It’s not often that you have Liverpool playing at Anfield, with just four weeks of football left, and have them in the title race. It’s not often that Steven Gerrard sheds a tear after the game. The occasion got the better of the captain, as Liverpool overcame their close rivals Manchester City in the title race, and took a huge step forward towards realising that dream.
Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City
Liverpool: Mignolet, Skrtel, Sakho, Johnson, Flanagan, Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho (Moses 89′), Sterling (Lucas 90′), Suarez, Sturridge (Allen 66′)
Manchester City: Hart, Kompany, Demichellis, Zabaleta, Clichy, Toure (Garcia 19′), Fernandinho. Nasri, Navas (Milner 50′), Silva, Dzeko (Aguero 68′)
Goals: Sterling 6′, Skrtel 26′, Coutinho 78′ | Silva 57′, Johnson (OG) 62′
How Gerrard, Henderson and Coutinho controlled the midfield
Brendan Rodgers once again employed the diamond formation against City, and for large parts it worked wonders on the day. Rodgers clearly identified the threat from midfield that Man City posed. With Dzeko the only front-man, the defence could handle him, but it was the threat of David Silva, Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas & Yaya Toure that was the main danger. Fernandinho wasn’t deployed with the intention of posing an attacking threat.
Captain Steven Gerrard was made to control the central positions which would be occupied by David Silva and Yaya Toure’s forward runs; unfortunately the Ivorian succumbed to an injury and wasn’t able to continue. Gerrard then played the rest of the first-half marking and tracking the Spaniard, David Silva; and did a fantastic job of it. Toure’s injury reduced his defensive work as Fernandinho (who was the ‘replacement’ for Toure in the system) didn’t attack as much, while Javi Garcia naturally sat back.
Henderson and Coutinho were required to cover the wide areas. Jordan Henderson played on the left, supporting Flanagan, protecting him against Navas and Zabaleta, two naturally wide players who still managed to wriggle their way through. Philippe Coutinho was unbelievably fantastic with his defensive contribution, besides scoring the winning goal. The Brazilian youngster made 6 successful tackles, more than any other player on the pitch. He completely nullified Nasri’s contribution, while Clichy had nothing going forward.
It must be noted that Coutinho & Henderson’s starting positions was a narrow role, and not completely out wide. Thus they were required to put numbers right in the middle, but had to work hard to ensure they covered the wide areas as well. The compactness in central areas completely removed City’s threat, while out-wide they struggled to get past the home side too.
Defensively Raheem Sterling didn’t have much duties but his movement throughout the game in the attacking half was immense.
City take the game to Liverpool out wide
Although Liverpool did a good job of keeping Man City fairly quiet out wide, Manuel Pellegrini realised their primary threat would be from the wings. Given Yaya Toure’s injury, Man City had nothing going forward from central positions. Dzeko isn’t one to drop deep, and Gerrard was sticking to his duty on Silva.
Man City thus attacked down the wings with more intensity. David Silva constantly shifted to wide areas, alongwith the wide midfielder (Nasri & Navas/Milner) and the full-back (Clichy and Zabaleta). They formed little triangles out wide to pass their way through the Liverpool defensive set-up there and forcefully penetrated the Liverpool box with their neat short passes.
This was how Man City controlled the game for large parts of the second half. As soon as they received the ball deep centrally, it was sprayed out wide, and they had three players going forward on either wings i.e David Silva, wide midfielder and the full-back. James Milners’ introduction changed the complexion of the game. His and Zabaleta’s movement mirrored that of their team-mates on the other flank. The full-back would make an overlapping run down the wings, pulling either one of the full-back (Flanagan/Johnson) and midfielder (Henderson/Coutinho) out wide, creating a gap to be exploited in the channels, a neat ball from one of the midfielders would open up the Liverpool defence.
This was how both goals were scored by Manchester City, both just 5 minutes apart. Milner ran down the channel for the first goal to set-up David Silva. While Nasri and Silva combined, again in the channel, to force the second goal. Liverpool couldn’t keep up with City’s passing and movement in that area, and Pellegrini’s men realised their inexperience in dealing with this and continued to force the issue from there.
SAS completely shutout, Raheem Sterling takes advantage
When you have two of the top scorers of the league as your opponents, the logical thing to do would be to shut them out completely from the game. And at Anfield, Manuel Pellegrini did just that. Setting his side out to keep the Suarez – Sturridge partnership quiet. City stuck to their task and the contribution of the lethal SAS partnership was nearly minimal.
Man City came into the game looking very nervous, letting the occasion and atmosphere get the better of them, and for the first 10 minutes they didn’t look like a team contesting for the title. This is where Suarez and Sturridge performed like their usual self, Suarez set-up the first goal, Sturridge had a fantastic chance to double it just minutes later, but that was pretty much it.
