Man City 3-0 Liverpool: Hodgson’s 4-4-2 completely outplayed

August 23, 2010

The starting line-ups

A dominant performance from City, who weren’t flattered by the 3-0 scoreline.

Roberto Mancini made changes on his wings, bringing in James Milner and Adam Johnson for Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Silva. Mario Balotelli wasn’t fit, and Emmanuel Adebayor was omitted. Joleon Lescott played at left-back in the absence of Aleksandar Kolarov.

Roy Hodgson shifted away from the 4-4-1-1 he used against Arsenal, and went 4-4-2, with Fernando Torres and David Ngog starting together for the first time in the Premier League. Javier Mascherano was unavailable with a transfer apparently imminent, so Lucas Leiva played in the centre of midfield.

The two-man strikeforce looked promising for Liverpool when Ngog and Torres combined nicely on the edge of the City penalty area after three minutes, but this was, amazingly, the final time one completed a pass to the either in the entire match. After that, they offered the same option – neither is particularly comfortable dropping deep or to the flanks, and both struggled to become involved in build-up play.

Traditional 4-4-2 v 4-2-3-1 battle

The classic problem for a 4-4-2 against a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3) is that it is outnumbered in the centre of midfield, and that was particularly evident today. City’s three central midfielders were the same three used against Tottenham on the opening day, but they were used differently – Yaya Toure played high up the pitch, generally level with the two wingers (as he has done for the Ivory Coast), whilst Gareth Barry played a box-to-box role, starting alongside Nigel de Jong but also getting into the penalty area. And he did that to good effect on 13 minutes, when he sidefooted James Milner’s cutback into the far corner.

Liverpool’s problems going forward stemmed from the numerical disadvantage in the midfield. As they were 2 v 3 in that area, their wide players were forced to play extremely narrow to help Lucas and Gerrard, with Milan Jovanovic in particular barely getting near the touchline all game. Both he and Kuyt were decent defensively, but the narrowness meant there was never any out-ball when Liverpool regained possesion – and add in the fact that Torres and Ngog weren’t giving enough variation upfront, Liverpool looked clueless in possession.

Their midfield problems were emphasised when Carlos Tevez dropped deep, as he did so often at White Hart Lane. Today, he played a slightly more traditional striking role, but still moved into deep-lying positions that effectively created 4 v 2 in midfield, and allowed City to build up play easily and gradually around Liverpool’s midfielders. His passes are depicted below.

by Guardian Chalkboards

Wingers cut in to dangerous effect

City’s problem against Tottenham was that Wright-Phillips and Silva saw little of the ball, but today in Milner and Johnson they had two wingers playing excellently. As Mancini favoured towards the end of last season, they were inverted, with Johnson on the right, and Milner generally on the left. Johnson caused Daniel Agger no end of problems in Liverpool’s left-back zone – and Agger looked completely uncomfortable dealing with the winger, not simply because he is not naturally a full-back, but also because Johnson was always looking to cut inside onto his left foot, towards Agger’s weaker right foot.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Liverpool playing a 4-4-2 is that it forces Steven Gerrard to play a very deep role, especially if he is playing alongside Lucas (rather than Javier Mascherano, who is much more able to cope by himself in the centre of midfield, as he does for Argentina). Following Liverpool’s disastrous final season under Rafael Benitez, a myth seems to have emerged that Gerrard is somehow better in the centre of midfield than he is playing just off Fernando Torres. Nothing could be further from the truth – Gerrard played the best football of his career at the head of a midfield three, and is much more subdued in a four. In a 4-4-2, he is too far from goal, unable to influence attacking moves, less likely to combine with Torres (a partnership that works well) and too likely to play wasteful diagonal balls that are easily intercepted. He didn’t have a particularly bad game, but he wasn’t in a position to inspire Liverpool.

Surprisingly, Hodgson opted to change nothing at half-time – Liverpool had rallied in the five minutes before the break, maybe convincing their manager to have faith in the 4-4-2. If Hodgson remains committed to that system long-term, then we must have patience with him, and understand that a change in formation rarely has instant results. But in the sole context of this game, Liverpool needed something different.

City continue dominance in second half

City’s second goal came from a corner kick. This was particularly interesting, since Benitez’s insistence on zonal marking was blamed whenever Liverpool conceded a goal from a set-piece. So will pundits point to man-marking as the reason why they conceded such a poor second goal? Probably not, but this element of Liverpool’s tactics is worth keeping an eye on in the next few months.

Liverpool had their best spell of the match just after going 2-0 down, when Joe Hart made an excellent double save, but City sealed the game in the 67th minute. Johnson yet again caused Liverpool problems, dribbling past two players, stumbling under their challenges, before Martin Skrtel came across and wiped him out with a crazy lunge. Tevez converted the penalty, and that was game over.


City won comfortably without ever playing spectacular football, which simply demonstrates how poor Liverpool were. The use of Toure further forward worked reasonably well (although he doesn’t look completely fit) and Mancini’s use of inverted wingers and a false nine was very successful – Tevez had a good game, Milner got two assists, and Johnson v Agger was probably the game’s key battle. With Silva and Balotelli waiting in the wings (literally), personnel might change, but this looks like being City’s first-choice formation this season.

Liverpool’s performance was extremely disappointing, and displayed all the classic failings of a 4-4-2. This is notoriously Hodgson’s favourite formation, but he has shown a willingness to venture towards a 4-2-3-1ish system in Fulham’s Europa League run. That still seems to be Liverpool’s best bet, but with Gerrard in the hole, rather than deep in midfield.

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