Manchester City 3-0 Liverpool: Liverpool dominate possession but City score all the goals

January 3, 2012

The starting line-ups

Liverpool completed twice as many passes, but City were more creative and ruthless in the final third.

Roberto Mancini was without Mario Balotelli, who often features against big sides, so went with Edin Dzeko upfront with Sergio Aguero behind.

Kenny Dalglish didn’t use either Craig Bellamy or Steven Gerrard despite good performances against Newcastle, whilst Luis Suarez was banned. Andy Carroll started upfront alone, with Dirk Kuyt out on the right.

A combination of little creativity plus mistakes at the back meant Liverpool couldn’t turn their dominance of the ball into a positive result.

Early stages

Within the first minute there was a clear difference between the sides without the ball. City started by pressing quickly and putting pressure upon the Liverpool defence. They started with a high line to push Carroll away from goal, then dropped deeper and deeper throughout the game.

Liverpool stood off in midfield, let City’s two holders have the ball, and concentrated on getting nine men behind the ball. They were here to contain, rather than to attack.

There were no major positional surprises. Dalglish had the personnel to go 4-4-2 if he’d wanted to, but he stuck to his recent formation for big games, with five strung across the middle. In theory, this gave Liverpool an advantage in the centre of the pitch, because Aguero was playing as a second striker rather than an attacking midfielder. Jay Spearing was the man who had time and space between the two lines of four, and it was notable that without the ball, he lacked the positional ability of Lucas, who was man of the match in the reverse fixture between these two. Spearing was good when he did get the ball, however, spraying a couple of nice passes out to the flanks.


City went ahead with a goal that came mainly because of Pepe Reina error  - but Aguero often got space between the lines. For the goal, he drifted in behind Spearing who was caught in a poor position, and the Liverpool centre-backs weren’t in a position to get a block in. Reina should have saved the shot, but the tactical reason for Aguero getting space shouldn’t be overlooked.

Liverpool responded impressively after going behind. Often, sides who play defensively find it difficult to come out and play higher up once they go behind, but Liverpool were in a position to press well in midfield, with Charlie Adam on Yaya Toure, and Jordan Henderson on Gareth Barry. City struggled to keep possession in the centre at 1-0, with David Silva coming deeper than usual to get the ball, meaning he wasn’t in a position to play penetrative passes.

Liverpool’s main threat was Downing, who seemed to have the beating of Micah Richards – 0-0 he had sprinted through for a one-on-one after Carroll dragged Kolo Toure out of position. Richards never looked comfortable with him – early on he was beaten for pace, then he realised his weakness and stood off too much, allowing Downing to play. Carroll made a nuisance of himself, but Liverpool’s primary strategy at this point should have been to keep it tight at the back, knowing they had two potential game-changers from the bench.

They failed to keep it tight, conceding from a corner (as they did in this fixture last season), and went into the break 2-0 down, probably a harsh reflection of the performance they’d given in the opening period.

Second half

Dalglish waited until the 57th minute before bringing on the obvious two. Adam had been disappointing for the second game running and was replaced by Gerrard, whilst Kuyt made way for Bellamy. This meant a slight reshuffle, with Downing going over to the right – which was a shame, as he’d been the most threatening player against Richards. He contributed little from the right.

Liverpool continued to see a lot of the ball, but were predictable and one-dimensional when they had possession in the final third, with Carroll too big an influence upon what the other attacking players do. He had another poor game, although he was often isolated and was no worse than other attacking players. He tried to peel away to the far post when the ball was on the left to use his height against Gael Clichy – his best game for Liverpool was against City, when he did the same against Aleksandar Kolarov. Vincent Kompany followed him over to that side, though, and it helped that the Belgian was playing as the left-sided centre-back alongside Toure, rather than as the right-sided centre-back, as he does when alongside Joleon Lescott.

Liverpool’s performance from set-pieces (at either end) was awful throughout the game. Adam’s corners were poor whether taken long or short, whilst defensively they looked vulnerable from City corners, conceding the second in this fashion.

In fact, they were so bad at dead ball situations that City’s third goal came from a Liverpool free-kick, awarded after the foul that got Barry sent off. A poor pass resulted in a Yaya Toure-driven counter, and eventually a penalty.

After the red card, Mancini brought on Lescott for Silva and switched to something like a 5-3-1, which increased City’s aerial power at the back – they had to soak up pressure and complete lots of clearances, and it meant that Carroll could no longer try to tower over Clichy.


A thrashing on paper, but overall City weren’t at their best, and Liverpool played decently in open play. The goals all came after good chances for Liverpool – they were preceded by the Downing missed one-on-one, a poor Henderson shot from a free-kick, and the sudden optimism when Barry was red carded. Set-pieces and individual mistakes cost them dear.

There was relatively little to take from the game as a whole, but there were some individual points:

  • Dzeko didn’t do well up against two physical centre-backs and Balotelli is still the best man for this formation in big games.
  • Whereas Lucas is very good at ’sweeping up’ ahead of a back four, Spearing prefers to get stuck in against a particular opponent and is not good at occupying space and covering a zone.
  • As pointed out previously, City’s central midfielders can be given time on the ball without too much danger, and standing off and sitting deep remains the best way to play them.

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