Despite already locking up the Premier League title with a record seven games left to play, Liverpool will be determined to leave the Etihad with 3 points on Thursday night. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will face a tough task to defeat one of the most dynamic teams that the Premier League has ever seen, as demonstrated in this tactical analysis.
Liverpool Key Players
Trent Alexander-Arnold: Trent Alexander-Arnold’s development has seen him become an essential player for Liverpool in all phases of the game. His incredible passing precision over long distances helps Liverpool to break down both mid and deep blocks, and although he prefers his right foot, his left foot is still dangerous.
Photo: Liverpool FC
Virgil van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk’s influence on Liverpool since his arrival in the 2018 January transfer window has been extraordinary. Not only can he compete well in aerial duels, but his speed and physicality also help him to defend the space behind Liverpool’s high line.
His 1v1 defending is up there with the best in the world. In addition, his range of distribution is vital to help Liverpool circulate the ball quickly and penetrate forward.
Photo: Liverpool FC
Roberto Firmino: Roberto Firmino’s off the ball movement is what makes Liverpool’s offense tick. His understanding of the space that can be attacked by Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané is shown through his movements to draw away defenders from said areas. While his best feature may be off the ball movement, his technical quality on the ball is incredible with both feet.
The creativity and unpredictability that he adds in the 2nd and 3rd phases make him able to turn any match on its head. When combined with Salah and Mané, his enthusiasm to press allows Liverpool to lock the opposition into their own half for long periods of the game.
Liverpool In Possession
Build Up: When the opposition press, Liverpool look to progress up the pitch by the goalkeeper and the two centre backs forming a line of three with two 6s above.
Most commonly, Allison passes to the right-centre back. He holds onto the ball, engaging the pressure of the opposition. The opposition’s midfield two engage with the double 6.
The left midfielder is ready to step wide to Trent should the pass be played. This leaves Jordan Henderson as the free man in the right half space.
- If under light pressure, the right-centre back chips over the first 2 lines directly to Henderson.
- If under heavy pressure, the right-centre back plays long to Salah. Henderson is underneath to receive a knock down.
2nd Phase: Liverpool have many different patterns to unlock mid blocks.
- Their main setup to break down a mid block is in a 1-2-4-2-2 shape. Once Liverpool reach the line of confrontation, Firmino and Henderson’s positioning asks questions of the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines.
- If the centre-midfielder does not engage in the press to block the entry to Henderson -> back 2 and Georginio Wijnaldum or Fabinho are 4v3 and able to progress up the pitch.
- If the centre-midfielder engages in the press to Fabinho, leaving the LB responsible for Henderson -> Salah attacking the channel in behind.
If the left-midfielder pinches in to block the entry to Henderson as the centre-midfielder steps, Trent has space (time) upon reception. As the ball is played to Trent, due to the incredible quality to deliver in threatening crosses, the opposition’s whole block must shift to close the space.
This leads to a 2v1 for Liverpool’s ball far midfielder & fullback. The ball far wide midfielder of the opposition usually decides to pinch on to the midfielder, meaning there is space for the opposite fullback.
Due to the quality of Trent, he is able to play out of the pressing zone by finding the (far) free man, leading him into space. Upon reception, Andrew Robertson then has time to pick out one of the arriving Salah, Firmino, Henderson, or Mané.
If Liverpool play against a 5 man midfield, they drop one of their midfielders into a false-fullback role. Not only does this create an easier circulation and license for a fullback to push high, but it also forces an opposition midfielder to step out of their line to apply pressure to the ball. This forces the opposition midfield to tighten, allowing for quick switches to occur to the opposite flank.
- Mané starts high in the left half space. He comes deep to receive at his feet – at the same time, Robertson runs in behind from wide. If the fullback follows Mane inside and the wide midfielder tracks Robertson, Firmino can move into the channel.
- If the wide midfielder pinches and the fullback tracks Robertson, Liverpool’s false fullback can engage and play 3v2 with Firmino + Mané vs RM + CM.
Final Third: Liverpool’s quality in all areas of the pitch forces the opposition to leave themselves exposed as they have to adapt to the particular movements that Liverpool throw at them during a specific moment.
Many patterns that Liverpool use to unlock mid blocks are also used to break down deep blocks. Improvised secondary movements are a common solution.
