to this huge encounter seems somewhat pessimistic from Liverpool’s perspective after yet another daft result against mid-table minnows on Wednesday night, whereas City’s superb run of form against those same mid-table minnows has seen them clamp their authority at the top of the Premier League table. With City 7 points ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand and 16 games to go, this really is last chance saloon for The Reds. This article discusses the tactical intricacies and game dynamics of the most important Premier League game of the season so far.
Firstly, let’s take a look at City. Pep Guardiola’s teams are typically one of the most fluid in the sport, although the entire basis of this fluidity is to create rigidity and staples within the teams play. That may sound complex, but it’s not when you break the sentence down. Let’s take a look at how they play on and off the ball to try and achieve that:
On the ball:
At the most basic level, City aim to dominate the ball. They aim to achieve this by playing short, risk-averse passes which entices the opposition to press which ultimately creates space further up the pitch for City to work with. They build play within a 3-1 or a 3-2 shape.
The general idea of the 3-1 or 3-2 build-up shape is to create an overload against the opposition’s first line of engagement. The fluidity of the overload itself is dependent on the inverted fullback, which in this case is Zinchenko (it’s usually Cancelo). The idea behind the inverted fullback is to create a free passing lane from the LCB and RCB to each respective wing. This way the ball is progressed to a typically more dangerous player with more regularity. The inverted fullback also enables an extra player to be present in central midfield when play breaks down increasing the chance of the unit’s shape being compact in defensive transition. Guardiola also uses his inverted fullback to help progress play and create chances further up the pitch:
As you can see in the above gif, Zinchenko positions himself between the lines in an effort to achieve a multitude of things. By doing so, he becomes a passing option between the lines which can result in him receiving possession himself. However, he can also be an option for Foden to combine with if the winger receives possession. In the same vein, he also opens up space for Dias to run into and progress play that way, which is what ultimately happens.
However, on the right hand-side, Rodri or Fernandinho don’t make the same movement high up the pitch or into wide areas because they’re solely preoccupied with central midfield duties. Although this prevents City from progressing play in that manner, it enables them to have a constant presence to circulate play and to maintain compactness in the middle of the park. It also enables a 1v1 specialist such as Mahrez to attack his man in isolation and/or creates space for De Bruyne to run into and get his trademark crosses off.
When Cancelo and Zinchenko play together and Walker isn’t available to play a traditional RCB in a back 3 role, Guardiola has a solution, as he seemingly does for everything. Cancelo plays as the inverted fullback from the right hand side and Zinchenko plays as the LCB in the three with Rodri at LCM as seen below:
As ever, the dynamics slightly change within this situation as Rodri isn’t comfortable beyond the 2nd phase. Zinchenko has more license to overlap the play and push high as a result of this. However, this is Pep’s least used approach as he prefers the inverted fullback to take part in, and sometimes initiate, the combination play between the lines from the left hand side. It’s harder for the LCB to affect the play from deeper starting positions. However, on the other side, Cancelo is required to position himself between the lines on occasion as seen below, but Pep prefers to overload the left hand side as opposed to the right because he likes to leave space for the likes of Sterling, Mahrez, De Bruyne, and Bernardo to operate in with relative isolation.Guardiola is so insistent on players receiving possession out wide or in the half spaces between the lines because that’s where his teams generally create their chances, and this City team is no different.
Although this is an old image and in a different City system, the same patterns of play remain on each side. The entire purpose of City’s build-up mechanisms is so the attackers can find themselves in situations as seen in the above picture. Guardiola is so insistent on his wingers staying as wide as possible so the team can progress play to them, but also because they are key to the combination play that occurs to create space for a cross, a cutback, or a 1v1 dribble. The far side attackers get ready to attack the box as the wide players combine to create an angle to get the ball into the box for them. This is City’s bread and butter and has been their primary, and best, method of chance creation since Pep came to the club.
Off the ball:
Because City are so dominant technically, they rarely defend in a low or medium block. As soon as they lose the ball they attempt to win it back as quickly as possible. They have conducive conditions to carry this out in their system as their general spacing and positional play is really good:
If you turn your attention to Palace’s half in the above picture, you see that City’s forwards are occupying the spaces of the pitch evenly (Bernardo is on the right wing but not in picture). So, as soon as possession is lost in the final third, they are all in good positions to immediately pressurise the ball as soon as a turnover in favour of the opposition occurs. Another key element of (counter)pressing is maintaining good depth management. This consists of managing the spaces behind the first line of pressing. This is typically achieved by having at least 2 central players in the middle of the park who can shift across with the unit to close the spaces off on each side of the pitch or through the middle itself. Within this system, City are generally good in this regard, but they can be caught out when Zinchenko or Cancelo join the attack on the left or right hand side (usually the left). This means Rodri or Fernandinho become isolated in central areas and are tasked with covering too much space by themselves.
