Tactical Analysis: Liverpool v Man City – Midfield battles, explosive attacks and a tactical masterpiece

Each week totalfootballanalysis.com tactically previews the Fixture in Focus and today we provide this analysis alongside two other sites in our analysis network, liverpoolfchq.com and manchestercityanalysis.com

This is probably the most important game of the season, with the return fixture on New Year’s Day 2019. It is also a chance to see Pep Guardiola’s possession game confront the fast-paced game of Jurgen Klopp. Manchester City and Liverpool started the season in almost perfect fashion, with both registering 19 points, six wins and one draw.

Kevin De Bruyne and Benjamin Mendy are the two important absentees in the Manchester City squad. City have performed domestically but have been quite poor in the Champions League, losing to Lyon and struggling against Hoffenheim. Liverpool’s squad is full but with some tactical hesitations, especially between midfielders and forward players.

The midfield battle

While the two different attacks have the same details – fast players with close combinations – the two midfields are quite different. Fernandinho plays as a deep midfielder for Man City. Unlike the trend nowadays of this role involving a playmaker, however, he is deployed more as a typical defensive midfielder.

What he brings is precision and speed. This comes partly from his days at Shakhtar Donetsk and Atlético Paranaense where he played in a more offensive position. Thus, the playmaker is David Silva either helped by Bernardo Silva or Ilkay Gundogan.

Faced with that terrifying midfield, Liverpool don’t blush with James Milner, Georginio Wijnladum and Jordan Henderson rotating with Naby Keita or Fabinho. Here the tactic is quite different as Jurgen Klopp wants to play fast with and without the ball. This requires strong players with stamina, whatever their position.

On paper, they could probably afford to give possession to Manchester City. This is without counting Firmino, who often plays as a false nine and so in Fernandinho’s positional area.

To counter this, Pep Guardiola would like to bypass Fernandinho and play the ball quickly behind the two defensive lines.

A word on Henderson

Against Chelsea, Jurgen Klopp decided to substitute Jordan Henderson for Keita. The Englishman’s body language said a lot about his performance. Looking at the PassSonar against Chelsea last weekend, we can see Jordan Henderson didn’t influence the game as he can.

Henderson is used to finding breakthroughs with killing vertical passes. However, the Chelsea midfield – composed of N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovavic and Jorginho – perfectly block the deep-lying midfielder. James Milner took this role to find spaces either by runs or passes as we see the graphic.

Moreover, it probably showed the limits of Jordan Henderson in high-paced games. The English midfielder is too slow and not comfortable with intense pressure. With Naby Keita or Fabinho on the bench, Jurgen Klopp could choose to start with another midfield.

Less “explosive” attacks

The point here is difficult to appreciate while both Liverpool and Manchester City are winning games. However, they are somewhat less explosive in attack compared to last season.

We can see from Manchester City’s pass maps this season that the forwards are less linked with each other. At the same time, the midfield is very efficient in supplying incisive balls. This is helped by Bernardo Silva being a more offensive player than Kevin De Bruyne, allowing Manchester City to continue scoring goals and winning games.

For Liverpool, we could say the same thing. The main reason though is probably lesser performances from Mohamed Salah compared to last season. Moreover, the arrivals of Naby Keita and Fabinho haven’t helped.

They are here more to be fast and effective than to focus on building the game. Though he can be a dynamite player, Shaqiri doesn’t help too by taking a lot of touches on the ball.

What to expect

With two teams looking for the Premier League title, this game will probably close out if neither team scores an early goal. Moreover, the defences and goalkeepers are confident and concede few actions while increasingly supporting their teams’ attacks.

This is something we see more and more of with a lower possession game on the field, thanks to goalkeepers becoming more comfortable with the ball and the desire to build from behind.

Manchester City and Liverpool are perhaps the most egregious examples of these changes. This match will undoubtedly be a masterpiece of tactics.