- With a fullback in possession, Liverpool have a central overload capable of arriving into the box. The winger positions himself in the half space.
- If the fullback steps out to defend Trent in possession, Salah attacks the channel in behind. He can then cut back to the numbers arriving into the penalty area.
- If the fullback stays, the outside midfielder must pressure Trent. This creates space for a possible cut back to a deeper midfielder who can then cross.
In Possession to Out of Possession Transition
This phase of the game is Liverpool’s strongest. It allows them to control the game and keep possession in their attacking half.
From 2nd Phase: Should Liverpool turn the ball over in the centre of the pitch, Liverpool’s structure of Salah, Firmino, and Henderson above the two 6s allows them to collapse centrally and compact space with immediate pressure on the ball, overloading the defensive zone.
Should Liverpool turn it over on the sides of the pitch, Liverpool’s structure allows the fullback and 6 to provide immediate protection, while the winger can shift over to close space and lock the opposition in on the sideline.
From Final 3rd: Liverpool’s advanced back line while in possession in the final third decreases the space between their defensive and midfield lines. This increases the rate of 2nd balls that they win (defense closer to midfield = knock down close to midfielders -> retain possession and attack again).
Liverpool press in a 4-1-2-3 shape.
- Firmino steps to the goalkeeper in possession. Salah and Mané step to the centre-backs, forcing the play inside.
- Fabinho steps to the 6. Wijnaldum stays deeper on the advanced midfielder. Henderson is 1v2 vs the opposition midfielder and LB. He positions himself where he can travel to press as the ball is played to either of them.
- If the ball is played to the RB and Mane cannot recover, Robertson steps to put pressure. The angle of pressure from Robertson forces the RB to play backwards or centrally. Either option leads to Liverpool being able to continue their pressure high up the pitch.
- Liverpool maintain a 4v3 should the opposition play long. The profiles of their defenders allow for a high chance of winning these duels. The possession gained from these duels allows them to attack in the middle/final third, pinning in the opposition.
Mid Block: Liverpool defend in a 1-4-4-2 shape. The block shifts from side to side attempting to overload the area of the pitch that the ball is on. The goal is to trap a wide player on the touch line.
- Should a midfielder receive in the half space between the lines, the compact midfield and defensive lines collapse in on the space that the reception occurred.
- Fullbacks step to a wide winger in possession. When the wide player receives, Liverpool’s fullback, wide midfielder, and closest central midfielder all pinch the space rapidly, aiming to eliminate all options to play out and use the sideline as an extra defender to win possession back (4v1).
Deep Block: Liverpool set up in a 4-4-2 deep block.
- The opposite winger advances out of the midfield line to join the forward line. This is crucial for their block because if a pass is played backwards 15+ meters, the whole block steps up.
- The advanced winger is then able to cut off options to circulate, already starting their mid block intention of locking the opposition into one side.
- Much similar to their mid block, Liverpool look to eliminate space on the side that the ball is on. The midfield and defensive lines leave no more than 10 meters between themselves, forcing the opposition to attack through the wide areas.
- When the ball reaches these areas, the Liverpool players look to overload wide space and not let the opposition play out of the pressing zone.
Out of Possession to In Possession Transition
This is another phase of the game that Liverpool excel in. The profiles that they contain make any team fearful of their counter attacks, which oftentimes sees the opposition attack differently.
From 2nd Phase: If Liverpool win the ball back from their mid block, their front two forwards make two separate movements to help connect out of a counter-pressing zone: a run to receive the ball deep and a run in behind. These two movements create 1v1 scenarios for each forward respectively.
From Final 3rd: Liverpool look to counter through the advanced-opposite winger. The qualities of Mané and Salah allows for them to be able to progress up the pitch with speed but also protect the ball long enough to ensure progression out of their deep block.
Liverpool – Strengths
Henderson free man in the build up against a 4-4-2 press: If Man City press in a 1-4-4-2, Henderson is the free man. In the build up, Wijnaldum starts high and usually comes deep to receive, drawing an opposition central midfielder out of position.
Fabinho’s deeper position must be picked up by the other central midfielder, meaning Henderson is the free man to receive and break the first two lines of pressure. This explains why most of the penetrative passes for Liverpool in the first phase come from the right side.
Long switches to overloaded opposite flanks: Many times, Liverpool suck the opposition to one side in with close, tight passes before a big switch of play.
