After exiting the Champions League due to an underwhelming performance against Monaco, the pressure was on City to bounce back with a strong showing in the league in order to solidify their position in the top four. Pep responded with two changes: Touré and Otamendi came in whilst Sagna and Kolarov dropped out of the side.
Liverpool arrived at the Etihad on the back of two wins on the bounce after an extended period of disappointing results. Klopp fielded as strong a starting eleven as possible, with the only key absentees being Jordan Henderson and Dejan Lovren.
Cagey But Controlled First Half
The first half performance was very encouraging. For the first 35 minutes or so the team managed to contain and control Liverpool’s transitions very effectively. City managed to force the visitors to build their play from deep (something they aren’t comfortable doing) instead of the fast, direct style that they surely intended to make use of.
City were able to do this through the use of 4-4-2/4-1-4-1 shape that was both horizontally and vertically compact, denying space for the Liverpool attackers to use. Credit must be given to the attackers who were fantastic at regaining their defensive positions immediately after the ball was lost as well creating excellent pressure on ball carriers from behind as they returned to their assigned areas.
In addition, once Liverpool did advance the play the team did a fantastic job of crowding out of the attack and maintaining a numerical advantage against the attacking structure.
City’s main attacking pattern in the first half (and the game overall) was to use combinations in wide areas in order to break the Liverpool press and create situations for Sané and Sterling to either isolate their full-backs or drive to the byline in order to flash the ball across the face of goal. Whilst these opportunities were generated frequently, the final delivery was often of a poor quality (a problem that has been prevalent all season) and thus City were not able to capitalise on their control in the early stages of the game.
Another common attacking strategy in the first period was to have Agüero drop deep to receive a driven pass and play a quick lay-off pass back a midfielder. The intention behind this movement is to drag a Liverpool defender out of the defensive line to open up space for wingers. Moreover, the Liverpool midfielders will automatically collapse on a vertical pass that moves behind them which means that there is more space available for De Bruyne, Touré and Silva should they receive the ball from the lay-off. There were numerous times, especially in the opening 15 minutes, where this movement lead to Sané being released down the left hand side of the pitch.
Quick lay-off passes after a long driven pass are a fundamental part of how a Pep team overcomes an opposing side who like to press them high up the pitch and so it was encouraging to see the team execute these movements and passes so effectively during the first half.
Pivotal Changes After Liverpool Take The Lead
After Liverpool struck first blood with a penalty the change in City’s structure was almost immediate. Both Clichy and Fernandinho began taking up more advanced positions, primarily moving inside in order to open up passing lanes to Sterling and Sané to attack the Liverpool full-backs.
Whilst this change looked to create problems for Liverpool, it didn’t actually go according to plan. Instead of pinning Liverpool back the advanced positioning of the full-backs created more space and opportunities for the Liverpool attackers to counter attack at pace. Mané in particular was granted huge stretches of space to exploit his speed with and as a result Liverpool looked far more menacing than City over the course of this period in the game.
At around the 65 minute mark is when the most important changes took place. Sagna replaced Touré and Fernandinho moved back to his more familiar role in midfield. In addition, Sané moved alongside Agüero with Sterling and De Bruyne also swapping positions. These changes resulted in a 3-4-1-2 shape when City had the ball with Sterling operating just behind the two forwards and Sagna tucking in as a third centre-back.
The impact of change was almost immediate as Sterling was able to use his superior dribbling and control to maneuver through the compact Liverpool midfield and progress the team up the pitch during transitional moments. This was something that was sorely lacking from both De Bruyne and Silva earlier in the game as they were often dispossessed by Liverpool midfielders before they were able to turn and advance the play.
Moreover, City were finding a lot of joy from crosses throughout the game but the final ball was lacking. By moving De Bruyne into a wide area it allowed the team to not only maintain their most promising attacking strategy, but improve it by removing a player with an inconsistent delivery (Sterling) with one whose crosses very rarely fail to threaten the opposition (De Bruyne). It was as a result of this change that Agüero was able to equalise and ultimately claim a valuable point for the team.
After the equaliser City maintained these changes although their positional structure became more reserved. Clichy took up a more conservative position closer to the rest of the defence, resulting in a lop-sided 4-3-3 shape.
The reasoning behind this change was to try and attain more control over the ever increasing threat that Liverpool were posing in transition. By keeping both full-backs in deeper positions, it provided the defence with a greater chance to delay the attack and deny space for the Liverpool attackers to use.
Overall, this was a strong showing against a Liverpool side that thrives when playing against stronger opposition. Even in the face of some horrible decisions made by the officials, City managed to recover from a second half set back to earn a valuable point.
What should be noted though, is that fatigue is almost definitely beginning to have an impact on the team – most notably in central midfield. De Bruyne and Touré both looked tired and their quality was lacking throughout. The full-back positions also proved to be a persistent problem the moment they began taking up more adventurous positions. Reinforcements in this areas will be vital and will surely be a huge priority for the club during the summer transfer window.
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