Tactics Tuesday: Liverpool 3 - Manchester City 2

Make My Funk the P-Funk - Alex Livesey

Welcome to Tactics Tuesday where this week's edition could be neatly summed up as "The Prem's two best teams traded punches for 95 minutes straight."

Of course, neat summation is not what we're all about in these parts, so let's dig through Liverpool's biggest win since last week, and hopefully we'll be saying the same thing next.

Starting Elevens

It's interesting that for all the attention Liverpool's lack of European participation has received, it was Brendan Rodgers who kept fans and pundits guessing as to his selection and system before kick-off.  Having done tactical breakdowns of almost every Liverpool game this season, even I couldn't have predicted that Rodgers would leave Lucas and Joe Allen on the bench in order to accommodate both Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling in his midfield diamond.  The only other decision of note was Mamadou Sakho maintaining his starting position alongside Martin Skrtel, this despite vice-captain Daniel Agger's return from injury.

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The visiting side's selection was more predictable, with Manuel Pellegrini using the 4-2-3-1 that City have relied upon during Sergio Aguero's intermittent injury absences.  As the Argentine striker was only available from the bench, this system continued with Edin Dzeko the lone striker in front of attacking band Samir Nasri, David Silva, and Jesus Navas. In the midfield pivot, Yaya Toure was given more permission to roam alongside disciplined distributor Fernandinho -- though this quickly changed with the Ivorian's injury and replacement by Javi Garcia.  The back four held no surprises in terms of selection, although Vincent Kompany was a game-time decision due to, yet another, lower body injury.  Martin Demichelis joined him at center back, with Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta rounding out the defense in front of goal keeper Joe Hart.

Rodgers Exploits Slow City Defense, Liverpool Comes Out Swinging

Considering the magnitude of this fixture in the title race and the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough, the atmosphere at Anfield always promised to be special.  Toss in the home bus arriving to smoke bombs and flares, a pre-match rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" for the ages, and Steven Gerrard morphing into a heady combination of George Washington and Moses to best explain the Reds' absolutely rampant start to the match.  Besides fielding a remarkably aggressive starting 11, Rodgers also tweaked the attacking structure to best exploit City's defensive weakness - Kompany and Demichelis being forced to turn and chase.

A last-minute signing in August, Demichelis was never meant to be Kompany's first-team partner, but Matija Nastasic's injury woes and Pellegrini's distrust of Joleon Lescott has seen the former Malaga defender become a regular starter.  The Argentine brings many qualities to the table, but his poor agility and overall lack of speed make Demichelis much more comfortable harrying striker's deep into midfield than turning and covering large tracts of space.  (This is best highlighted by his performance against Barcelona in the Champions League.  Then, he performed relatively well against Leo Messi, until La Pulga finally caught him out and Demichelis's last-ditch tackle from behind earned a red card and a penalty.)  That job is left to Kompany but, with muscle strains dogging him all season, the giant Belgian was always going to struggle to keep up with the pace of Liverpool's attack.

On Sunday, Rodgers made a very simple adjustment to his attacking system and saw it repeatedly tear open City's backline.  Usually, Suarez and Sturridge have freedom to interchange positions in this diamond system, but this match saw Suarez keep a much more consistent right-sided position.  The effect was taunting Demichelis to stick tight to the Gremlin, with Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge then given free reign to make runs on either side of the isolated Kompany.

Check out SAS's passes received charts to see Suarez consistently gathering the ball deep and to the left of Demichelis with Sturridge providing a vertical threat behind.

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The other side of the coin is the defensive dashboards of City's center back pairing with Demichelis noticeably higher, wide left and Kompany deep and central covering behind.

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As mentioned, Kompany was a step (or three) behind his best at Anfield, so the Reds' energetic start created a slew of chances.

When reviewing the game, it was interesting to see Sterling's goal actually started in the previous play.  Suarez brought Demichelis deep, turned him, sprinted behind, and, eventually, earned a yellow card for a late tackle on the Argentine's clearance.

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So after Joe Hart long-balls the free-kick to Liverpool's end, a few fortuitous bounces sees the ball end up right back with Suarez deep, holding off Demichelis.  Suarez's back is turned, but already you can see Kompany has too much ground to cover with both Sterling and Sturridge in position to make direct runs behind.

