Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-0 at Anfield in the first leg of the quarter-final stage in the Champions League. Goals from Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Sadio Mane along with defensive clean sheet ensured the Reds are in a better position going into the second away from home. Although, we can’t write this Man City off yet, but one Liverpool away goal next week and the tide would tilt massively in favour of the Merseysiders.
In the above image, starting lineup and formation is depicted clearly. What Pep Guardiola did was twitch a bit bearing in mind the situation and magnitude of the game. He left Raheem Sterling out of the lineup maybe because of the reason that the former Liverpool man hasn’t been able to have his own when playing at Anfield for Man City. The other change was him bringing Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva in place of Sterling. This meant Guardiola was very keen to out-number Liverpool in midfield and play on from that.
But, as the game took shape in the first half, this ploy backfired. Liverpool were very good in pressing as a group and defending as a team. They didn’t pressed the City build up very high every time, instead took the right moments to go high and pressurise Ederson and his back four. Once City got out of the initial pressure, the Reds were very quickly back into their shape allowing the likes of Fernandinho to have the ball. As soon as it goes near to the creative mids Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, Jordan Henderson and James Milner were quick to close them down in tandem.
There was a certain pattern to the pressing in middle and lower blocks. Take an instance of Milner going in to press Silva, then Henderson and Chamberlain made sure that if the Spaniard do get past his man, they are there marking de Bruyne or Gundogan as the passing options centrally. In addition, Roberto Firmino made sure that Fernandinho doesn’t get easy time on the ball during the build-up play.
The above heat-map of Silva and de Bruyne is an indication of where Liverpool wanted them to play, certainly not very close to the goal. With Leroy Sane well marshaled by Trent Alexander Arnold, which was a testament to the young man for doing well after a scruffy last 2 games. City never had an outlet from sides of the pitch, the formation Guardiola went with, had a clear imbalance in the shape of the team.
Kyle Walker was outdone 2 v 1 on the Liverpool’s left, Gundogan was a confused man especially in the first half whether to support the right-back or stay in his natural position. Andy Robertson and Sadio Mane were comfortable seeing out his forward runs and got after him in pair while attacking.
All of the three goals scored by Liverpool were the result of them winning the tackles and second balls in midfield and defence, turning that into a fast counter-attack and scoring goals with City being unable to get their defensive shape right throughout. Guardiola’s men did show their naivety though chiefly in conceding the first and third goal. Sane’s ball after they worked the corner show square in front of the back-line was always a bad idea considering the fact the pace Liverpool have in counter-attacks.
Once Mane recieved the ball, Salah was on the move even though the first pass didn’t come in his way. Then Milner found him with a slide rule pass and the break was on with speed of the highest order. The other naive thing was Walker wondering with the ball when the need was to just kick the ball once Ederson palms it in a danger area. Firmino’s first shot wasn’t that fierce, so maybe the goalkeeper might have done better to parry the ball in a better position.
For the second goal, City were in an iffy state when two challenges went through and the referee was clever and good to let the game flow. Once Milner went in to win the second ball, Chamberlain’s first touch considering the ball had pace with close distance, was sumptuous and the rocket shot to beat the goalkeeper was something extraordinary in many sense.
The third goal was also a naivety from the away side, Nicolas Otamendi went on with the ball towards midfield without having any pass in mind. He then lost the ball and Liverpool were at City’s backline with one pass. Salah was clever to look for the cross once the initial shot was blocked, because Otamendi was out of possession and Mane with Firmino had an overload against a retrieving Fernandinho.
Once Liverpool got three goals in first half, it was imperative that City find a way in the second half. They did try to force the issue in the second half by trying to win more second balls and Liverpool sitting deeper minute by minute. One thing the away side didn’t managed to do even though they had 66% possession is to test the Liverpool keeper Loris Karius.
They had possession with the Reds resigned to playing football but none of their midfielders tried to have a pop from distance. de Bruyne and Fernandinho did tried to have but were closed down. But the idea of having a pop from distance just to test Karius’ handling might have been better. It would have done two things, it would have tested the handling of the keeper and also force the Liverpool midfield to come up a bit to block the shots from distance.
All in all, despite the three-goal lead, Liverpool should not be thinking of the next stage of this competition. There is another huge game coming up at the Etihad in five days time. It would be intriguing to see how Guardiola puts out his team that night, the key thing in Liverpool’s favour is no away goals for City. This means if the Reds do sneak a goal away, City might be in for a big haul.