Flexible Liverpool hold their nerve to grab sweet revenge over Man City
After the party, the hangover. Having won the Capital One Cup final against Liverpool on Sunday, Manchester City were hammered 3-0 at Anfield. It was a third straight league defeat for the first time since November 2008, and must go down as one of the most lifeless away displays from any title contender this season.
The omens were not good beforehand, given that City had won none of their last 12 league games at Anfield and just two of their last nine on the road, yet even the most pessimistic travelling supporter had surely expected more. City hardly created a chance, while Liverpool prevailed through clever interplay, positional discipline and energetic pressing.
Indeed, Liverpool flew out of the blocks and scored twice before half-time thanks to the fluent movement of Adam Lallana, James Milner and Roberto Firmino behind Divock Origi. Their runs dragged City out of shape, and the visitors also had trouble defending the space in front of their own centre-backs despite starting Fernandinho and Fernando.
At the other end, David Silva and Sergio Aguero were denied by mobile defenders and diligent midfielders operating in a solid team structure. Manuel Pellegrini switched to 4-4-2 after the interval and later moved Silva into a deeper playmaker role, but instead of sparking City into life, the tweaks were followed by a heavy Nicolas Otamendi touch that led to Liverpool's third.
Klopp's playmakers swap positions
Since Jurgen Klopp took charge in October, Liverpool have often been guilty of bossing possession without converting it into clear-cut chances through sharp and coherent moves. A similar tale unfolded in the first half: they dominated, but lacked precision and understanding in the final third.
They mustered only two attempts beyond the two goals before half time; one was blocked, the other was a speculative Firmino effort that Joe Hart saved with ease.
Yet the goals Liverpool did score were fine moves in which players moved fluently. On 34 minutes, James Milner and Jordan Henderson swapped positions, which led to Fernandinho and Fernando pushing up on Milner and Emre Can.
While that happened, Lallana drifted in between the lines from the left to receive the ball from Milner. Nobody had picked him up, and nobody closed him down until his weak shot somehow rolled past Hart.
The second goal also materialised down the right. This time Firmino was marked out wide by Gael Clichy as he was served a backheel from Lallana, who had received the ball in a pocket of space in front of Otamendi.
When Firmino took the ball infield, Otamendi should have closed him down, but the stopper had been distracted by Lallana. Thus, Firmino had time to find Milner, the original right winger, who scored from inside the box. The whole trio of playmakers contributed to the move, with each moving into another's position.
City gift space between lines
Another factor was the distance between City's midfield and defence. Particularly, Fernandinho could be seen moving high up to close down Henderson and Can, and while Fernando was more cautious, their positioning was apparent on both goals.
The issue was also of a collective kind: for the first goal, the duo did their man-marking jobs by pressing Milner and Henderson, but the space behind them was too great and when Lallana received the pass, Fernando held out his arms in exasperation.
Looking at the graphic, you can recognise the series of patient passes that lead up to the killer ball breaking through the City midfield. In the build-up to the second goal, Fernando and Fernandinho pressed up on 60 yards, and though they did drop back quickly, they couldn't intervene when Firmino set up Milner.
Industrious Reds snuff out City
If City missed a few beats when defending, their attack looked even bleaker. The absence of Yaya Toure meant they missed a deep-lying playmaker, and with Jesus Navas and Raheem Sterling ineffective down the flanks, Silva orchestrated few moves behind Sergio Aguero.
Liverpool also conceded little space behind their backline, forcing Aguero to receive passes with his back to goal, while Can and Henderson marshalled the zone in front of their centre-backs.
Energy was crucial. Pellegrini later blamed tiredness and said he had no backup midfielders to introduce, yet Liverpool would surely have had the more mobile midfield either way.
When the Reds didn't press high, they held their positions diligently to form a solid block. Even when Aguero managed to wriggle free, there would always be someone covering just behind, and that blend of teamwork and defensive positioning may be why Liverpool have allowed the second fewest shots this season. Can in particular made interventions in key areas, while Firmino tracked back well.
"The boys did brilliantly from the first second -- they were very lively, very disciplined and very angry in a positive football way on each ball," Klopp said. "The preparation of pressing situations was brilliant, the pressing situation itself was brilliant and the counter-pressing was good."
Silva switch yields no reward
With City offering next to nothing, Pellegrini replaced Sterling with Wilfried Bony and went 4-4-2 for the second half.
Just 10 minutes later, the Chilean took off Fernandinho to put Kelechi Iheanacho on the left wing and move Silva deeper. The idea was surely to have Silva masterminding a late rally, yet while Firmino's imminent goal did little to inspire City, they created even less in the new system.
Neither Navas nor Iheanacho produced anything, while Bony, who played deeper than Aguero, rarely managed to shake off harrying opponents.
While Silva had an off day anyway, his new role had no effect. City had nobody further up to link up play, and at one point Navas merely ran the ball over the sideline thanks to a lack of options.
The connection between Silva and Aguero also disappeared: before Silva was moved deeper, they had exchanged 12 passes; after, they didn't combine once. The only shot City had in the second half was a 90th-minute effort from Bony that rolled into the arms of Simon Mignolet.
That prompted ironic cheers as Pellegrini shook his head. If the cup final had been a night to remember, this was certainly one to forget.