The overriding narrative over the course of this summer has surrounded the lack of new signings at Anfield. A Liverpool side which came to within a single point of winning the league title and who won their sixth Champions League found themselves under pressure to continue adding to their squad. Some sections of Liverpool-centric social media are questioning the ownership group, others are questioning the now famous transfer committee, led by Michael Edwards, while still others question Jurgen Klopp. Whilst a degree of frustration given the nature of the transfer window can perhaps be forgiven, these fans are overlooking the difficulty of adding quality to what is already a world-class squad. Any realistic targets will be wary of the challenge posed by displacing any of the first-choice players in their positions and the squad has a positive age profile. The start of competitive (almost) football in the Community Shield gave Liverpool the perfect opportunity to ease the fears of their fans after a difficult pre-season.
Transfer activity at the club on the other side of the Wembley pitch has also been relatively quiet. Spanish international midfielder Rodri arrived for a large fee to provide an alternative to Fernandinho at the base of the midfield. Manchester City also re-signed their former left-back Angeliño following a successful spell in Holland with PSV. Other than that the feeling coming from the blue side of Manchester is one of evolution rather than revolution. Another pre-season under the expert coaching of Pep Guardiola should see City continue their quest to dominate domestically while also taking the next step in European competition.
We should be clear that the Community Shield is largely an extension of the pre-season. With that said, however, this match gave us the first chance to assess the top two from the 2018/19 season and neither side would be happy with anything other than a win in this match.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine some of the lessons learnt in this match as Manchester City ran out winners after a penalty shoot-out.
There was some surprise for Liverpool to see Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah both starting the match. The other member of the fearsome front three, Sadio Mane, is behind the others in his pre-season preparation. This saw the hero of last seasons European triumph Divock Origi starting from the left-hand side of the attack. The other question was at centre-back as we waited to see whether Joel Matip or Joe Gomez would partner Virgil Van Dijk. In the end, we saw Gomez picked to start the game.
The only new signing from either side to start the match was the aforementioned Spanish international Rodri. The Spaniard took his place at the base of the midfield behind the exceptional duo of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. The other surprises from Guardiola saw the Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo playing in place of Ederson with the Brazilian late back to training after having a break at the end of the Copa America. We also saw Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus both on the bench as Guardiola started with a front three of Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling. The latter started the match centrally.
Different defensive structures
For as much as both sides lined up in a 4-3-3 structure, as is normal for both Guardiola and Klopp, the similarities in systems end there. One of the most interesting aspects of this match was the different defensive structures that the two sides utilised. Liverpool, with the quick Van Dijk and Gomez, played with an extremely high line for the majority of the match as they looked to constrict the space that Manchester City had to play in their build-up phase. The idea was that City would struggle to find their passing rhythm and would make mistakes.
The biggest problem that faced the high-line from Liverpool was that the pressure on the ball from the midfield three failed to prevent penetration. Time and time again we seemed to see the likes of Raheem Sterling or Bernardo Silva making vertical runs and being found by simple forward passes.
Above we see a situation with the Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson being isolated against Bernado Silva, wide, and Kevin De Bruyne, moving centrally. Even with the pace of Virgil van Dijk we still saw City create goal-scoring opportunities in this manner.
We see a similar situation above with Liverpool caught out of position in transition as City drive through the midfield. Note, this was after Liverpool felt as though a free-kick could have been awarded. Once more though we see a single pass from the midfield breaking through the defensive line and creating an opportunity for a goal. The midfield press once again from Liverpool left a lot to be desired.
As the match wore on we saw the defensive shape for Liverpool shift from a 4-3-3 to a 4-5-1 into more of a 4-4-2 with Divock Origi dropping back to the left of the midfield and Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino pressing from the front. This led to Liverpool becoming more solid defensively and preventing Manchester City from finding spaces to play through the lines into the final third.
For Manchester City, on the other hand, we saw a slightly different defensive model. The first thing that stood out was the orientation of their marking when Liverpool were in more established attacking positions. David Silva would move forward from his normal central midfield position in order to press with the forward player. This saw the two wide forwards dropping deeper and Kevin De Bruyne defending on the same line as Rodri. This in effect created a 4-2-2-2 structure with layers to prevent the opposition from easily playing through lines.
what we started to see from Manchester City, in an effort to negate the threat of the Liverpool front three, was the defensive line dropping into narrow positions as Liverpool started looking to progress the ball. Guardiola has by now played against Klopp and this Liverpool side enough to recognise the threat of the movement patterns made by the front three. Mohamed Salah on the right-side, in particular, will look to attack from the outside to take up positions in the half-spaces. To prevent this we saw the two full-backs for City move narrow to close the gaps that were open for Liverpool in the defensive line. In doing so they allowed Liverpool possession wide but looked to take away the opportunities they would have to penetrate from those positions.
Raheem Sterling as a 9
It was fascinating to see Raheem Sterling used as a 9 from the start to the game with Sergio Aguero on the field. I have long maintained that I believe this will be the position that Guardiola wants Sterling to move into as he develops. This has been delayed somewhat by the sheer goalscoring brilliance of Aguero. As the Argentine forward reaches the latter stages of his career, however, we should see a transition towards his minutes going down.
When Guardiola first took charge of City he initially was unsure as to whether Aguero would be able to adapt to his pressing structure. Gradually we have seen the coach adapt to allow Aguero to fit into his system. Sterling gives Guardiola the defensive work rate that he craves but he also has the pace and movement to thrive centrally. In this match, we only saw Sterling playing as a ‘9’ properly for ten minutes as Leroy Sane suffered an injury and was replaced by Gabriel Jesus. In that time, however, we saw a snapshot of what we can expect when Sterling plays centrally.
With Joe Gomez, above, taking time to control the ball we see Raheem Sterling looking to attack him on the blindside. As he does so he catches the English international unaware and dispossesses him. This creates an immediate transition that leads to a chance on goal for City.
Rodri a vertical threat
For all that Ferandinho has been a key component in the success that City have enjoyed over the last two seasons, we have still seen them move to sign a player who will provide significant competition to the Brazilian this season.
Rodri impressed throughout the match with his willingness to take possession of the ball in extremely tight positions in order to progress the ball. He was perhaps more likely than Fernandinho to play forward with more progressive passing coming from the base of the midfield.
In the initial build-up phase, it was normal to see Rodri drop back to the same line as one of the two central defenders while the other drops deeper to offer a short option to the goalkeeper. We would see the press split with a pass into the midfielder and he continually found himself able to take possession and turn to carry the ball forward into the midfield.
Rodri already seems to have developed the ability to find angles in the midfield to allow the City defenders to escape pressure. This is a factor of midfield play that has always been key for the ‘6’ in a Guardiola system. With the ball on the first line as the goalkeeper moves out to form a three with the two central defenders we initially see that the pass into Rodri is blocked by Firmino pressing. The Spanish midfielder looks to drop 5 yards to the side in order to get away from his marker and allow for the ball to be played through the press into midfield.
Naby Keita an effective ‘8’
There is a feeling that Naby Keita has still to prove himself as a key member of the Liverpool first team. He arrived from RB Leipzig with a great deal of hype and much of it was deserved following the impact that the Guinean midfielder had in the Bundesliga. He has struggled originally to learn the Klopp system and has had injury issues. Still though as an ‘8’ in this Liverpool team Keita offers the ability to progress the ball that few others can.
More than any other midfielder that Liverpool has Naby Keita has the ability to instinctively take positons that aid the progression of the ball. He is equally capable of moving to higher lines and taking up pockets of space to receive the ball or dropping deeper to give a quick progression option. You see this above as Van Dijk collects the ball. Keita drops deeper 20 yards to allow the ball to be progressed to that side of the field.
Keita carries the ball extremely well and often progresses the ball past two or three players on his own. This ability in central areas forces the opposition to push more players in to engage the ball. This, in turn, creates space further forward that can be exploited. Above we see Keita taking possession of the ball under pressure and driving away from the pressure into space.
In essence, this game was the stereotypical game of two halves as City controlled the first half and Liverpool the second. City won the match on penalties but you could not have argued had the result gone the other way.
At this stage of the season, it is hard to get a real read on either side tactically which is why I have instead picked out single aspects of each team that are interesting. I fully expect that at the end of the season we are talking about these two sides as the first and second-placed sides in the table. It remains to be seen which will be champions.
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