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The festive season is loved in England because of the flood of matches that it brings, and the competitive spirit that the games are played in. Santa’s present to the football world this year was a terrific top of the table clash between Liverpool and Manchester City at the Etihad, as the Christmas leaders attempted to achieve the impossible; return from the Etihad with points.
Manchester City 2-1 Liverpool
Manchester City: Hart | Zabaleta | Kolarov | Lescott | Kompany | Fernandinho | Y.Toure | Nasri (Milner 72′) | Navas | Silva (Garcia 87′) | Negredo (Dzeko 77′)
Liverpool: Mignolet | Johnson | Cissokho | Skrtel | Sakho | Lucas (Aspas 82′) | Allen | Henderson | Coutinho (Moses 68′) | Sterling | Suarez
Goals: Coutinho 24′ | Kompany 31′ | Negredo 45+’
Man City’s defence were overpowering Liverpool’s in the middle of the park. The home sides’ midfield were more assured in defence, while Liverpool’s used their defensive approach to attack the City men. The losing midfield battle, expected, pulled Suarez into deeper positions as he attempted to get into the game. Prior to this, Suarez was left isolated in the attacking third with barely any involvement or touches. The reason for this isolation, more than a tight City defence, was Toure and Fernandinho alternating in shutting Suarez out (more on that later).
Suarez needed to break free from the shackles of City’s tight marking, he was bound to adopt his natural movement game to do so. And it worked well for the away side, as Suarez moved or dropped deeper, it attracted his marker (most often Kompany) with him, creating gaps in dangerous areas in the final third for Liverpool, a simple but effective tactic that yielded a couple of chances and the opening goal of the game.
As seen above, Coutinho ran at the City defence and was assisted by Suarez’ run, which rather easily pulled the Manchester City captain, Vincent Kompany, towards him, opening up a big gap in defence for Joe Allen to run into. Coutinho used this to his advantage, playing Allen through, but the Welshman’s first touch let him down. On another day, Suarez’ movement pulling Kompany away could have been blatantly punished.
Just moments after the previous illustration, Liverpool created another chance for themselves with a similar tactic, this time it paid off. As Henderon (not highlighted) played a short pass onto Suarez’ path, the Uruguayan tried to leave his marked behind came short to collect; a deft first touch followed, by this time Kompany was automatically attracted towards Liverpool‘s captain, it opened up a huge gap for Sterling and Coutinho to run into, with neither Kolarov nor Lescott covering for Kompany, playing both the Liverpool youngsters on side. The initial ball from Suarez was probably meant for Coutinho, but it was collected by Sterling as he rounded the keeper and allowed Coutinho to finish into an empty net.
As the game wore on and City started to settle, Manchester City adopted an alternative strategy to keep Suarez quiet. A zonal marking system of sorts, which was followed throughout the second half as well. The illustration above gives us an idea of the strategy. Suarez was tightly marked when he was in and around the box, playing around the shoulder of the last defender. Suarez continued to drop deep and come short to help his team-mates pick him out, as he left the attacking zone, the defender (Kompany and Lescott) didn’t follow this time, instead Yaya Toure dropped deeper into a defensive zone (as did Fernandinho in other parts).
Thus this was the strategy adopted to prevent Suarez from having a more telling contribution in the game. The midfielders were effective in remaining tight on Suarez without having their defence to create gaps. Liverpool were unable to conjure up more chances like this in the second half that allowed them to play balls in behind the defence, into gaps. Manuel Pellegrini clearly identified this short-fall and took corrective measures.
City usually start with Aguero and Negredo up front, and have the duo of Silva and Nasri cutting in behind them. This leaves space for their wing backs to charge forward. It also facilitates the brilliant link up play that City have shown at times this season. With Aguero injured, Jesus Navas was drafted into the side. On paper this was going to pose a problem because Navas is a touchline hugging winger. This could trouble the link up play, and reduce space for Zabaleta to run into. However, this problem was countered, because Navas played a lot narrower than usual, and when he did drift outside, Zabaleta made his trademark runs in the inside channel, giving City bodies both inside and outside.On the other flank, Nasri played in more of a free role, drifting across the pitch to get the ball, and influence play. This left wide open spaces for Aleksandr Kolarov to exploit, and the Serbian did just that, taking every opportunity he got to get forward and deliver crosses. He managed to get 5 crosses into the box, connecting with 2 of them.
These overlaps were particularly effective in the first half as Silva and Zabaleta tried to take advantage of Aly Cissokho (who hasn’t seen too many games this season) on the right flank. While they were able to get crosses in from there, it was well dealt with by Liverpool’s centre backs.
