Jurgen Klopp outwits Pep Guardiola as Liverpool edge Manchester City
Liverpool prevailed 1-0 in an error-strewn game at Anfield on Saturday that left Manchester City 10 points adrift of Premier League leaders Chelsea. Both teams pressed intensively, forcing errors and disrupting the play of the opponent, and so the few chances of note came via misplaced passes and turnovers rather than any form of coherent attacking.
Ironically, one of the tactical moves that were meant to improve the general precision involved Jurgen Klopp moving Roberto Firmino back into the False No.9 role. The Brazilian is usually a slick combination player, but not even he could orchestrate much against City's pressing, which forced Liverpool to be more direct than usual.
At the other end, the visitors struggled to find space between the lines. Pep Guardiola chose a more traditional 4-2-3-1, which seemed to centre on David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne seeking pockets of space, but Liverpool stayed compact and forced their rivals to look for alternative routes. These included more direct deliveries to Sergio Aguero plus Raheem Sterling trying to get past James Milner. Neither option proved productive.
City did improve after half time when Silva and De Bruyne switched roles, but they remained imprecise and Liverpool also became more cautious. Eventually, neither side managed to produce any big chances, leaving Klopp grateful to secure a scrappy 1-0 win.
City punished for errors
Given the intensity with which these teams recover the ball, perhaps a frenetic encounter was to be expected. Klopp, who called it a "wild" and "intense" game, saw his team completed just 70.1 percent of their passes; a by-product of long balls towards Firmino designed to evade the City pressure and avoid costly mistakes. The lone striker went up for 13 attacking aerial duels, a number worthy of an old-fashion target-man, and Klopp later said his side "Were not quite as good in possession as we should have been."
The good news for Liverpool was that City were at least as poor on the ball, especially in the first half. There was a shocking number of unforced errors, with even Silva giving it away cheaply, and sloppy passing was also involved for the winning goal: Yaya Toure lifted a free kick to Aleksandar Kolarov, whose intercepted pass triggered the counter that enabled Adam Lallana to set up Georginio Wijnaldum's eighth-minute header.
Liverpool later produced further chances merely from picking up second balls. On 28 minutes, Milner collected a Pablo Zabaleta header and played a superb first-time pass to Firmino, who would have been alone with Claudio Bravo had his first touch not let him down. Just two minutes later, Emre Can dragged a shot wide after Wijnaldum had picked up a John Stones header.
Then, just before half time, Lallana and Firmino intercepted a pass from Toure and looked set to race through on goal, only for Firmino to release Lallana a split-second too late to avoid offside. That situation underlined the manner in which the chances were generally produced, and how Liverpool's interceptions in advanced positions could create danger.
Liverpool block space between lines
For City's part, they always intended to rely on more than just their pressing game. Guardiola played Toure and Fernandinho behind De Bruyne, with Sterling right and Silva left, in an attempt to release his two chief playmakers in behind the Liverpool midfield five.
De Bruyne covered a large area. The Belgian provided overlaps and runs in behind the back line whenever Sterling had the ball, in a bid to create numerical overloads and draw out Ragnar Klavan. On one occasion, he also dropped deep to give Zabaleta an outlet. This gave City a much-needed variable, but Liverpool seemed alert to it, and often managed to shuffle players across to stop him from creating chances.
Indeed, where Guardiola really wanted De Bruyne was surely in the pockets of space centrally, and the same applied to Silva. Their problem was that Liverpool kept their midfield five extremely compact, shielding their defence and blocking potential passing angles, and so City tended to run out of solutions. At one point, Nicolas Otamendi tried a lofted pass to Sergio Aguero, who was offside, prompting De Bruyne to throw out his arms in exasperation at the poor choice.
Silva and De Bruyne swap roles
This made it unsurprising to see Guardiola change things at half time, with De Bruyne and Silva swapping roles. You could see some of the logic: Silva is more of a nimble operator than De Bruyne and can thrive in smaller spaces, and he soon grew into the game.
Indeed, the little City offered after the break tended to involve the Spaniard. One fine combination with Sterling set up a dangerous cross for De Bruyne inside the box, while Silva also fired just wide after cutting inside on his left foot. Overall, his passing was more dangerous than before half time. Sadly for Guardiola, however, City still produced just two efforts from inside the box all game, and both were harmless.
Klopp plays it safe
If that statistic looked bad for the visitors, it also highlighted Liverpool's defensive work. They were particularly resilient toward the end, when they gave up possession in favour of shutting up shop. When Jordan Henderson got injured on 64 minutes, Klopp brought in Divock Origi, and much of the game plan from that point centred on finding the striker with early passes.
Liverpool also took few risks. They rarely kept the ball in their own half in the final 30 minutes, instead playing it down the flanks, and managed just two attempts throughout the entire half: a mishit Nathaniel Clyne finish and a blocked Origi shot.
More importantly, however, they managed to keep City from registering a shot of any kind in the final 30 minutes. Klopp later admitted his side had sacrificed some of their usual attacking principles in order to stay more resolute toward the end. On this occasion, it paid off.
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