A game of fine margins – How Guardiola outfoxed Jurgen Klopp at the Etihad
Manchester City trimmed the gap to four points at the top of the table after beating league leaders Liverpool 2-1 at the Etihad. This was a standalone, final game of the festive season, deservedly so, and the game epitomised that to full extent. It was a proper battle between two teams who are seriously going hell for leather in this race for supremacy.
Sergio Aguero gave the home side a precious lead five minutes before half-time. That advantage was cut down by Roberto Firmino’s equaliser in the 64th minute, however, the Cityzens were adamant to win this game, and Leroy Sane scored the winner in the 72nd minute.
The game was full of quality, minute details being observed by both camps and the margins being very small. Liverpool came very close to taking the lead but Sadio Mane’s effort hit the inside of the post and came out.
The follow-up of that situation was John Stones clattering his clearance into Ederson and the ball almost crept in. As per the goal-line technology, the Reds were 11mm away from being 1-0 ahead in the game around the half hour mark. Talk about small margins!
City eventually won this game with a low driving shot from Sane that took the slightest of deflections off Trent Alexander-Arnold’s leg to take it away from Alisson. The effort hit the inside of the post and went it. Such is the effect of margins but it was not to be for Liverpool.
Below, we tactically analyse the game and see how both managers played their teams out:
As shown in the above image, the starting formations and personnel of both teams. After getting success in the last few games playing the 4-2-3-1 system, Klopp reverted to his tried and tested 4-3-3, with a well-known midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner.
The only surprise in the City line-up was Aymeric Laporte playing as left-back, chiefly because Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph were out for this game. Other than that, the team picked itself, with Danilo favoured ahead of Kyle Walker due to recent form.
The home side started the game well by pressing high with greater intensity, looking to get in behind the Liverpool defence. They weren’t getting much out of the Robertson vs Sterling duel, hence, they targeted the right-hand side of the visitors’ defence, with Sane, David Silva and Laporte tripling up to outnumber the defensive pairing of Wijnaldum and Alexander-Arnold.
Here’s why this ploy worked wonders:
As shown above, just how the trio of City players outnumbered the Liverpool defenders. It is because Guardiola realised that Mohamed Salah is not someone who would track back and help his fullback. As a result, there was an overload of attacking players. Even Aguero found space on the right-hand side of the Reds’ defence.
There is no surprise that the first goal of the game came from this side of the pitch. David Silva played the ball in and the Argentine striker made a clever movement towards the near post to get the better of Dejan Lovren. He then did fantastically well to score from that angle, by hitting the ball into the roof of the net.
At half-time, it was clear that Klopp needed to make the change, either to his formation or to twist the player positioning, just to provide more protection to the peppered side of his defence.
The German allowed the game to go on for 10 minutes after the break before pressing the trigger button. He brought on Fabinho for James Milner, who didn’t look fully fit for this game. This was the moment when the away side changed their shape and started looking effective on and off the ball. Here’s how:
As shown in the above image, Liverpool reverted to their recently successful 4-2-3-1 system, with Henderson and Fabinho in a double pivot. Mane on the right-hand side because he tracks back and supports the fullback. Salah’s defensive duties were removed completely. Firmino was in the pocket between the lines.
A few minutes after this change, we saw a positive change in playing style from Klopp’s men. Fabinho started seeing more of the ball and his willingness to be precise in possession was fantastic. In the build-up to the equalising goal, the Brazilian picked out the forward run of Alexander-Arnold with a beautiful cross-field ball.
The youngster then put a great cross in the box towards the far post, and Robertson was clever to make subtle contact and tee up Firmino who was unmarked. The minute on the clock was 64! This was an inspired change made by Klopp and it worked to perfection.
However, his team was pegged back eight minutes later when Sane found himself one on one against Alexander-Arnold. The German’s low drive shot towards the far post took a slight deflection off the defender to get it away from Alisson, hit the inside of the post and went in.
City then showed great determination and will to keep pressing the Liverpool build-up, especially Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho, who were tireless workhorses in the middle of the park. Guardiola’s men showed what it takes to be a team to beat in the country.
On the balance of play, they shaded the deserving column to win this game, but this battle was decided by margins that went in favour of the home team.
Liverpool are still in the ascendancy with a four-point lead at the top of the table, however, City have the momentum. Now what the former needs to do is to come back refreshed for their next league game against Brighton and start winning again. For the Cityzens, it is all about using this win and keep piling the pressure on their rivals!