It was somewhat surprising that Liverpool and Manchester City, two teams renowned for their attacking firepower and defensive shortcomings, produced only three shots on target combined in Liverpool’s 1-0 victory on New Year’s Eve. But that statistic should be considered evidence of Liverpool’s excellent game management – after going ahead in the eighth minute through Georginio Wijnaldum’s bullet header from Adam Lallana’s left-wing cross, they shut down the game impressively.
In truth, Pep Guardiola’s side had started better and Wijnaldum’s goal was somewhat against the run of play. But thereafter, Liverpool’s first-half performance was outstanding, a brilliant demonstration of the principles Jürgen Klopp emphasises, and a complete success in terms of nullifying City’s attacking threat. There was a range of simple but effective tactics. Klopp ordered his players to press high up when Claudio Bravo had the ball, preventing him from distributing it short to the centre-backs and forcing him into unusually long, often aimless clearances downfield. Liverpool were generally quicker to the second balls. Liverpool also counterpressed in typically fervent fashion, attempting to win possession immediately after it had been conceded.
But when City had long spells of possession, Liverpool’s midfielders largely dropped off and formed a solid shape, helped by the use of the hard-working Roberto Firmino as the central forward, rather than the natural strikers, Divock Origi or Daniel Sturridge. Jordan Henderson sat deep, marking Kevin De Bruyne, while Sadio Mané and Lallana, playing as part of the front three, dropped alongside Emre Can and Wijnaldum, keeping Liverpool extremely compact in midfield.
Combined with an unusually aggressive offside line against Sergio Agüero – which once forced Simon Mignolet to sweep way outside his penalty box – it meant Liverpool squeezed the space around City’s attacking midfielders brilliantly. De Bruyne could not receive possession in dangerous positions and went wandering towards the flanks. David Silva occupied his usual inside-left position and found pockets of space but City could not work the ball into him, while on the right Raheem Sterling stayed wider, but James Milner stood up to him excellently, and the Anfield crowd enjoyed jeering Sterling’s unsuccessful crosses.
Liverpool’s attacking threat was minimal and there were few notable attacks after they went ahead – but they nearly went into half-time 2-0 up when Lallana and Firmino pressed to dispossess Yaya Touré on the halfway line, but Firmino waited a split-second too long to release Lallana, who was caught offside. It would have rounded off a near-perfect first-half performance.
Guardiola’s major half-time alteration was simply switching De Bruyne and Silva, placing the latter in the central role behind Agüero. While De Bruyne is superb at exploiting open spaces and driving forward on the break, Silva is a neater, more intricate player, capable of working his magic in congested positions between the lines. Silva stepped up the tempo but few of his team-mates responded – at one point he expressed his frustration when a quick burst and pass into Touré was not met with a return ball. Silva came closest to an equaliser, drifting right to receive possession before cutting inside and firing a left-footed shot wide of the far post.
It summarised the Spaniard’s plight – usually a man tasked with playing killer balls into the box, he was so frustrated by the poor movement of his team-mates that he was forced to do everything himself.
The second half was a flat, scrappy contest, and City rarely forced genuine spells of pressure. They found more space between the lines after Henderson departed through injury, but Agüero barely threatened a Liverpool defence that sat much deeper after the break. It was surprising that Guardiola waited until the final five minutes before making his final two changes: Jesús Navas was introduced in place of Pablo Zabaleta with City switching to a 3-4-2-1 system, then Kelechi Iheanacho was summoned as a Plan B.
It is strange to be questioning Guardiola’s lack of interference, after half a season where it often felt his constant experimentation was disturbing City’s rhythm, but it felt like he did not have any answer to the questions posed by Klopp’s efficient Liverpool side. This was not a vintage Liverpool performance, but it is difficult to imagine anyone else will nullify Guardiola’s City this effectively.