In the biggest game of the season so far, Liverpool looked to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League, while Manchester City looked to play catch-up.
Liverpool took an early lead through Fabinho’s second goal for the club, a smack from distance. It’s a simple goal, but one in which the build-up is more consequential than it might appear on first viewing.
A minute previously, Liverpool had been on the attack but sloppily gave the ball away, leading them into pressing City’s backline. They manage to corner John Stones deep in his own half, just to the right of his penalty box. Roberto Firmino is in the best position to press him, while also blocking off the pass into Rodri, while Sadio Mane positions himself to block off the pass into Fernandinho and close enough to Claudio Bravo to discourage a pass back to the goalkeeper. Andy Robertson pushes forward to discourage a pass into Kyle Walker.
Cutting off all the short passes, Firmino starts to charge down Stones and the centre-back opts to send a long ball down the line to Bernardo Silva, who has looked to exploit the gap Robertson has left by pushing forward to close down Walker. Silva sends a bouncing ball forward that he basically goes and collects himself before trying to pass to Sergio Aguero, who is too busy exclaiming to the referee about the ball deflecting off of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s arm to realise that it deflects directly into his path, easily allowing him to continue City’s attack if he had just played on.
Instead Liverpool collect the ball and immediately hit the ball forward to Mane on the left flank. That Liverpool could so easily escape City’s threat and attack themselves provides a decent example of why Guardiola’s teams generally avoid trying to go long. Guardiola has previously instituted a 15 pass rule with his teams. “If there isn’t a sequence of 15 passes first, it’s impossible to carry out the transition between defence & attack. Impossible,” he explains.
“Having the ball is important if you are going for 15 consecutive passes in the middle of the field in order to maintain your shape, whilst at the same time upsetting the opposition’s organisation. How do you disorganise them? With fast, tight, focused passing as a part of this 15-move sequence. You need most of your men working as a unit, although some of them will need to maintain a bit of distance from each other in order to stretch out the rival team. And whilst you make those 15 moves & organise yourselves, your opponents are chasing you all over the park, trying to get the ball from you. In the process, without realising it, they’ll have lost all organisation.
“If you lose the ball, if they get it off you, then the player who takes will probably be alone & surrounded by your players, who will then get it back easily or, at the very least ensure that the rival team can’t manoeuvre quickly. It’s these 15 passes that prevent your rival from making any kind of co-ordinated transition.”
Or to put it in a simpler way, in Johan Cruyff’s words: “Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.”
City smacking the ball forward into attack allows them to get at Liverpool’s goal quicker, but when they lose the ball, they aren’t in a good position to win it back. Ilkay Gundogan and Walker had been deep in City’s half looking to work the ball out just seconds before, but Stones opting to play the ball long meant they had to sprint the length of the pitch into attack to support their forwards. When Liverpool won back the ball and played around them, the pair were now in the unfortunate predicament of having to sprint the length of the pitch back into their defensive positions.
Passing the ball out to Mane, Liverpool could counter three-against-three if Firmino sprinted into the space behind Stones. The Brazilian instead holds back until Mane waves him forward though, slowing down Liverpool as Rodri is able to get back and double up on the Senegalese with Stones. Rodri coming across stops Mane from being able to cut inside on his stronger right foot, however he’s comfortable enough on his left to take the ball down the outside and cross into the box. Unsurprisingly, outnumbering Liverpool in the box, City’s defenders collect the ball and squeeze it away, however it simply ends up at the feet of Fabinho.
Liverpool’s counter-pressing strategy means they tend to be very good at getting into positions to pick up these loose balls, yet, even by their standards, Fabinho stands out. In their victory over Tottenham, it was always him that the ball fell to when Tottenham tried to clear. What’s more, he always seems to pick up the ball facing forwards, positioning himself not so deep that he’s unable to collect the loose ball but not so high that he gets caught under it, allowing him to make attacking choices when the ball falls to him. Usually this means spreading it wide or dinking it over the top, yet here he instead thundered a shot past Bravo.
The goal should obviously be credited to Fabinho’s brilliance, both positional and technical, to pick up the ball and pick out the shot, yet the surrounding circumstances are what give him the opportunity. Firstly, Firmino’s failure to run in behind City pretty much kills off Liverpool’s counter and their attack fizzles out, however, while it’s a bit less than 15 passes, it also gives them the time to get players forward in support – they aren’t there to attack the box but they are hovering outside it in positions to collect any clearances and start a new attack.
Secondly, City aren’t in those positions. None of their four attackers have tracked very far back and while Gundogan and Walker have made it back, only the German is really helping out defensively.
Walker is arguably most culpable for the goal. With Stones moving across to cover the right side against Mane, and Gundogan and Rodri filling in in the centre, Walker should probably be covering for them in midfield. Instead he makes it back to defence then just kind of walks around, leaving it to Rodri to rush out in an attempt to block Fabinho’s shot. Can you really blame him though? He’s just had to sprint the length of the pitch twice: it’s not surprising he’s struggling to charge down shots.
Shortly afterwards, Liverpool made it two with another remarkably simply goal. Alexander-Arnold had the ball on the right then switched it to Robertson on the left, who curled a perfect cross onto the head of Mohamed Salah. Robertson was gifted some space due to Silva seemingly misreading Alexander-Arnold’s intentions, leaving his good defensive position to press only for the full-back to swing it over his head. Robertson offloads the ball so quickly that the Portuguese may not have mattered even if he stayed deeper though, and Liverpool’s forwards are so fast that any ball in behind a high line will threaten the opposition, but Robertson’s was inch-perfect.