When the opposite (free) player receives this cross field pass, they can cross to one of Salah, Firmino, Mane, Henderson all arriving into the area.
Attacking Channels: Much to the advantage of Salah and Mané, Liverpool always try to attack the channels. Salah and Mané take advantage of any step out from the opposition’s fullbacks to Trent and Robertson.
This allows space for Salah and Mane to run into, receiving in behind the back line. They are so dangerous from this area, especially considering that there are undoubtedly numbers arriving into the area due to the natural set up that Liverpool have centrally.
These runs into the channel from Salah and Mané also create space for cut back should they be tracked into the channel.
Liverpool – Opportunities for Man City
Take advantage of Henderson 1v2 in build up to play out of first phase: Liverpool’s press leaves Henderson 1v2 against the midfielder and the left back.
Ederson has the quality to chip the ball to the free left back after İlkay Gündoğan drags Henderson away. Once this chip pass is played, it is necessary for Gündoğan to advance forward and become the third man to the left back, offering a way of progression.
Isolate Fullbacks 1v1 wide: A way to break down Liverpool’s mid block is to exploit their right side when they attempt to lock the opposition on to the right.
In the picture below, if Gündoğan drifts higher between the lines, Sergio Agüero pins Dejan Lovren, Raheem Sterling moves wider, and Oleksandr Zinchenko drifts in as an inverted fullback, City will overload the flank and be able to attack the channel when Trent steps out to Sterling.
Double down on Liverpool’s wingers when they receive with their back to goal: Lots of Liverpool’s patterns include the winger coming deep to receive at feet.
When these moments occur, City can win the ball back by having their winger collapse back to 2v1 the Liverpool wide-player.
Liverpool – Plan
Anticipated Starting XI: I expect that Klopp will select his strongest starting XI despite already clinching the Premier League title.
Van Dijk will partner Joe Gomez in defense. Both of their profiles are crucial to be able to defend the space in behind that Liverpool leave during pressing moments.
Robertson and Trent will be a massive threat to contain due to the roles that are given to them in Jürgen Klopp’s system. The opposition is forced to not only congest the midfield, but also manage to apply pressure onto the fullbacks.
Fabinho and Wijnaldum will slot into midfield with Henderson in a more advanced role in the right half space. Henderson will be crucial to playing out of City’s high press.
The famous front three of Salah, Firmino, and Mané are a danger for any side in the world. Their roles out of possession are just as important as their qualities in possession as Liverpool will look to win the ball back within City’s half through their high press, pinning them in to assert dominance during the game.
Surprise Starting XI: An unexpected XI that Klopp could go for would be a 1-4-2-3-1 system that sees Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replace Fabinho. Salah would play as a 9 with Firmino dropping deeper from the left side, trying to lure in a defender to step out, leaving space for Salah to attack in behind.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s inclusion would see him more advanced, looking to play behind the right side of Rodri. This position could also lure out a Manchester City defender for Salah or Mané to attack space in behind.
With the knowledge that City have to close spaces off for Salah and Mané to run in behind, City’s wingbacks will not be able to mark Liverpool’s. This will require the forwards and midfielders to track back, making it difficult to break out.
However, Salah playing as a 9 when Liverpool are in the final third would heavily diminish the threat that they usually contain with Firmino dropping deep.
How Man City Will Cope With Liverpool’s Tactics
During the build up, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte will form a line of 3 with Ederson. Rodri and Bernardo Silva will both form a box centrally above of them, forming a 5v3 against Liverpool’s forwards. This will force them to send Fabinho into the press, with Henderson aiming to control the 1v2 of him vs Bernardo and Zinchenko.
Bernardo is the perfect profile to have as the second 6 as he will be the third man of Zinchenko when Ederson elects to chip to the fullback. Bernardo’s understanding of space to distance himself from Salah + the physical capacity to drive forward with the ball will help to break Liverpool’s complex press.
Ederson and Laporte should be encouraged to play long to Sane and Sterling (2v2 because of Henderson being engaged in forward press) to keep the Liverpool press honest. Trent usually has a hard time controlling aerial balls in behind him so Sané’s inclusion is useful to attack this space behind Liverpool’s high lines throughout the phases, and with the distribution that Ederson contains, it is a massive threat to progress up the pitch in the buildup. Bernardo’s progressive movement will make him available to pick up the 2nd ball.