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It ends up being Sterling who makes the run and after Suarez shrugs Gael Clichy off like Adrian Peterson, the Gremlin sends a through ball beyond the chasing Kompany.  Sterling does some dance moves and Liverpool goes up 1-0.

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Liverpool's next great opportunity came on 15 minutes when, once again, Demichelis has pulled deep and wide with Kompany left to cover.  Clichy has given up a yard on Sterling here, but Demichelis has still left way too much space behind him for Kompany to handle by himself.  Sterling sends in a fantastic low ball to Sturridge who continued his recent luke-warm form with a final touch unbecoming of his prodigious goal-scoring ability.

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The Reds' second goal ended up coming from the second of two corners taken back-to-back (it could have easily been the first one, with Gerrard totally unmarked in front of Hart), but the initial corner was won by Kompany making a last-ditch block to a Sturridge through-ball intended for Suarez at the back post.

Toure's Early Injury Sees Fernandinho Take on Greater Influence

Having already given up an early goal, City was dealt another shock when Yaya Toure pulled up lame and needed to be replaced by Javi Garcia on 20 minutes.  Garcia has been far from a ringing success since moving to Manchester from Benfica, but the swap didn't hurt City as much as one would have expected.  It certainly removed technical quality and athletic ability from the visitor's midfield, but the Spaniard added stricter discipline when he assumed Fernandinho's holding responsibilities.

This meant that Fernandinho was tasked with the box-to-box role that has allowed Toure to become such an influential player and the well-rounded Brazilian quickly grew into the job.  After a tremendously rocky start, City eventually managed to grab a hold on the game, with Fernandinho's influence in the final third a major factor.

The away side's first penalty shout of the afternoon came when Navas switched sides to create an overload of Liverpool's right flank.  With Nasri more central and Silva very narrow on the right, the Reds' defense was pulled apart by City's fluid attacking movement.

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Glen Johnson didn't want to leave Navas alone out wide, so Skrtel came deep to contest Nasri when the Frenchman gained possession.  At this point, Fernandinho has arrived as another option and, with his compatriot Coutinho asleep on the job, he is able to exploit the space behind Skrtel with a nicely-lofted pass to Dzeko.  Sakho's wild sliding tackle goes unpunished, but Fernandinho's presence should not continue to go unnoticed (I believe this literary device is called "foreshadowing,").

It does of course, just before half-time.  City has now taken momentum of the contest and Simon Mignolet has caused heart attacks all through the Kop.  Soon after the Belgian's awkward flapping was spared by a double-clearance off the line, City has come knocking through Navas down the right side.

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Although Flanagan afforded the winger way too much space on the ball, it still doesn't excuse Johnson and, especially, Coutinho once again falling asleep to Fernandinho's threat.  With all eyes on Navas, Fernandinho creeps to the back post where he receives the Spaniard's cross and forces Mignolet to atone for his previous error.

James Milner Turns Into Jairzinho, Silva Rewarded for Complete Performance

Liverpool gratefully trudged into the locker rooms unscathed and even maintained its two-goal advantage through the opening exchanges of the second half.  This forced Pellegrini into the odd change of bringing on James Milner for Navas.  Now, this is a move that Pellegrini frequently utilizes when City are trying to close a game down (he settled for a draw at Arsenal by making this switch), but seemed a little puzzling considering he was chasing two goals.

Initially, it seemed logical to assume the more physical Milner was being brought on to help combat Liverpool's numerical advantage in midfield; allowing City to totally dominate possession.  Instead, he essentially played the exact same winger role as Navas, except with an even greater emphasis on attacking as opposed to defending.

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While work rate and positional discipline can't always be shown in the data, Milner's respective dashboards/charts totally dismiss the notion that the Englishman was brought on to scrap in the center of the park.  He was a genuine winger, and he was a damn good one at that.

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City's first goal came through its three most influential players perfectly executing their roles.  With the ball and many bodies on the left side, Fernandinho moved forward to offer an outlet, dribbled across the center of the park, then distributed to Milner wide right.  The quick switch of play has stretched Liverpool's defense - Flanagan is a good eight yards off Milner, while Henderson is sprinting to offer cover for Zabaleta's overlap.

