Seven-goal thriller between Liverpool and Manchester City highlighted the wonders- and the potential flaws- of the high press.
FOR 284 days, or 30 matches, Manchester City have remained undefeated. Yet in the dying seconds, as Sergio Aguero’s diving header flashed across the goal side-netting, it was realised: Guardiola’s team could be beaten. And they had, by perhaps the only side which has shown a glimmer of similarity in the way they play: Liverpool.
Coming into the game at Anfield, it’s remarkable how Liverpool and Man City operate in parallels to each other. For instance, both teams usually deploy a 4-3-3, with a holding midfielder in the centre and two runners slightly ahead; both favour the high-intensity Gegenpress, looking to win the ball back as soon as it’s been lost; both teams have a deadly front three with a collective figure of dozens. After their 5-0 drubbing at the Etihad, Liverpool clearly sought revenge. And whilst City could have made things sour for the Liverpool fans, the victory was ultimately a sweet one.
Liverpool fielded the 4-3-3, with irregular choice Loris Karius between the posts. With both Clyne and new signing Van Dijk ruled out with injury, Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson flanked Matip and captain Lovren in the centre of defence. Emre Can started in the number six role behind Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gini Wijnaldum, with the ferocious front three of Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino up front.
Also lining up in a 4-3-3, City only made one change from the team which beat Watford last week: Ilkay Gundogan took David Silva’s place in midfield. Gabriel Jesus remained out, blighted by a knee injury.
The battle of the press began with both teams eager to close each other down. A chance in the third minute, with Mane collecting an over-the-top pass, highlighted exactly how the Reds’ front three thrive: Firmino often dropping back, allowing the two wingers to cut inside and play like centre-forwards. Yet, it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who split the game open, making a run from midfield to strike a hard, low shot into the opposite side of the goal. The first fifteen minutes were clearly unpleasant for Guardiola’s men; they enjoy pressing and retaining possession, but Liverpool wouldn’t allow it, getting balls forward to the front three to pin them back.
However, City were able to keep hold of the ball and play it out, taking jabs at the Liverpool goal which concluded in a strike for Leroy Sane, who initially beat Joe Gomez and then Joel Matip with a dribble, before beating Karius with a hard shot at the inside post. With the score level coming into half-time, there were plausible worries for the Reds that City’s attacking prowess could see them off.
Once more, City dominated the initial play by dictating the tempo and stroking passes beyond the Reds’ press. This is, of course, the facet which so beautifully supports their relentless closing down and lethal attack; yet, as Liverpool highlighted, it can also cause their downfall. In a frenzied eight minutes, the Reds scored three times to take the score up to 4-1, and all their goals were fashioned in similarly aggressive circumstances. On the end of a through ball from Oxlade-Chamberlain, Firmino shrugged off John Stones before delightfully chipping Ederson to give Liverpool the lead.
A minute later, an interception and following shot by Sadio Mane bounced off the far post, indicating more to come. And it did: two minutes after Firmino’s goal, Mohamed Salah tackled Otamendi before laying the ball off to Mane, the Senegalese international calmly powering the ball into the top corner with his left foot.
In the 67th minute, Ederson, who charged out do a bit of sweeper-keeping, booted the ball straight to Salah, who dinked a ball from over 30 yards into the net.
During those eight minutes, the Liverpool/City parallel was broken, as Guardiola’s composed passing system was hacked apart by an assertive Liverpool press. Arguably, the Reds’ momentum was epitomised in the 75th minute by Andrew Robertson, hunting the ball all the way from the left flank to the other side of the City box, with only a tentative fall by Otamendi and the subsequent free-kick preventing any further damage to City’s pride.
In the final ten minutes, meanwhile, the potential flaws of Klopp’s system were presented. 4-1 up and fatigued, the Reds filed back to try and park the bus. As fans of both sides have seen in the past, City possess a technical brilliance in the final third, able to split apart defences; on the other hand, Liverpool’s sponge-like defence were unable to prevent the Citizens a chance to claw back.
A goal in the 83rd minute for substitute Bernardo Silva, slotting home a deflected ball, whilst Gundogan’s control and finish in stoppage time meant City were up to 4-3. A wide header from an offside Aguero in the dying seconds almost drew them level, but the final whistle heralded retribution for Klopp’s team and a frustrating blip in City’s title challenge.
Talking Points: The Press
Commenting after the game for Sky, Graeme Souness notes that the game was a fantastic advertisement for football. Arguably, it was also an intriguing display of how the press can be utilised. Klopp’s favoured use of the Gegenpress was especially highlighted in the first half, looking to negate the City passing game by collectively rushing at the player in possession. Manchester City, meanwhile, looked to apply pressure in the midfield area when seeking the ball by cutting passing lanes and overloading the opposing player.
Ultimately, it was moments of individual energy that rewarded Liverpool with their last three goals. By the hour mark, Liverpool’s front-three charged and unsettled the passing diamond of Stones, Otamendi, Fernandinho and Ederson, the midfield sat back in anticipation of a counter. But it worked, and Liverpool took the lead emphatically.
When it works, the press really works; teams of all abilities can press and be successful, including Guardiola’s Barcelona side during the glory years of 2008-2012, and Leicester City, in their title-winning season of 2015-16, Vardy and Kante rushing to quickly hassle their respective opponents in man-marking situations. As Liverpool demonstrated, City’s possession play could be broken down by fast, assertive individuals seeking to disrupt.
Yet, as Nick Witts notes, the press demands high-levels of fitness for the whole 90 minutes in order for it to be wholly successful. In the last ten minutes, Liverpool dropped off and invited pressure, with both Salah and Mane ultimately subbed. It was during this period that Guardiola’s men were able to push forward and get two more goals in, and even push for a fourth. The Reds look slow when dealing with searching balls, and City’s attacking brilliance punished their fraught defence.
Ultimately, Liverpool got the victory, revealing an Achilles’ heel in City’s band of warriors in the process. On social media, some are already playing down the win, suggesting the game to be a small hump in the Citizens’ relentless march on to the title. Will this stop them in their tracks? Probably not. Will tactician-general Guardiola ponder the result, and seek to improve his side even further? Almost certainly.