Breaking lines and blocking full-backs: How Manchester City can get a result at Liverpool

JJ Bull
The Telegraph
Two of the best attacking sides in Premier League history do battle on Sunday, and defending will be crucial to how the game pans out - Reuters / Opta
Two of the best attacking sides in Premier League history do battle on Sunday, and defending will be crucial to how the game pans out - Reuters / Opta

Liverpool look unbeatable at the moment. Considering the last time they lost a game at Anfield was September 2018, it's safe to say Manchester City are going to have to be a bit special to get a result on Sunday afternoon. 

Quite how Pep Guardiola goes about achieving that is just one of the fascinating aspects of this early-season title clash. Jurgen Klopp's team are devastating in transition, press ferociously and take advantage of the slightest mistake. Sitting back invites unwanted pressure, pushing high leaves gaps for them to exploit - so what does Guardiola do?

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Block the middle of the pitch

Liverpool attack through the middle of the pitch and it's likely Guardiola opts for the same fluid 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 shape he used in the Community Shield, with Kevin De Bruyne partnered by Ilkay Gundogan, behind David Silva.

The idea is to force Liverpool into wide areas and prevent them steamrolling their way through the centre of the pitch. City will press higher up the pitch when the play allows it but can expect to be out of possession for long periods. By sitting in a mid block they can dictate where the ball goes and control the game without it, forcing Liverpool to figure out ways to play in the forward three.

<span>Manchester City in a mid block. De Bruyne will move between defensive and attacking midfield.</span>
Manchester City in a mid block. De Bruyne will move between defensive and attacking midfield.

Aston Villa did well to deny Liverpool too many opportunities in their 2-1 defeat, sitting in a mid and low block for the entire game and counter-attacking where possible, running the ball as far up the pitch as they could before winning a throw-in and resetting.

There were passages of play in that same game where most of the Liverpool team could be seen operating in the same narrow channel of the pitch - City will use a defensive shape that avoids them being overrun in these positions.

<span>Liverpool attack vs Aston Villa in an extremely narrow shape, designed to get more bodies around the ball and facilitate a counter-press</span>
Liverpool attack vs Aston Villa in an extremely narrow shape, designed to get more bodies around the ball and facilitate a counter-press

Guardiola may opt for a version of the system Aston Villa and Sheffield United used against Liverpool - the same on show in the Community Shield - to slow the game down and force Liverpool to play riskier passes, pouncing on anything played without pace or loosely controlled.

A deeper defensive line means less space for Mane and Salah to dart into, and with John Stones the only natural centre-back, this is an appropriate tactic to adopt. Fernandinho has been caught out in recent games when left one-on-one with opposition forwards and Guardiola will want to avoid any situations like it against the lethal Sadio Mane.

Stop the full-backs

The problem with blocking the centre of the pitch is that Liverpool's most creative players, their full-backs, are given freedom on the wings. Balance is crucial.

Plenty of teams target Liverpool's right flank to take advantage of perceived weaknesses in Trent Alexander-Arnold's defending but they also have to find ways to prevent him causing their own defence damage.

Alexander-Arnold has created 40 chances to score this season, the joint-most in the league with De Bruyne, operating as full-back, winger and central midfielder in the same game. He and Andy Robertson provide all the attacking width for Liverpool and opposition teams assign players to mark them in defensive phases.

<span>Liverpool's average position map in 2-1 win over Aston Villa. </span>
Liverpool's average position map in 2-1 win over Aston Villa.

Some managers double up in wide areas to limit Alexander-Arnold's influence, but Liverpool have grown wise to it and now, Alexander-Arnold moves inside the pitch as a midfielder, swapping positions with Jordan Henderson. Liverpool's positional play is smart and reactive to facilitate Alexander-Arnold's role as playmaker.

Klopp's midfield trio is made up of box-to-box, ball-winning players who help break up play and move it on - Liverpool's right-back is effectively their No 10.

Manchester United dealt with this threat by changing their shape to a 3-4-3 and keeping the wide midfielders so high they only really dropped into wing-back positions when forced to defend deep. In a similar way, Guardiola may look to position Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez high and wide in space behind the full-backs when possible (i.e not when Liverpool are in the City half) in an attempt to keep Alexander-Arnold and Robertson as far away from the City box as they can. Like whack-a-mole, solving one problem only creates another.

Don't drop too deep

Both teams will believe the best chances can be created in transition and look to punish errors by players in possession. City must ensure they don't drop too deep for too long to prevent this danger and deny themselves the opportunity to counter-attack. 

Aston Villa's low block worked to an extent but having everyone including Wesley (in the pentagon below) behind the ball only encouraged the likes of Dejan Lovren to come forward and overload the midfield, sending in those teasing early crosses from deep that cause a goalkeeper problems.

<span>Dejan Lovren carries the ball to the final third from where he can hit an early cross behind a defence.</span>
Dejan Lovren carries the ball to the final third from where he can hit an early cross behind a defence.

That is particularly relevant considering Ederson may not be fit to play. Claudio Bravo doesn't command his area or deal well with aerial battles particularly well and set-pieces could also cause havoc, especially with City lacking height throughout the team. 

City's pass accuracy of 88.8 per cent suggests they are brilliant with the ball but only move it forwards when there's an available option. Liverpool's 82.8 per cent accuracy is the result of a slightly more direct, probing style - these sorts of passes are riskier but can unlock a defence and are exactly what City will be prepared to counter-attack from.

John Stones was almost guilty of providing Liverpool with one of these chances early in the Community Shield, attempting to break the Liverpool lines of press with a forward pass.

<span>John Stones tries to send a ball between the lines of Liverpool defence but it results in a turnover of possession from which Liverpool nearly score.</span>
John Stones tries to send a ball between the lines of Liverpool defence but it results in a turnover of possession from which Liverpool nearly score.

Klopp may even set his side up to tease City's centre-backs into trying these splitting passes. Although a successful one could give City an instant overload in attack, springing the trap and intercepting as Liverpool did in the example above creates scoring opportunities in transition.

For that reason, despite this fixture having the potential to be a classic, it is likely to be a cagey affair as both teams try not to get caught out by each other. The tactical fouls Klopp mentioned in the pre-match mind games will be on show from both sides too - expect play to be disrupted at half way over and again.

An early blitz by Liverpool could yield a goal and start a monster of a match but the most important thing at this stage of the season is not losing, and despite being two of the most entertaining, attacking outfits in Premier League history, defending is absolutely key. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes will win.

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