Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City: neither entirely comfortable with new approach
Liverpool scored from two dead ball situations, Manchester City scored after some poor defending.
Brendan Rodgers gave a full league debut to Raheem Sterling on the left wing, and played Sebastian Coates rather than Jamie Carragher at the back. Lucas Leiva started in midfield despite getting injured in the warm-up, and was replaced after three minutes by Jonjo Shelvey, with Joe Allen dropping into the Lucas role.
Roberto Mancini used that 3-4-1-2 system showcased in the Community Shield. David Silva was left on the bench, and Kolo Toure started rather than Joleon Lescott, with Pablo Zabaleta to the left of the three.
There was relatively little creativity from open play here, and the tactical battle was relatively unexciting despite City’s unusual formation.
City started as the stronger side, with the back three spreading across the pitch and pushing City high up. Liverpool seemed to take a while to adjust and understand the way City were playing – in the opening moments their pressing was a little disjointed.
The battle in this game was basically down the flanks. In the centre of midfield, it was three against three and relatively little action. Allen had a very good game, especially considering his change in position (he started higher up in midfield), and Samir Nasri played one excellent through ball to Carlos Tevez, who hit the post. But otherwise, this zone was static.
Liverpool’s dilemma was about how to use the wide players. Should they close down the City wide midfielders, or let them have the ball and concentrate on picking up the wing-backs? Mancini pushed his wing-backs higher up the pitch, which made the decision very important – there was a big distance between his outside centre-backs and wing-backs.
The key to Liverpool getting into the game – and this will probably be true throughout Rodgers’ reign – was their ball retention. This gave Liverpool greater control, and pushed the City wing-backs towards their own goal. From there, City had little width high up the pitch and were predictable with their attacks. It also meant Liverpool’s wide players could press the Manchester City centre-backs 3 v 3, then drop back and help defend against the wing-backs.
Borini did this reasonably well, but Sterling was the star of the first half on the left, essentially playing two roles. He defended against James Milner – he didn’t need to get goalside of Milner, just maintain a position nearby, preventing passes towards him. City lacked a midfielder who could launch diagonal passes towards the wing-backs, and neither Milner nor Kolarov had a significant impact upon the game. But when Liverpool win possession, Sterling broke forward quickly and could attack Kolo Toure. The Ivorian was uncomfortable when drawn into wide positions and looked exhausted at an early stage, which made it difficult to see why he was played there rather than Zabaleta (with Joleon Lescott coming in as a natural left-sided centre-back).
Sterling also gave Liverpool’s attacks urgency and directness – they looked like a side able to retain possession or counter quickly, rather than one obsessed with ball retention over penetration. His cross for Borini was (along with Tevez’s chance) the best opportunity of the first half, though his influence upon the game was much less in the second half, partly because his energetic role in worrying two players wasn’t sustainable for an entire match.
If there was one criticism of Liverpool’s positional play, it was that they didn’t take full advantage of the freedom of their full-backs. Both Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly had decent games, but they didn’t create significant overloads down the flanks, although the first goal came from a corner after Gerrard moved to the right before crossing, similar to his assists for England during Euro 2012.
City didn’t defend well – the three-man defence doesn’t seem to offer any significant benefits to City at the moment, and they more or less had the classic problem of a 3 v 3 at the back, and no spare man. Some passes were wayward because of Liverpool’s pressing, and the centre-backs didn’t like being pulled wide by movement, or having to dash back quickly into central positions at defensive transitions.
The game didn’t significantly progress in the second half. Mancini made his usual cautious attacking change, introducing a midfielder, Jack Rodwell, for Nasri with Yaya Toure moving higher up. He scored from that position, but the key to the goal was a Liverpool error.
After Suarez put Liverpool ahead for a second time, Mancini eventually reverted to a more familiar system on 75 minutes, with the introduction of David Silva for James Milner. Zabaleta moved to right-back, Kolarov became a left-back. The system still seemed a little confused, however – Silva was on the right, Toure a playmaker, Edin Dzeko (on for Balotelli) high up the pitch with Tevez. Again, the goal resulted from a Liverpool mistake, rather than a great switch from Mancini, or a piece of brilliance from one of his attackers.
Passing from the back
Skrtel’s mistake was so ludicrous that logical explanation is possibly unwise, but it wasn’t the first time a Liverpool defender made a mistake under pressure – Coates was caught on the ball by Balotelli earlier on (although overall he had a good game.) It’s impossible to know whether Skrtel would have simply cleared the ball long under a different coach and a different playing system, but you can’t ignore mistakes in possession when the coach has clearly demanded short, patient passing at the back over longer balls.
The Slovakian also made an error in the first half when he pulled down Balotelli, which suggests that Liverpool have not yet fully adjusted to the demands of playing a high defensive line – although this wasn’t as obvious as in the defeat to West Brom, indicating progress. This is a period of adjustment, and major changes aren’t needed. The passing approach will win Liverpool more points than it loses – although they’ll be won in a much more subtler way than they were lost here.
Liverpool weren’t 100% comfortable playing high up the pitch and being told to pass out of the back, City weren’t 100% comfortable playing with a back three. Rodgers won’t change his approach – Mancini might have to, because City don’t immediately appear any stronger defensively or offensively, and he is under pressure to get immediate results. Rodgers will take more positives from this game – Allen’s passing, Sterling’s wing play, Coates’ calmness.
As a tactical battle, both were too concerned with getting their own system in shape to think about exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses.