Premier League 19/20: Manchester City vs Liverpool – tactical preview
On Thursday night, Liverpool will play their first game since being crowned Premier League champions, with them travelling to the Etihad to take on second-placed Manchester City. Some of the build-up to this fixture may have been taken away somewhat by Manchester City conceding the league against Chelsea, but nevertheless this is always an entertaining fixture and always a tactically interesting fixture, which is to be expected when Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola face off. As with many of the games between the pair, it is expected to be a battle of pressing versus possession, with Klopp’s side likely to see less of the ball and rely more on their transitional game and direct build-up, while City will look to play through that press using their positional play. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how that Liverpool press may interact with City’s build-up, how City may look to adjust in order to beat the press, and how Liverpool can structure their press to benefit themselves in possession as well as a particular player of weakness Liverpool may target in their pressing.
Man City build-up
Manchester City’s build-up play is likely to have a large impact on the game, so first, we will look at how they generally set up before looking to apply it to Liverpool. City primarily play a 4-3-3, which in possession is usually seen with high and wide full-backs and a single or double pivot. This single pivot remains throughout the game, but higher central midfielders will often drop to form a double pivot throughout games too, which helps midfielders to create separation from their markers thanks to their deeper positioning. The double-pivot also gives an outlet to the centre backs, and allows for an outlet after switches in play, which is a key part in Guardiola’s playing style which allows for the opposition to be stretched. The rest of the forwards and midfielders position themselves between the midfield and defence, which also helps to pin the opposition midfielders in deeper areas to prevent them from pressing that double pivot.
We can see a good example below of some of the movements City use around their pivots, and also of the general principle of always looking to have at least one pivot available. Here we see İlkay Gündoğan acting as the pivot, while David Silva has initially dropped to support and drag his marker with him. Due to his deeper positioning, Gündoğan is not marked tightly, and so is pressed when he receives the ball by Arsenal. By dropping deeper to receive, Silva creates space for himself in higher areas, and so he immediately looks to sprint back into this area. City also have players such as De Bruyne between the lines ready to receive, with width provided by wingers or full-backs allowing for the half-space to be utilised.
In this example here we see Kevin De Bruyne initially dropping deeper to form a double pivot, which helps to commit Arsenal players higher and also helps to overload any single player who may be responsible for pressing a pivot. We see here Arsenal are forced to temporarily commit a winger to mark the left-sided player. This is something we will discuss in detail regarding Klopp’s press and how teams look to exploit it.
Here is a really nice example of dropping deep to receive, with Gabriel Jesus this time dropping very deep. We see a central midfielder moves forward behind the opposition midfield line, while Jesus runs from the blindside of both potential midfield markers. Gündoğan, currently acting as a single pivot, is in the cover shadow of the Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah. Jesus’ blindside run means he is able to receive with more time, and Gündoğan is able to access. City then have players positioned and spaced well in higher areas who can exploit and utilise space intelligently.
In more advanced areas, it is all about Manchester City’s positional play tactics and their ability to create space and dilemmas for opposition defenders. Players generally provide width, height, and occupation of the half-space in order to space effectively, but individual dilemmas are created for defenders through effective positioning, as we can see below from an example in a game against Burnley.
The full-back provides width while the inside forward occupies the half-space. Burnley’s right-winger can’t move wide or they open the half-space and can’t commit too centrally or leave the wide area open. Likewise, the central midfielder can’t do the same, while the centre back can’t push forward straight away to mark, as this would offer space in behind for the striker. City provide width which in turn helps to open the half-space, and also have central occupation and height offered. Of course, the more players committed in higher areas, the easier it is to create an overload.
We see City here again provide width while utlising the half-space, with the overload in the half-space forcing the Arsenal full-back into a more narrow position, which helps to create space out wide. The Arsenal midfielder also seems to be pinned deeper in order to protect the half-space. Of course, to nullify these overloads, teams need their own numbers back, which is obviously why teams generally sit deeper against City. Chelsea opted for a midfield five in their recent game, with the aim behind this being to nullify overloads in the second line, which they were able to do very successfully. We’ll now move onto how Liverpool are likely to set up out of possession, and on an area of potential weakness they can exploit.
Liverpool’s press against the build-up
In away matches against Manchester City, Liverpool tend to press in more of a mid block, with the formation switching between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 often depending on the height that Sadio Mané presses at. Liverpool’s pressing scheme should be well known by now, with the side focused on forcing the opposition centrally using the inside forwards. We can see a scene below from Liverpool’s visit to the Etihad last season that illustrates Liverpool’s pressing in a mid-block well.
Sadio Mané triggers the press on the right centre back when they have no pressure on the ball and have reached a certain height. Mané makes his pressing run at an angle and aims to keep the full-back in his cover shadow. This leaves the central lane open, but Liverpool’s three-man midfield can press from behind aggressively should the ball be received, and their use of blindside pressing makes it deceptively difficult to receive and progress the ball. The three-man midfield also allows for some flexibility, as here the nearest midfielder is able to apply pressure to the player in front, but can also start a run to cover the full-back if they receive. Mané also has some responsibility to press backwards to stop the full-back receiving.
This scene from the same game is also a good example of Liverpool’s midfield press. We see the same pressing system again, with Mané initially cutting the passing lane wide while Firmino cuts the lane into the pivot. Again then, City are encouraged to pay through the two forwards, leaving the midfield to press from behind. Here, Milner could perhaps be a little narrower to press the player, but he instead looks to prioritise the pass out to the wing. Henderson then jumps to press the receiving Bernardo, however, because he is pressing from the blind side, he is able to arc his run without Bernardo seeing, and so he moves slightly towards Fernandinho.
Henderson is then able to apply pressure to Fernandino well, and City are forced back to the other centre back, which effectively resets Liverpool’s press and they can go again. Wijnaldum is across to cover the latest dropping midfielder, and Salah can start his run to press the centre back while keeping the full-back in his cover shadow.
Again here we can clearly see their press being executed well again, with City’s nearby midfielders marked from behind while the inside forward cuts the passing lane. This isn’t anything Guardiola doesn’t expect, but solutions to the press are difficult and potentially costly in other areas.
Solutions to the press
Man City have demonstrated a number of ways they may look to beat the press in other games, with the first being a more general principle regarding their positional play. To avoid being pressed from behind and being easily marked, midfielders will often make timed movements from behind an opponent to in front of them. This blindsides the blindside press, and so gives more time for the City player to receive and play elsewhere. Usually, if another midfielder drops, they will then play into the original pivot.
We can see they do the same against Chelsea here, with a player making a timed movement to receive between the two midfielders. It is not the best awareness from Chelsea, but nevertheless it is a useful tactics City’s midfielders use to receive the ball.
Something we saw City do often against Liverpool was, drop a forward behind one of the Liverpool central midfielders, and then attempt to occupy this central midfielder to move forwards. This scene here also explains some of the dynamics of Firmino’s role, as his main role in the press is to cut access to the pivot. However, the higher Man City get, the greater the distance between Firmino and the pivot gets, as he is generally forced to move to press a centre back. As a result, the central midfielders may occasionally have to start considering the pivot, which allows for overloads to be created.
We can see in this scene an example of that, with Liverpool’s decision making becoming slightly worse as a result of City’s structure. The right-sided midfielder (Milner) sees that the pivot is becoming slightly freer and so makes a slight movement inwards, while a Man City player between the lines makes a movement behind him in the opposite direction. Liverpool could be better coordinated here, as although the pivot moves to be slightly closer to Milner, the central Liverpool midfielder is unoccupied, and so he could push across slightly to press if needed. The press of Firmino should ensure City’s right side can’t be accessed with a pass from the centre back, and so this is a relatively safe option. Notice also that when this City midfielder recivesthe ball, City have a high and wide player able to pin back the full-back.
We can see in this much more simple example that Agüero is able to drop behind Milner again, with Milner this time not even occupied from the front. Agüero receives but has few options around him and Liverpool are able to recover in milliseconds, but this idea does give Man City the potential to progress the ball. The disadvantage to using this tactic may be seen defensively though, as if City commit to keeping players behind Liverpool’s midfield line, they have fewer players in front of it during a transition. Imagine here if Milner is able to win this pass. Liverpool’s pressing structure and rest offense is excellent, and so their defensive shape actually contributes well to how they attack when they win the ball.
Liverpool’s rest offense
Because the inside forwards cut the passing lanes from centre back to full-back, if Liverpool win the ball back high, they are already in the space between centre back and full-back, with the full-back likely committed in a wide area. We saw an extreme example of this a while back in 2018 between Liverpool and City, with Salah able to win the ball from Otamendi and immediately attack this space. Firmino is naturally positioned between City’s midfield and defence when out of possession, and so he is often in space to receive too. We’ll come back to Otamendi shortly.
City know Liverpool are a threat in transition, and so tend to employ an aggressive ball orientated counter-press when they lose possession. But Liverpool’s directness can often harm City immediately, with Liverpool’s rest offense also usually allowing three players high up the pitch. Liverpool will look to get in behind City’s fairly weak defence often in transition, and we can see a scene below where Liverpool play very direct.
Overloading Roberto Firmino
A strategy teams such as Manchester City and Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli have used to try and play through Liverpool has been to overload Firmino and look to affect his role. We’ve mentioned Firmino’s role in the press is to apply some pressure to the centre backs from the front while mainly focusing on keeping the pivot in his cover shadow. However, when two players are dropped into this cover shadow, it becomes very difficult for Firmino to prevent access to both players. We can see an example here where Firmino clearly is more focused on Fernandinho behind him, and so Bernardo is able to drop into space to receive. This dropping movement so high against Firmino causes some confusion amongst the midfield pressers, and we can see Milner here is in the typical hesitant stance, where he moves to go and then stops himself, due to the players around/behind him.
We can see here in the Community Shield game they do the same thing here, but this time it is direct from the goal kick, with City showing a nice variation here. The goalkeeper acts as one of the two centre backs, while John Stones actually pushes up to become a pivot. Fimrino’s cover shadow covers Stones, but not the other pivot Rodri who is then free to receive. If Salah covers Rodri, then he is likely to be unable to press the centre back in an effective way. Liverpool opt to operate a high press with a mid-block though, and so are still relatively stable despite the first line being broken.
If Liverpool choose to commit a midfielder in to press, City make look to overload the pressing midfielder as we saw in previous examples, and so Liverpool’s horizontal shuffling may be vital in order to prevent these overloads being created. Here the right-sided midfielder moves to press the free pivot, and so may concede space in the wider areas.
Instead, they may be better served committing the most central player across to the pivot, in order to prevent this overload being created. The most central midfielder has no immediate marker and so can push forward and occupy the pivot, while the right-sided midfielder can mark his player. City may then look to switch and the central player can move onto the other pivot, while Liverpool’s inside forward can press. Liverpool may lose some of their horizontal compactness if not done effectively, but they do cancel these overloads out. Alternatively, Liverpool may trust that the nature of their blindside pressing runs means that they will be able to cancel overloads well, as we saw in previous examples of Liverpool’s press in the midfield.
Targeting Nicolás Otamendi
For the reverse fixture back in November, I also wrote a tactical preview of the game, in which I urged Liverpool to target Otamendi due to the then absence of Aymeric Laporte. We never got a chance to see if this was something Liverpool would do, as Guardiola actually opted to play Fernandinho in centre back ahead of Otamendi, but this time, thanks to Fernandinho’s suspension and City’s defensive injuries, it looks as though Otamendi will be forced to play, and so Liverpool will look to target the Argentinian often I believe. This next image is actually taken from that preview back in November.
Otamendi has demonstrated on numerous occasions his poor press resistance, and if Liverpool can isolate and press him, they could find success.
We can see here Otamendi’s struggles when his passing options are cut and immediate pressure is applied. Here Salah covers the pass inside and Liverpool press well. Otamendi doesn’t want to play a pass diagonally behind Salah into space, possibly in fear of a pressing trap but probably wary of Roberto Firmino intercepting. Therefore he hesitates and Firmino tackles him before scoring, demonstrating once again Liverpool’s quality in transition.
We can all probably remember his horrendous error against Norwich City too earlier in the season, where Norwich pressed him intensely and Otamendi failed to release the ball, giving the ball away in his own box and conceding a goal. But how do Liverpool specifically go about targeting Otamendi with their pressing?
One pressing trap which could be effective would be for the passing lanes around the on-ball centre back to be cut off, while the passing lane into Otamendi is left wide open and his space is exaggerated. This should trigger City to play into Otamendi, where Liverpool can then adjust their press slightly.
Once the ball is in motion towards Otamendi, Firmino can make an arced run from the pivot to cut off the passing lane back to the other centre back, effectively closing off one side of the pitch for Otamendi. The inside forward can sprint forward intensely to apply pressure, while the central midfielder must monitor players in the half-space.
Another slightly more unconventional pressing trap which could be used would involve one of the Liverpool central midfielders rushing forward to press Otamendi, while Liverpool’s forwards prioritise marking nearby players. We can see this below, with again Otamendi being allowed to receive. Upon Otamendi receiving, Firmino stays with the pivot and marks tightly, while Sadio Mané on the left-wing stays to form more of a 4-4-2. The left sided midfielder rushes to press at the earliest opportunity available that will not put City off from passing to Otamendi.
As a result, Liverpool are able to condense play really well and cut any passing options around Otamendi. If he chooses to go long, the central most midfielder is able to push across to help the full-back, and if they then win the ball Liverpool have a good rest offense to transition into and attack. This structure is slightly less safe, but one that City won’t be predicting, and so they are unlikely to be able to find a solution in a split second.
As this analysis shows, this game is always one of the most tactically interesting games of the season, and so despite the relative unimportance of the fixture, I am still expecting a fiercely competitive game. The circumstances may also help us to see new things from both sides, as they may be more willing to take risks and try certain adjustments than they would be if this was a title race clash.