Another area where City struggle defensively in relation to fluidity is within their settled press. A settled press is a situation where the pressing team prepares to press from a short goal kick or after the opposition successfully recycle and both teams are shuffling into their respective on-ball and off-ball shape. City’s settled press sets up like this:
Although this image above is City within a good settled press, it takes the wide players time to transition inside from their respective touchline (their on-ball role) to an inside forward type pressing role, which is their off-ball role. It also takes time for Cancelo or Zinchenko to move back to their traditional fullback role. This can lead to gaps in their pressing which are exploitable along with City being easily forced back into a 4-5-1 shape which is not conducive to pressing high up the pitch as the wide players are too far away from the defence/ball-carriers. An example of this is seen here:
A turnover occurs and Brighton have time and space to play out of City’s lacklustre press because Mahrez doesn’t push infield into the right half space to get City’s forward line closer to Brighton’s build-up. He’s preoccupied with Bernardo, Brighton’s left back, when he should be pushing higher up the pitch and letting Walker, De Bruyne and himself press play towards Bernardo should he receive possession. This way he can also get closer to Brighton’s defenders and exert more general pressure on their defence/ball-carrier whilst also dealing with Bernardo at the same time. Mahrez is typically worse than Sterling in this regard as the Englishman is more inclined to come inside straight away to press.
Although this is a minor flaw within City’s settled press, their settled press in general is still really good. It’s similar to Liverpool’s in the sense that they press in a 4-3-3 shape with the wide players inverted. Both teams use the fullbacks and midfielders as pressing triggers in an effort to directly win the ball back. Similarly, if play is recycled from the fullbacks or midfielders, the unit pushes up and exerts an extreme amount of pressure on the defenders and goalkeeper, which often result in crucial turnovers.
Overall, City’s system is superb, and it’s arguably their most complete system from a tactical perspective that Guardiola has implemented in his time as the club. It has also brought a new lease of life to İlkay Gündoğan who is operating at a world class level at the moment. Although his role is primarily between the lines where he partakes in combination play and attacks the box from deep enabling him to score goals, he also has the freedom to contribute to build-up play and effect the game from deeper areas. This traditional box to box role has got the best out of the German who is arguably in the richest vein of form in his career to date that not even Klopp could get out of him, and analysis of this City team would not be complete without mentioning him.
As touched on at the start of the analysis, all of the good things City do stem from fluidity, but that fluidity is designed to carry out the same actions over and over, making that fluidity rigid.
Liverpool’s favoured match-up is against a team of Guardiola’s ilk, and this is showcased by the fact that Klopp is one of the only managers in world football with a winning record over the Spaniard, and with a large sample size to back that up.
Klopp has won 9 encounters against Guardiola’s men, whereas Pep has only won 7. The typical dynamic of these fierce match-ups consists of Pep’s team trying to keep the ball with Klopp’s men frantically chasing them down, and the game on Sunday will be no different.
Liverpool set up in a 4-3-3 in an effort to force mistakes in the opposition’s final third, As I touched on earlier,. They use the opposition’s fullbacks and midfielders as pressing triggers in order to get close to the ball carriers and reduce the space to play in.
This way they can attack open spaces with attackers in close proximity when the opposition’s defensive shape is discombobulated after a possession loss as a result of the pressure exerted on the midfield and defence. If Liverpool’s press is played out of they rarely fall into a typical 4-5-1 block. Salah and Mané will track back on occasion to help the team out but they’re more so encouraged to stay high and be aggressive in their positioning in order to offer themselves as an outlet should Liverpool retrieve possession along with being readily available to get back into Liverpool’s typical 4-3-3 pressing type shape.
This is about as close to a Liverpool low/medium block as you’re going to get (provided they’re not trying to hang onto a game in the 90th minute or something like that).
When Liverpool build play they’re comfortable going short or long and don’t have a particularly rigid midfield structure. The midfield three are all encouraged to take part in the build-up but are also required to counterpress and win second balls if Liverpool do go long, as seen below.
Liverpool have set up this way for the past half a decade so I don’t think it’s necessary to analyse their system in too much depth as any dedicated football fan is familiar with how they play. What’s more important to analyse is how they match up with City’s system. However, before we do that, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s possible that Liverpool play a 4-4-2 as they did in the reverse fixture against City this season.
Liverpool’s general philosophy remains the same within the 4-4-2 as they’re comfortable playing long and counterpressing off the back of that or playing out from the back. Again, in the same vein, the pressing triggers are the same as within their 4-3-3 (fullbacks and midfielders receiving possession).