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The space between Henderson, Flanagan, and Sakho is soon exploited by the most fundamental of attacking movements - the one-two.  Milner returns the ball to Fernandinho and then runs into the gap in Liverpool's area to receive the Brazilian's pass.  Both Gerrard and Sakho are worried about Milner, leaving Silva goal side of Skrtel and available to tap home Milner's low cross.

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It may have only been the final touch to excellent build-up work, but the goal was just reward to Silva's work throughout the entire contest.  The Spaniard has always been brilliant threading possession in City's attacking third, but the common complaint is that he rarely moves forward to finish moves himself.  To wit, Toure has more than doubled Silva's seven league goals, scoring 18 despite playing deeper in midfield.  None of this is to say Silva is anything shy of a magician with the ball, but his unselfishness in front of goal harkens back to Michael Laudrup's playing days.

Here however, Silva was both City's final third maestro and chief scoring threat.  The former Valencia star's passing style is the best of both worlds in that it combines patiently linking play with dangerous through-balls once space opens.  This is most obvious in his connection with the injured Aguero - whose speed, agility, and movement make him a perfect recipient for Silva's intricate through balls.  Of course, Aguero was out and Dzeko seemed to be more effective pulling Skrtel and Sakho away from goal than bearing down on it (of his three shots, two were blocked).

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So, Silva took the burden upon himself to crash the area when out of possession - seen in City's opener and also back in the first half when he narrowly missed finishing great service from Navas.  He also had the last touch on City's equalizer - when Milner came left to form an overload similar to that on 33 minutes - but he had reverted to old habits then, attempting to find Dzeko when he should have fired on net.

Perhaps most crucially, he came within one inch of putting City ahead, yet came up short in connecting with Aguero's low cross while alone in the area.

Make My Funk the P-Funk, Coutinho Makes It an Epic

Not long after Silva's miss, Liverpool bagged the winner through its own goal-shy playmaker, Philippe Coutinho.  After putting in a dogged defensive performance all afternoon, P-Funk capitalized upon Kompany's missed clearance to slot home a fantastic first-time finish (you knew I'd have some alliteration for you).

The only tactical nugget to take here, other than a half-fit Kompany had himself a piss-poor afternoon (responsible on all three Liverpool goals), is that Pellegrini must have rued the introduction of Aguero.  When the game was tied at two with both teams still going for the win (Liverpool needed the win more, yet City had momentum), swapping strikers and replacing Dzeko with Aguero made sound sense.  There was space to be exploited and Silva's near miss speaks to Aguero's threat - catching Skrtel wide, blowing by him, almost assisting the winner - but after Coutinho's goal, Aguero didn't have much use.

After trading haymakers all game, a tired Liverpool side was content to hang onto its lead for the last 15 minutes.  The diminutive Aguero neither had space to run into, nor offered an aerial threat.  Had Pellegrini swapped strikers down 3-2, it's much more likely he would have used his last substitution to bring on Alvaro Negredo as opposed to Aguero.  Indeed, it was Demichelis used as a target man when City threw everything forward - almost drawing a last minute penalty from Skrtel's handball in the area.

Conclusions

Uhhh ya, not a bad game was it?  It's increasingly rare to see two teams so openly playing to win and it made for one hell of a contest.  Rodgers's midfield selection was a clear statement of intent and his attacking system produced the kind of opening whistle blitzkrieg we've seen several times this year.  The first 30 minutes on Sunday were on par with the Big Red Ship's most buccaneering performances and City was absolutely reeling.

Yet, we're not above praising the opposition around here, and City certainly deserves it.  Getting absolutely torn apart in a raucous Anfield with its three best players in varying states of injury, City could have very easily rolled over.  For my part, when Skrtel bagged the second right after Toure's withdrawal I thought we could have a similar capitulation to those seen in visits by Arsenal and Everton.  Instead, the Citizens made Liverpool rue missed chances and came very close to spoiling the party.

They didn't of course, and the Reds now control their own fate down the stretch of the title chase.  Injury to Daniel Sturridge and suspension to Jordan Henderson is worrisome, but it's safe to assume BR is sleeping at Melwood cooking up his next system for next week's game against Norwich.

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