Liverpool have a good choice of central defenders, but some Liverpool fans have questioned the inclusion of Martin Skrtel over Daniel Agger, while others have been happy with his selection. It is a point of discussion regularly with clashing opinions. Today was the perfect example as to why these the fans are split on this.
Martin Skrtel put in an exceptional performance, making some crucial tackles in dangerous areas (the save from Negredo’s shot for example). It was always going to be a difficult game for the Slovak against the ‘Beast’ Alvaro Negredo and the rest of the City attack, and Skrtel did a fantastic job in defence. He made 4 blocks, more than anyone else on the pitch (in fact, in total there were 8 blocks in this game). He made 14 clearances, all of which were effective in either getting the ball out of play, or finding a team-mate, this is also reflected in his 100% pass completion rate.
But again, there is always a downside to Martin Skrtel, arguably one of the most inconsistent players ever for Liverpool. As was seen with Kompany’s goal, the Liverpool defender was just too tight to the Belgian, allowing him to beat him for strength and getting the jump on his defensive counterpart. Strength for Strength Kompany was always going to win, and Skrtel sticking tightly to him further assisted the Man City captain. But that didn’t change, Skrtel continued the same throughout the rest of the game and for all subsequent corners.
What’s worse was Skrtel chronic shirt-pulling, something that has become a regular feature in the past few games (and seasons). Kompany refused to claim a foul for it post-game, but if you’re looking at it from the letter of the law, a more strict referee could have given some three penalties to the home side. The shirt-pulling didn’t have as much a telling effect as Kompany, despite the pull, was able to overpower Martin Skrtel and outjump him in every aerial duel (Kompany won all 3 aerial duels he competed in, all of which were in Liverpool’s half, all against Martin Skrtel); a weaker player may have been outdone and possibly could have claimed a foul.
Martin Skrtel needs to get smarter in his defensive play or he might risk costing the team. He is a solid, hard-working & determined defender, but on occasions lacks the basic defensive smartness.
Liverpool always needed to be vary of City’s Alvaro Negredo, besides scoring that wonderful ‘Outside of the Boot‘ goal, Negredo was effective in keeping the Liverpool defenders occupied, proving to be a nuisance.
Pellegrini’s approach with Negredo was the same- use him to attract Liverpool’s defenders, thus naturally creating space for City’s defenders to run into. While Liverpool countered that approach by putting men out wide with less attacking intent (we’ll discuss that later), it was still effective in keeping Liverpool defenders and midfielders in deeper areas, giving his team-mates more space to play with.
As seen on the right, Negredo has taken a position right in the centre of Liverpool’s box, as he did on various occasions, it naturally kept all of Liverpool’s defenders at bay as they identified Negredo’s threat from inside the box. It meant that, crucially, City’s other attacking players were left unmarked. Unfortunately for the home side, they didn’t take enough advantage of this as they would have liked; Liverpool’s defenders were able to scramble away any openings for the likes of Silva and Nasri. It, however, did ensure that Liverpool’s defenders were on their toes.
A key feature that has helped Liverpool spring to the top and have a serious claim there, is their ‘defend from attack’ feature. They are seen constantly closing down opponents in their own-half, forcing the ball back and winning possession from forced errors. It’s an approach that can leave the side short at the back, especially with the likes of Sterling and Coutinho pressing from the wings, and Henderson from the centre, it can be easily exploited. Given that City possess a pacy winger in the form of Jesus Navas, any gap will be pounced upon to run into.
Brendan Rodgers identified this short-fall and adopted a more disciplined and defensive approach. The Liverpool players were seen playing generally more deeper, looking to win possession in their own half, rather than that of their opponents. A safer approach, but one that puts less pressure on the opposition; but again, it’s pressure that Man City’s World Class players can deal with. Luis Suarez was often the only man in the City box; he was unable to effectively close down the City players without the help of his team-mates.
Manchester City are only a point of the top and despite their poor away form, are looking good. They have the best squad in the Premier League and immense strength in depth. Brendan Rodgers said it was City’s title to lose, he probably wasn’t far off. Except them there or thereabouts, they can prove to be the most consistent side in the league, and ultimately that will separate the contenders from the pretenders.
A disappointing result for Liverpool after a superb performance, Vincent Kompany wasn’t wrong in labeling this as their toughest home game of the season. The Reds have surprised many, including their own fans, but a shot at the top 4 is still definitely on. Chelsea next week is another difficult game, one that they will believe they can get points from, but more dropped points would see them fall further behind going into the new year.
What did you think of the game? Did you notice anything else tactically? Have we missed out on something? If so, do leave a comment below.