Klopp probably chose the 4-4-2 shape over the 4-3-3 shape in the reverse fixture as it’s more reliable in its coverage of wide areas when City attack Liverpool’s settled consolidating block whilst maintaining their typically good traits.
City are bound to keep the ball for periods throughout the game thanks to their elite technical quality so it’s important Liverpool are compact in this regard, when they typically don’t need to be in other fixtures.
So, how will the game play out?
It is unknown as to what system Liverpool will play, but I suspect Klopp will opt for the 4-3-3 to directly match-up against City’s back 3 when building play. The traditional pressing triggers for Liverpool when playing against a team who play a 3 at the back include Liverpool’s outside forwards matching up with the opposition’s outside centre backs, as seen below:
However, City do not play a traditional three at the back system. A three or a five at the back system typically consists of two wingbacks, but Pep doesn’t set up his team to play with wingbacks, and this works in Liverpool’s favour. Liverpool’s fullbacks are required to press the wingbacks when they receive possession which can cause confusion for the fullbacks as they’re unsure whether to leave the opposition winger free or press the wingback. Robertson should be pushing high up the pitch to press PSG’s wingback in the below situation but if he does he leaves PSG’s wide man free. PSG played out of Liverpool’s press with relative ease as a result of that indecisiveness.
As City play with traditional touchline wide players as opposed to wingbacks, Liverpool’s fullbacks won’t have to worry about this difficult decision when pressing City high. This means that they can stay deep and mark their respective wide player whereas the forwards and midfielders can rely on traditional pressing triggers for Liverpool to create.
Liverpool will press City’s outside centre backs every time they receive possession and the midfield trio will smother City’s midfield pivot every time they receive possession, just like they did to Verratti here.
This is a major area of potential chance creation which Liverpool can exploit, even though City’s technical quality is elite. City are bound to play out of Liverpool’s press on occasion as a result of that superb technical quality, and that is a method of chance creation for them too, but Liverpool are more likely to score from pressing than City are to score from playing out of Liverpool’s press, in my opinion. If Liverpool retrieve possession in City’s final third they are close to the goal with attackers in close proximity with defenders in vulnerable positions, whereas if City play out of Liverpool’s press they are far away from the goal and Liverpool still have a lot of men behind the ball.
Again, I expect City to have periods of possession as a result of the incredible technical quality they possess, and this is where Liverpool’s settled low or medium block can similarly be exploited. The 4-4-2 spaces the pitch more evenly but if Liverpool press in a 4-3-3 their settled consolidating block won’t be as secure as the 4-4-2, although it’ll still be primarily compact.
Although Liverpool’s primary area of chance creation settles around the ‘controlled chaos’ of pressing, they are also a top technical team and will keep the ball for large periods of the game. These classic Liverpool-City affairs typically consist of both teams having their fair share of possession. It’s important for Liverpool to be secure technically under City’s press to prevent giving away any silly goals. There is also a small window of opportunity for Liverpool to exploit City as soon as they lose possession when their inverted fullback is caught out too high up the pitch and their wide players are coming inside to press the play. Gaps either side of Rodri or Fernandinho are there to be exploited, but Liverpool will have to be quick in possession to exploit them.
As ever, gamestate is incredibly important and can change the dynamic of any match. If Liverpool go 1-0 up early, they are likely to continue pressing before their intensity inevitably dies down as a result of fatigue and the natural inkling to ‘hold on’ to the result, particularly in such a big game. This intensity will rejuvenate itself after half-time and Liverpool will come out with incredible intensity within their pressing again but the natural fatigue and ‘holding on’ mentality will kick in again as they try to see the game out by blocking space in a low or medium block. If City go 1-0 up they can take the wind out of Liverpool’s sails and their general control on the game can increase as a result of Liverpool’s weakened aggression as they’re mindful of going further behind. It’s important for Liverpool to remain aggressive and brave in these moments (should that hypothetical scenario occur) because they can absolutely exploit City’s build-up via pressing.
Overall, it’s a game of incredibly tight margins, and it essentially boils down to City’s composure and technical quality under Liverpool’s press combined with City’s compactness in midfield in defensive transition (assuming it’s an even gamestate). Assuming Liverpool play a well-balanced 4-3-3 and Guardiola plays his 3-2-4-1 on-ball and 4-3-3 off-ball system, I do think Liverpool have the edge because of how Liverpool’s forward line matches up with City’s build-up. However, it’s important to note that Guardiola has played the 4-2-3-1 on his last two visits to Anfield and it’s yielded some positive performances and posed problems for Klopp’s men. It’s not an improbability he opts for that system either, although recent evidence suggests he’ll stick with his latest winning formula in the 3-2-4-1.