Pep Guardiola tweaks yield equaliser as Man City hold Liverpool in thriller
Manchester City and Liverpool played out a frantic 1-1 draw filled with intense pressing, slick passing and adventurous tactics at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
With both teams pressing high, City tried to pass their way out from the back, while Liverpool preferred to loft passes towards their forwards. David Silva and Adam Lallana moved cleverly in midfield, drifting out wide to link up and create danger.
After taking the lead via James Milner's 51st-minute penalty, Liverpool dropped deeper and should have made it 2-0 on the break. But City hung on and soon switched systems, moving Kevin De Bruyne to the right flank before the Belgian set up Sergio Aguero's equaliser.
The Argentine could have won it in stoppage time, but that would have been harsh on Liverpool, who will now finish the season unbeaten against their top-six rivals in the league.
City pass it, Liverpool play it safe
The pressing game was always going to merit interest between two brave tacticians like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. They approached the game hell-bent on denying the opposition time and space to build from the back, sending players forward to break up play early on.
The difference in their approach was that Liverpool lofted the ball forward quicker when put under pressure, whereas City stayed composed. Some nervy moments were almost inevitable given the intensity with which Liverpool press, and Yaya Toure in particular survived some ominous moments when receiving the ball with his back to goal.
Eventually there were pros and cons for both sides. City were able to build up play without any major blunders -- save for a John Stones backpass that Sadio Mane chased down and should have converted.
Meanwhile, Liverpool's more direct approach made it harder for City to win the ball in advanced positions: the hosts recorded 11 ball recoveries in the opposition half during the first period, whereas City managed just two.
Silva, Lallana drift out wide
Given the intensity this pressing game triggered, the central midfielders were given more responsibility to offer their defenders constructive options. This prompted an interesting positional game involving playmakers such as David Silva, De Bruyne and Lallana.
Silva was at his intelligent best throughout, finding smart positions and ghosting into a right-hand pocket of space already inside two minutes to release Raheem Sterling. De Bruyne operated deeper on the left, his role centring on helping the defence play their way out.
Liverpool knew that duo would be influential, and so on the occasions when they didn't press high, they kept their midfield five compact in order to block passing lanes between the City defence and their playmakers. They succeeded sometimes, but not always. On one occasion, City played it to the feet of Aguero, who released De Bruyne with a first-time pass; on another, De Bruyne dropped deep to play a one-two with Gael Clichy that bypassed Liverpool's pressure.
When City reached the final third, Silva and De Bruyne often linked up on the left to great effect. On 12 minutes, De Bruyne played Silva into a good position, before getting it back and nearly catching out Simon Mignolet with a goal-bound cross. Silva later fired a rebound wide following a sumptuous counter-attack, while on 39 minutes, De Bruyne played another through-ball to Silva, whose low cross somehow escaped Sterling and Fernandinho.
Down the other end, Lallana showed tremendous industry in overloading the wide areas and taking initiatives. At one stage, he could be seen combining on both flanks inside a minute. These overlapping runs created space for others and let Mane and Philippe Coutinho cut inside. Lallana also tested Caballero himself in the first half, while early in the second he ran in behind Clichy to cross for Mane, whose dangerous effort was deflected off target by Stones.
Liverpool breaks torment City
The game remained balanced as the contest progressed, with chances squandered and penalty shouts denied. Coutinho and Roberto Firmino drew stops from Willy Caballero, but then Emre Can lifted a pass over the top for Firmino, who was brought down by Clichy. Milner dispatched the penalty, enabling Liverpool to sit deeper and strike on the break.
They took up that invitation, producing a spell in which Firmino could have made it 2-0 when one-on-one with Caballero. City were stretched and disorganised, and a tiring Toure was overrun by nimble forwards, at one point being practically walked past by Can.
City eventually recovered and equalised on 69 minutes, but even then Liverpool continued to counter. Firmino hit the side netting, while Lallana somehow missed an open goal. As reflected by the locations of the dribbles in the final 25 minutes, Liverpool attacked the central spaces on the break, while City, who encountered a more settled team structure, targeted wide areas.
Guardiola tweaks yield equaliser
What prompted City's recovery was a change in shape and personnel. On 65 minutes Guardiola took off Toure for Bacary Sagna, who went to right-back as Fernandinho moved into midfield. Elsewhere De Bruyne relocated to the right wing, while Silva played deeper, Sterling moved inside and Leroy Sane played off Aguero almost as a second striker.
The tweak paid off inside four minutes, as Aguero emerged to steer home De Bruyne's low cross. As Liverpool lost intensity, the new system kept producing chances: Sane, now closer to Aguero, pulled off a backheeled one-two that released Aguero inside the box, only for the striker to fall as he was about to fire, before De Bruyne hit the post.
The game maintained its breakneck speed until the end, with Liverpool countering, City pushing forward and chances materialising. Out of the 26 attempts in total, all but one were fired from inside the two boxes. City had the best ones towards the end; Sterling nearly scored when chipped through by Silva, Aguero steered a Silva cutback off target, and then volleyed another De Bruyne cross over at the back post.
Still, overall, the draw seemed a fair reflection of a thrilling contest.
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