City’s defense then took control and nullified the threat of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. They did this by ensuring that firstly Suarez isn’t able to combine with his team-mates using the short passes that he so often thus, by keeping the defense narrow and compact around the box. Suarez always found a man around him who was smart enough to keep close to him but not stick to him. This is where Suarez thrives, if you get too close to him he’ll find a way past you, give him some space and he usually struggles. We noticed this earlier in the season vs Chelsea, and it was the same case this time round. Sturridge just generally struggled to get into the game. He failed to penetrate the box, and wasn’t given the through-ball service he usually receives.
You’ll find it remarkable to note that between them, Suarez and Sturridge had 0 shots on goal, and attempted just 3 (all of which were off-target). Full-marks to Pellegrini and his men for countering the main threat posed by Liverpool.
But while Suarez and Sturridge were kept quiet, Man City failed to realise that Liverpool had more attacking options to look at. While Coutinho did get the winning goal, his attacking contribution was minimal up to the point, besides one or two shots, with the Brazilian mainly having to deal defensively.
It was thus Raheem Sterling who played a free, unmarked role, at the top of the diamond through the centre. Blame must fall on Pellegrini who seemingly didn’t think too highly of the teenagers’ abilities, and quite possibly was guilty of expecting him out wide. But Rodgers pulled off another master-stroke, sticking Sterling through the centre, as he has for the last few game. His speed, movement, turn, and control are surprisingly hard to deal with and Raheem took full advantage. The youngster dropped deep, drifted wide, penetrated in, all while being fairly free from any Man City pressure. Had City not found their touch out wide, forcing Liverpool to be more defensive, Sterling could have enjoyed more of an attacking contribution.
Man City’s captain, Vincent Kompany, was a doubt for this game after suffering an injury the day prior in training. But he started the game, to City fans jubilation, as they realised the solidity he can provide in defense. Unfortunately it was quite the opposite from the City man. While he did successfully ensure SAS didn’t have much of a say in the game, the rest of Liverpool’s attack seemed to be too much for him to handle.
For the first goal, as mentioned above, Raheem Sterling made a free unmarked run into City’s box, Suarez played a neat ball through and Kompany was completely blind-sided by Sterling. The youngster made a run in behind the Belgian, beat him for pace, turned him and his keeper inside-out before scoring. You’re always told as a defender not to allow an attacker to make a run past and in-behind you with such ease; and it was a simple task for Sterling who showed immense composure once he was in behind.
Moments later a cross in from Sterling was missed by Kompany whose diving leg wasn’t able to get a touch on it, Sturridge though failed to get the right touch on it. But the opening few minutes saw Kompany play some of his worst defensive football in the Premier League.
The winning goal, scored by Coutinho, also arrived from a poor schoolboy error from Kompany. A simple left-footed clearance was over-complicated as he tried to get some sort of an in-swinging right footed clearance out, a poor decision, a poor touch that fell kindly for Coutinho to finish. Take nothing away from Liverpool’s performance, but while Manchester City were looking the more likely side in the second half, the poor decision proved to be costly for his side on the day and who knows what implications it could have on the title.
Mark Clattenburg’s performance
This isn’t something we often do in our Tactical Analysis, but felt it was relevant here. What referees need to ensure in games, especially big ones such as this, is that there is good open football on display. On such occasions you’re bound to have a few challenges that aren’t completely clean, that are borne from the fierceness of the fixture. You thus allow a few early challenges to go unrestricted, maybe give a talking to. In fact, a talking to before a yellow card is primary for referees these day, unless it’s a complete two-footed lunge.
But Clattenburg took the spark away from the game, reduced it’s intensity, with his early yellow card decisions. First Luis Suarez made a late tackle on Demichellis in the 5th minute. It was a foul, no doubt; but it being just the 5th minute and Suarez’ first challenge, you’d expect him to let it go.
Moments later, Javi Garcia came on. A defensive midfielder whose job is to make hard tackles. He was on the pitch for just under two minutes before receiving a yellow for a not-so-dangerous foul on Jordan Henderson. Again, wouldn’t a mere talking too have sufficed, given that it was his first contribution to the game? You’re taking away half of the players game by giving him an early yellow.
Moving on, there were a couple of occasions where Suarez rode his luck, complaining to the referee when decisions didn’t go his way. But in the second half, there was a blatant dive by Suarez, one of the worst he has done this season, and he can count himself extremely lucky not to have seen a second yellow. Personally think giving yellows for diving, no matter how blatant or not, is the perfect way to remove it from the game and Suarez deserved one there.
Nothing wrong with the Jordan Henderson decision, that was a straight red and a poor poor tackle by the midfielder which just a minute left, and he now misses three of Liverpool’s most crucial games in their last twenty years or so.
Where does this leave them?
The title has never been more in Liverpool’s hands than after this game. It’s completely theirs too lose. The Chelsea game is arguably the decider that could give Liverpool complete control and knock Mourinho’s side out. Manchester City are very much in it, but have a difficult game again on Merseyside against Everton soon. They knew a win at Anfield would give them control but now if both these sides win all their remaining games, Manchester City will be a point behind Liverpool.
For more Tactical Analysis of the biggest games, head this way.
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