Against Liverpool’s 1-4-4-2 mid block, City need to create space for Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne to be able to switch quickly to Sane. As the ball travels wide to Mahrez, De Bruyne can withdraw from his advanced position to come underneath Mahrez and switch play to Sané. As the ball travels, Sterling (starts on Gomez) should move across the pitch towards the area.
This movement will clear space for Bernardo to attack the channel. If Gomez decides to switch onto Bernardo, Sane will be able to find the feet of a withdrawn Sterling. Zinchenko’s positioning is key throughout this pattern as he will be the cover to fight for the 2nd ball against Henderson.
When Liverpool recognize the space City is attacking (wide), their midfield line may start to spread out, aiming to cover the pitch and shut down the switches of play. This will create gaps for the likes of Sterling, Bernardo, and De Bruyne to operate and receive in.
An idea to break Liverpool’s deep block is to take advantage when they step up as a unit when a pass is played more than 15 meters backwards. I would encourage runners from deep, like Bernardo or De Bruyne, to run forwards in these instances.
Rodri and the back four should be aware of this and look to play these passes in behind to the attacking De Bruyne or Bernardo. The run from deep means that they will not be offside and cannot be tracked by a Liverpool midfielder.
With Kyle Walker inverted in the 2nd and 3rd phases for Manchester City, I have confidence in Walker, Stones (very good at defending space behind him), and Laporte to control any counter attacks that Liverpool look to play for a sufficient enough time until other City players recover.
Due to Zinchenko and Rodri’s deeper positioning and De Bruyne and Bernardo’s more advanced positions, City should have the structure to counter press effectively immediately after the ball is turned over to try and prevent Liverpool from getting out of their half.
I would encourage City to press Liverpool high in a 1-4-4-2 structure with De Bruyne and Sterling leading the line. Sterling will press Gomez, forcing him wide, with De Bruyne cutting the space to Van Dijk. Bernardo will step to Fabinho. Rodri should reserve to stepping to Wijnaldum until the last moment.
If Liverpool are able to force Rodri onto Wijnaldum, it will leave Henderson free in the right half space to receive directly from Allison or a knock down from Salah. As a pass is played, Laporte should step out of the defensive line to pressure Henderson from behind.
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The Frenchman can also compete for the 1st ball should the ball be played to Henderson. If the ball is played to Salah, his arrival onto the scene will still put pressure on Henderson when receiving the 2nd ball. Stones and Walker must shift over as Laporte’s jump occurs to prevent Firmino being free in behind. Both the profiles of Stones and Walker are good enough to control a situation where Salah or Henderson are able to flick on and play in behind.
City should line up in a 1-4-5-1 mid and deep block. The 5 in midfield will help to provide better pitch occupancy to travel from side to side as Liverpool attempt to play their cross field passes from fullback to fullback.
Expecting that Liverpool will then commonly use their false fullback patterns, it is essential that the back 4 and midfield 5 are in constant communication in order to shift across as fast as possible to close the dangerous space and prevent Liverpool from accessing the channels.
Sané, Sterling, and Mahrez all contain massive threats in wide spaces on the counter attack. If City can look to play out of the pressing zone that the Liverpool players will collapse into after losing the ball, they can really hurt Liverpool on the transition. Due to the quality Liverpool has in this phase, City may only break the counter press once or twice during the game. It is essential that these chances are taken.
Potential threats to the game plan: If City are unable to build out from the back and turn the ball over to Liverpool’s high pressure within the first two lines, Salah, Mané, and Firmino are all within 30 meters of the goal with only four defenders in front of them.
With an emphasis on switching the play quickly, if these long-across the field passes are cut out, City will be vulnerable to the lethal front 3 of Liverpool on the break.
In the final third, Bernardo’s advanced position between the lines puts a lot of trust in Zinchenko’s ability to control counter attacks and 2nd balls. If Henderson or Salah can get the ball into the space vacated for Firmino to attack, they can exploit one of Laporte’s weaknesses: his mistimed jumps.
If the communication between all City players in the mid and deep blocks is not superb, it could lead to a disorganized block. Liverpool are very good at taking advantage of moments of disorganization from the opposition; that is what their whole system is attempting to create. With the players they have, they will be lethal in these scenarios.
By: Ryan Lamping
Featured Image: @GabFoligno