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Liverpool vs Manchester City: Before and After
What we did, or did not, learn.
I’ve done this before and thought it would be fun to do it again before a big game like this. You’re reading this after Liverpool and Manchester City have played each other. I’m writing this paragraph before the game has kicked off. In the first section, I’ll write what I expect we’ll see, and where both sides are at. In the second section, I’ll reflect on what we saw, how much I got right, and how it should change the way we think about both teams.
Part One: Before the Game
It might sound trite, but both these teams have been really good.
The table can tell you that much. Liverpool were in first place before the weekend started (Chelsea’s win on Saturday put them top of the table for at least 24 hours), and City are just a point worse off. This has been the case for a little while now.
For Liverpool, the story has been about getting back to the kind of level they were at in the 2019/20 season. It’s broadly the same group of players doing the same types of things. The only real change has been to use the central midfielders more aggressively. This seemed like a move to accommodate Harvey Elliott at first, but it has continued even after his injury. It seems Klopp wants at least one central midfielder joining the attack at all times now, and that has left Liverpool a little more open.
You can see the differences in the two teams from the last time each dropped points. Liverpool did it in an end-to-end 3-3 draw against Brentford they just couldn’t see out, while City did it with a 0-0 shutout against Southampton where they couldn’t quite break the Saints down. Over the past 18 months or so, City hit their best again primarily through a strong defence. Liverpool, however, are trying to reach their previous heights by adding even more to the attack.
That’s why I expect Liverpool to go for this game more aggressively than City.
In last season’s 1-1 draw at the Etihad, Klopp took a bold call and started four attackers. It didn’t really work, and Liverpool got slightly caught out of shape for the goal they conceded. This season’s system, with one central midfielder pushing up, seems to give Klopp that extra attacker without pulling the whole shape apart. So I’d be surprised if he started with four attackers again, but the intent will be there.
City, on the other hand, seem to have gradually moved towards Guardiola’s ideal of more and more midfielders. Without Harry Kane, they’ve fully embraced the false nine model, and my gut feeling is Phil Foden will start there at Anfield. The other options, Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres, both prefer to run into space, whereas Foden will come short for the ball. Guardiola’s preferred model for defending against fast transitions has long been to add more passers into the game, and this is the most obvious way to do it.
Jack Grealish, too, is important here. After suggestions he would play in midfield, he’s started his City career on the left wing, and that’s another possession based player who can slow down the game into the side. It plays into perceptions of both managers, but I expect City to look to control things at a slower tempo, while Liverpool try to play it fast. The tempo will be a big clue as to who’s actually running the game.
In the end, I think City might just about get through this one. They’re a much better side at defending Liverpool-style counters than they once were, and that should make them a little more complete in this game. I would not be at all shocked if enough of Liverpool’s fast transitions got through to do the real damage, however.
Part Two: After the Game
Wow. Just wow. That was outstanding.
I felt like I’d read Guardiola’s plan correctly when seeing the lineup, but I was wrong. Foden moved out to the left with Grealish playing as the false nine. The thinking upfront was the same: get an extra passer in there to better control the ball. But Foden on the left was inspired thinking. Liverpool had a very obvious hole in James Milner at right back. Jordan Henderson doesn’t quite have the stamina he once did to cover that space. Grealish is all about getting the ball to feet and running at people, whereas someone like Sterling is all about attacking the space in front of him. Both are wonderful, of course, and it’s not better or worse. Foden, though, is the Goldilocks option of City’s forward line: he has just the right amount of threat both receiving the ball to feet and running in behind. He was the perfect option to annihilate Milner every time City targeted that flank. It’s rare that you see 45 minutes of top, top level football with such an obvious tactical feature. They were clearly dominant, but they didn’t take advantage.
Klopp was clear about why this happened. To stop Man City’s possession game, in his view, you have to “step out in specific moments” in order to close the central areas, then prevent the switch to the wingers. We saw City pull off that last one over and over with Foden against Milner. Klopp claimed “we were too passive in the last line”. The midfield was “called back, so neither [Henderson] nor Curtis [Jones] could really step out when necessary. So we were just passive. They passed the ball through us. [...] That gives you a really bad feeling, [and this feeling] leads to not playing football”.
In the second half, Liverpool immediately started with more energy and intensity, pressing higher and closing down the spaces. It worked. Even down that same flank, Liverpool found joy, as Salah started to dominate. The first goal must have infuriated Guardiola, as it was so reminiscent of the one Kai Havertz scored in the Champions League final. City have improved in terms of stopping fast transitions from happening, but they’re still vulnerable once those moments hit. City certainly still offered a threat going forward, with Foden again destroying Milner (who was very lucky not to pick up a second yellow) and applying a great finish. Kevin De Bruyne also offered a single moment of quality in an otherwise quiet game.
But the second half felt like Liverpool’s. Salah’s stunning goal summed up how well the Reds worked those attacks from outside to in. The first half was slow and deliberate, suiting City perfectly. The second half was lightning quick, playing right into Liverpool’s hands.
Have I changed my opinion on either side? Not really. These are both excellent football teams at the top of their game or close to it. A point isn’t a disaster for either, and there are further tests to come. City are very controlled in possession and Liverpool are going all in on that attack. I think City’s better ability to rotate across the pitch will see them stronger across 38 games, but I can’t say I’m extremely confident on that.
But my god was that a good 90 minutes of football.