Man City 2-2 Liverpool: Liverpool press nicely, Mancini’s formation switch helps City

February 4, 2013

The starting line-ups

Liverpool produced an impressive performance, but were denied a win by Sergio Aguero’s superb finish.

Roberto Mancini was without both Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure. In defence, he chose left-footers Matija Nastasic and Joleon Lescott together, something he’s tried to avoid this season. Edin Dzeko partnered Sergio Aguero, while James Milner was selected over Samir Nasri.

Brendan Rodgers made only one change from the draw at Arsenal – Jose Enrique replaced Andre Wisdom, so Glen Johnson swapped sides.

This was an impressive performance by Liverpool, who pressed effectively and exploited space both behind and in front of the Manchester City defence.

Henderson wide, Suarez upfront

On Wednesday night at the Emirates, Rodgers fielded Luis Suarez on the left and Jordan Henderson in the middle – here, he was braver. Henderson had been used as a third central midfielder to help out in that zone against Arsenal’s three-man midfield, but with City effectively playing two strikers, Rodgers was confident enough to effectively use two himself – it was more of a 4-2-3-1, but Suarez played as a number ten and combined neatly with Sturridge.

This shape suited Liverpool well against City – Henderson tracked Pablo Zabaleta up and down the line in an interesting battle of hard running and stamina, while Suarez found space in the hole. On balance, considering Henderson’s performance against Arsenal in midweek in the central role (and Suarez’s goal), then Suarez’s impact from between the lines in this match, it’s fair to conclude that Rodgers probably got his shape correct in both games.

Pressing

The start of this match followed the pattern we’ve come to expect from Premier League games – both sides press for the opening 10 minutes or so, and then revert to ‘usual’ levels of pressing. So, after a frantic opening period to the game when neither could build from the back or construct decent passing moves, the game settled down into a more telling pattern – and Liverpool’s pressing was much better.

Suarez’s deeper positioning means he’s not able to lead the pressing as the central striker, which helps set the tempo for the rest of the side and is one of the main features of his game. However, although his running was less obvious, his defensive work was still handy – he occupied one of City’s central midfielders, usually Javi Garcia, and stopped City playing passes through him. Sturridge did the pressing higher up reasonably well, although not as effectively as Suarez.

City’s forwards, following an energetic start, did little work in the defensive phase of play.

Dual threat

The key to the first half was Sturridge and Suarez’s dual threat – Sturridge offered pace in behind and drew Nastasic out to the flank, while Suarez continually found pockets of space between the lines.

The latter threat was the greater problem, especially when you consider both Liverpool goals were long-range strikes from that zone. There was simply too much space between the lines – partly because the defence couldn’t push too high up, for fear of Sturridge exploiting the space in behind more frequently, and partly because Garcia and Gareth Barry didn’t sit deep enough.

In this Guardian piece I attribute this problem to Aguero and Dzeko’s lack of defensive work, forcing Garcia and Barry to cover more ground:

City were consistently too open in that zone between the lines – it is rare to see a top Premier League side demonstrating such a lack of compactness…that problem originated from the lack of pressing high up the pitch – aside from a quick burst at the start of the match, Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko contributed little in the defensive phase of play. Their languid movement was in stark contrast to Sturridge and (in particular) Suárez, who remains one of the most energetic forwards in the Premier League when the opposition have the ball.

Whereas Suárez was getting tight to García, Agüero – in roughly the same role for City – made no attempt to shut down Lucas Leiva, which forced García and Barry up the pitch to battle in midfield, affording Suárez too much space. Mancini will be delighted to learn of Yaya Touré’s imminent return from the Africa Cup of Nations – García is still yet to convince in the centre of midfield, and the relationship between Touré and Barry feels much more natural.

Milner and Silva

An area City did perform well in, however, was in the wide zones. The first goal, scored by Dzeko, was created following some fine combination play by Milner and David Silva, exchanging quick passes on the left flank.

It’s unusual for two wide players to combine on the same flank so effectively, but this has actually been a feature of City’s game for a long time. In last year’s famous 1-6 at Old Trafford, for example, Silva and Milner’s tendency to make diagonal runs across the pitch and cause overloads in full-back positions was the defining feature of the game, and this is one reason why Milner and Silva is a better combination than Nasri and Silva – they simply work well together despite starting on opposite sides.

Mancini formation change

It sums up Mancini’s concern that he turned to his usual plan B – a 3-5-2 system – midway through the second half. Aleksandar Kolarov replaced Nastasic, so Zabaleta-Lescott-Clichy became the back three, with Milner and Kolarov wing-backs, and Silva now in a permanently central position.

This didn’t completely turn the game, but Liverpool’s dominance was less obvious. City had an extra body in the centre of the pitch, with Silva drifting around to concern Lucas making Liverpool’s advantage in that zone less obvious. Garcia and Barry appeared a little more secure, and Liverpool found fewer spaces between the lines.

Later subs

The introduction of Maicon for Silva was a typical Mancini substitution – a curious move, but one that prompted more attacking possibilities. Milner moved into the centre and battled well, giving City the upper hand in that zone, while Aguero picked the ball up from deep and further overloaded Lucas. Meanwhile, Maicon provided renewed energy and real drive down the right, as he did against Tottenham earlier in the season in another substitute appearance.

Perhaps Maicon’s threat encouraged Rodgers to replace Enrique with Martin Skrtel – Agger moved to left-back to provide a more solid defensive presence down that flank.

Conclusion

This was one of those games where – with the hype of a ‘Super Sunday’, combined with Rodgers’ confidence before the game – it was easy to forget that City were strong favourites. Their home record is formidable, they’re 17 points ahead of Liverpool, and were title contenders at home to a midtable side (Liverpool are improving, but in points terms are as close to 15th as they are to 4th).

Yet Liverpool were brave with their pressing, took on City in an open game, and were probably the better side. Frustratingly, the major thing Liverpool did well (the Suarez-Sturridge combination stretching the defence in different directions) was what Mancini opted against by leaving Tevez on the bench, while the difference in pressing also contributed to the pattern of the game.


Man City 2-2 Liverpool: Liverpool press nicely, Mancini’s formation switch helps City

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