The pressure was primarily on City even before the match, needing to win to cut into Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table, and yet they found themselves two goals down before the game had even really settled. Liverpool were now in a position to play piggy-in-the-middle for the next 80 minutes and come out nine points ahead of their title rivals.
With City pressing in a 4-4-2 shape, Liverpool split their centre-backs wide to open up space through the centre. If De Bruyne and Aguero stayed central, Alisson Becker could simply roll the ball out to one of the centre-backs. If they pushed up close to the centre-backs, Alisson could pass straight in between them to a midfielder. Both Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum would drop back to pick up the ball at the base of the midfield, causing a headache for City: if only Gundogan pushed forward, Liverpool could easily pass around City’s press, but if both Gundogan and Rodri pushed forward, Firmino had space to drop off into and City’s defence was left alone against Liverpool’s attack.
Liverpool were content to bait City into pressing, drawing them forward, then hitting the ball long in behind them for their pacey forwards to chase. With Henderson moving up to join them, Liverpool’s attackers weren’t outnumbered by City’s defenders, and even if they didn’t win the first ball, they were happy to contend for the second. As the second goal showed, Liverpool would do this horizontally as well as vertically, drawing City over to one side then spreading it out to the other flank, knowing that City had to follow them because they had to get the ball back if they were going to score and get back into the game.
City’s 4-2-3-1 formation seemed to be to help them work around Liverpool’s press. Typically, Liverpool’s wingers will close down the centre-backs while blocking the passes out to the full-backs while Firmino blocks the pass inside to the deepest midfielder, however City playing two holding midfielders made this difficult as Firmino can’t block the pass into both. Henderson and Wijnaldum can push up and get tight to them, but that then leaves the City full-backs in a lot of space out wide to advance with the ball.
With City putting midfielders in the gaps between Firmino and the wingers, the idea was presumably to get Liverpool’s attack to narrow, making it easier to play out to the full-backs, although this didn’t really happen for several reasons. Firstly, Liverpool’s wingers pressed as they usually do, closing down the centre-backs while blocking the pass into the full-backs, while the full-backs would also step forward to cover.
Secondly, City didn’t take advantage of this: they could have easily played around Liverpool’s press by passing into the midfielders and having them either turn out or move the ball on to the full-backs, but neither of them did. Rodri positioned himself horribly, rarely moving to create a new angle whenever Firmino blocked him from receiving the ball. When he or Gundogan did pick it up they would usually pass it backwards, which only encouraged Liverpool’s press, hemming City’s centre-backs into the corners like for the opening goal.
Once Liverpool got a comfortable lead, this only got worse for City as Firmino no longer saw the need to go chasing after City’s defenders or goalkeeper, instead staying close to the midfielders when Liverpool pressed. This meant that he could immediately close down either man if City passed into them, ensuring that City had to go longer if they wanted to play out from the back. Firmino’s positioning also meant that there was no longer any question of whether Liverpool’s midfielders should get tight to City’s: he was covering them, so the midfielders could stay back and focus on defending the wide areas. City frequently misplaced their dinked passes out towards the full-backs and, even when they didn’t, Liverpool’s midfielders would be out to meet them quickly as they tried to control the ball.
The 4-2-3-1 shape also had consequences up front. City’s attack usually outnumbers the opposition defence, attacking the spaces between a back four, however with one less man in attack, this wasn’t the case against Liverpool. This meant that they rarely asked difficult questions of Liverpool’s defenders. Outnumbered, at least one of Liverpool’s defenders would have to make a choice between following one man or following another, so, for example, if one man ran in behind while another came short, the defender would have to make a choice between following the runner or stepping up to meet the man coming short: make the wrong choice and a man goes free with potentially disastrous consequences. With just four attackers, it was easier for Liverpool’s defenders to know what the right answers were.
In the second half, Liverpool came out in a 4-4-2 shape to defend their lead, with Firmino and Mane sharing the duty of tracking back on the wing and partnering Salah in attack. Liverpool would no longer block the passes into the City full-backs, but it offered greater defensive width in the midfield. This meant that while it was easier for City’s full-backs to receive the ball, it was also easier for Liverpool to defend against them once they did.
Most of City’s attacks came from them trying to isolate Raheem Sterling against Alexander-Arnold, but even when he managed to get an inch to send in a cross, there was rarely enough space to put in a good one, and Mane in particular was doing a good job of coming back and doubling up on him.
Liverpool surrending the attacking momentum to City meant that the visitors were able to use their full-backs better in the second half. In the first, City were so often having to hit the ball long under pressure that there was rarely time for them to get up in support, but Liverpool sitting back allowed City to play a more patient game and Angelino got forward well on the left, assisting Silva for City’s only goal.
A Liverpool goal at the start of the half – what looked like a fairly nothing attack turned out to be an excellent cross horribly misread by Walker for Mane to head home – had already put to bed any real hopes of a City comeback though. Liverpool looked in control and changed to a 4-5-1, bringing on Joe Gomez to see out the game. They needled City well, Robertson giving Walker a little push as the ball rolled out for a corner and Gomez picking up Sterling – not enough to merit any punishment but enough to get City’s players outraged and eat up what little time remained as Liverpool headed to victory.