Liverpool and Manchester City showdowns have developed into popular Premier League fixtures in recent years, and the arrival of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola was expected to enhance the competitive rivalry between the two clubs. Sunday’s clash at the Etihad was not only vital in regards to the current top four race, but stylistically, it also highlighted the growth witnessed throughout the league over the past 12 months.
Although the attacking philosophies vary between the two managers, the emphasis on dynamic pressing and clever passing combinations suggested the possibility of a potential goal-fest. But, unlike previous meetings against Klopp’s Reds, the hosts were dominant in the opening period.
Guardiola decision to employ a 4-2-3-1 meant David Silva operated in his preferred no.10 role, whereas Kevin De Bruyne sat deeper in midfield alongside Yaya Toure. The most intriguing change in Guardiola’s XI witnessed Fernandinho start at right-back, where he pushed forward at every opportunity and quickly pressed James Milner when the Liverpool left-back received possession.
Interestingly enough, City’s ability to stretch the pitch through Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling’s positioning created more space in central areas for David Silva to drift into. Silva’s positioning, here, was integral to City’s dominant spells, yet the hosts created majority of their chances in wide areas via overloads and incisive passing into half spaces.
Fernandinho and De Bruyne both delivered dangerous crosses into the six-yard box within the opening 15 minutes of the match, whereas Sane also created dangerous chances that resulted in a Simon Mignolet save, and a last-ditch tackle from James Milner to deny Sterling an easy tap-in. Later on, Milner was once again the key cog in denying City an opener following De Bruyne’s brilliant reverse pass to Silva in left half-space, but Guardiola’s approach was fairly successful in terms of field positioning to get the better of Silva and De Bruyne’s creativity.
A string of Liverpool chances towards the end of the half offered signs that they were growing into the game, but their poor start was down to sloppy passing and their reluctance to swarm Guardiola’s men in the early stages. Sadio Mane was presented a glorious breakaway following a poor John Stones back pass, whereas Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana both tested Willy Caballero.
Gael Clichy rarely pushed forward with fear of leaving vacant space for Mane to charge into, and despite Firmino’s positive link up play when he dropped into midfield zones, Liverpool’s possession was tedious, opposed to efficient in the final third. Liverpool’s positive spell continued in the second half, and Clichy’s slip subsequent to Emre Can chipping a pass over the City defence for Firmino led to a penalty that Milner comfortably converted.
Liverpool were now free to revert to a narrow 4-5-1 with the intent to hit City on the counter and one break ignited by Firmino and Philippe Coutinho forced Caballero into a vital save around the hour mark. Toure was now a liability in transition, and Guardiola quickly sacrificed the Ivorian for a natural right-back in Bacary Sagna, thus pushing Fernandinho into midfield. Toure’s decline has been evident in recent seasons, but with Coutinho easily gliding past the City midfielder in the aforementioned move, the possibility of Liverpool increasing their lead appeared evident.
However, Guardiola’s substitution was followed by Silva moving alongside Fernandinho, while De Bruyne hugged the touch-line on the right flank. Therefore, Sterling, Aguero and Sane operated centrally with the former as the no.10 – but his wayward passing limited his influence – while Sane constantly aimed to run behind the Liverpool defence.
Aguero, on the other hand, moved into wider areas to evade the pressure applied by Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan when the Argentine received the ball with his back to goal. For all of the speculation associated with Aguero’s future under Guardiola, here, his reliable finishing was his downfall, whereas his linkup play was fairly positive.
Nevertheless, City responded superbly following Guardiola’s alterations. Silva’s starting position was deeper, while De Bruyne delivered two dangerous crosses into the box before creating Aguero’s equalizer shortly afterwards. Guardiola’s decision to move his creative cogs away from the congested midfield zone was logical, and though it led to more chances, City remained vulnerable in transition.
Lallana missed a glorious chance set up by Firmino, and minutes later Mane’s powerful run from midfield resulted in the aforementioned Brazilian firing a low effort into side-netting. Meanwhile, besides Sterling breaking behind and nearly chipping Mignolet, and a wonderful individual effort from Aguero – when he dropped into a deeper zone in the left channel – De Bruyne and Silva architected City’s best moves down the right flank. Both men created opportunities for Aguero to notch a winner, but the Argentine’s profligate finishing ensured the score line remained deadlock at full-time.
In a truly enthralling end-to-end game, the performances from both sides epitomized the current obstacles preventing a proper title challenge. Where Liverpool still lack a reliable goal-scorer despite their devastating high-octane brand of football, City’s defence and lack of protection in midfield outweighs Guardiola’s riches in the final third.