Klopp’s compact 4-3-3 thwarts Guardiola’s game plan
Klopp’s Liverpool side hosted Guardiola’s Manchester City in the final league encounter of 2016 on Saturday evening. The opposing managers’ renewed acquaintance after clashes in Germany was one factor that ensured the game was eagerly anticipated. To add a further edge to the game, Liverpool were one point ahead of City coming into the game and the winner would take the title of Chelsea’s main challengers.
Guardiola targets the half spaces
City began the game in a hybrid system which appeared between a 3-3-3-1 and a 2-4-3-1 in possession with Zabaleta’s variable positioning meaning he acted at times as a right centre back and others as a right full back.
One feature of the system was the asymmetric staggering on the flanks with Kolarov acting high and wide on the left with Silva in the left half space and Zabaleta deep and narrow whilst Sterling held the width on the right. This freed De Bruyne and Silva to operate in the half spaces and this was key to the away side’s game plan. In Klopp’s defensive scheme Henderson operates as a lone holding midfielder, as such Guardiola aimed to create options to progress past the midfield line in front by occupying the spaces to either side of the Englishman.
Alternately this could give Toure and Fernandinho more space to operate if Liverpool reacted by dropping deeper to secure the the half spaces.
Operating with a back 3 could seem somewhat counter-intuitive against a Liverpool side that defend with a narrow front three since the numerical equality could lead to an unstable build-up. However this could encourage more aggressive pressing from the home side, in turn forcing Can and Wijnaldum higher meaning Henderson could become more isolated creating more space for Silva and De Bruyne to overwhelm him.
Liverpool’s high block and spatial control
Liverpool, as usual, operated in an intense and compact 4-3-3 shape against the ball. From the front Firmino would press aiming to force the ball towards one side and prevent switches back across the defensive line to reduce City’s options of circulation. Lallana and Mane, the wide players, were positioned further infield than usual to further block the half spaces.
Can and Wijnaldum operated in a fairly man-oriented fashion aiming to limit space for City’s double 6 and force the ball into wider areas where they could force worse actions by limiting options to play back into the centre. Henderson remained behind the midfield pair aiming to control the centre, though he often moved to reduce the distance to City’s ball-near 10 to create instant access in the event of the midfield line being breached.
Issues with this arose when Liverpool’s ball-far central midfielder followed their opponent too rigidly, isolating Henderson and leaving the ball-far half-space open in the process. In the initial stages, the man-orientation from Can and Wijnaldum played into City’s hands and City were able to break past Liverpool’s pressing to play diagonally beyond the midfield line.
This was an example of Pep’s game plan working almost entirely as he likely imagined it.
However this was all too rare, for most of the first half Liverpool controlled City’s circulation expertly with some particularly strong mechanisms allowing them to prevent the ball from entering their defensive block. When Stones had the ball in the centre Lallana and Mane would move slightly deeper and narrower to block the pass into De Bruyne and Silva respectively.
Whilst they were not always directly in the passing lane, they were effective at preventing these passes in a number of ways. Firstly by moving deeper and narrower they were able to narrow the passing lane as much as possible increasing the likelihood of intercepting the pass. Furthermore, their infield movement meant it would be easier to intercept an attempted pass since they would only have to continue moving in the same direction.
This movement meant they temporarily lost access to Zabaleta or Otamendi, however once City’s side back received the ball they would move forwards to press. This movement and the proximity to the opponent gave them a larger cover shadow meaning they could simultaneously press and prevent passes into the space they just vacated.
This excellent defensive control restricted City’s options to circulating across and often being forced into more direct balls which were at times plainly inaccurate or on other occasions poor timing led to offside recipients.
City gain access to the half spaces
Towards the end of the first half Guardiola’s side were increasingly able to break through the half spaces, particularly on the left, and there were a number of factors behind this. On one or two occasions they were able to take advantage of transition moments whereby Liverpool were still transitioning into their defensive shape and momentarily lacked the compactness to block the passing lanes.
However on a few occasions they were able to take advantage of weaker orientation from Mane in particular. During ball-oriented shifts midfielders are often required to co-ordinate this shifting movement with scanning, allowing them to occupy positions blocking passing lanes and retaining vision of the ball carrier to be aware of their next action. This can of course be quite a complex task to achieve.
Thus it was no surprise that Mane’s orientation errors generally occurred after switches. In these situations Mane failed to scan the situation behind him and thus did not adjust his position, like previously, to block or reduce the scope of the passing lane to Silva. Furthermore he was now caught “flat footed” with low intensity shifting movements. This in addition to his wide shifting dynamic meant it would take him longer to react and intercept passes on his inside as he would have to change direction and start from an almost stagnant position.
Another factor that assisted City’s increased penetration was improved positioning from the midfield pair to avoid blocking the diagonal passing lanes to Silva and De Bruyne.
Although they were increasingly able to move beyond Liverpool’s midfield line, City lacked the immediate depth to use these progressions to move directly towards Liverpool’s goal. However, they gave City the ability to force Liverpool into deeper positions and attack from higher positions. A number of these opportunities were squandered through mistakes in technical execution, and this contributed to City’s stale attack.
Low quality 2nd half
For much of the second half Liverpool were able to relieve pressure on their defence by inviting City to press, playing long and taking advantage of the space behind City’s midfield to pick up 2nd balls. With this method they created the basis to sustain possession in City’s half as a way to control the game and prevent City from threatening their lead. However, on a number of occasions they were caught in possession by backwards pressing from City’s midfielders and this gave the away side opportunities to threaten in transition.
With the 2nd half being one of constant turnovers of possession, Liverpool also had a number of chances to double their advantage on the counter attack. Poor quality of decision making and execution was behind both sides’ inability not only to score but to move from good positions into actual shots on goal.
This was potentially a result of the accumulation of fatigue with little time for recovery between games in this period and manifested in two of the league’s top 3 sides producing a low quality half.
Victory for Klopp’s side marks them as Chelsea’s “chasers in chief” and capped off a strong first half of the season for the Anfield outfit. With their excellent defensive control Liverpool were able to dominate large periods of the game and with more consistency in their on-the-ball actions the home side would have been able to win by a larger margin. Furthermore the result meant Liverpool remained unbeaten in all games against fellow top 6 sides, with 3 wins and 2 draws which is a strong indication of their title credentials.
As for City defeat, in addition to results elsewhere, sees them lying in 5th spot 10 points off runaway leaders Chelsea far from the heady heights of fan and public expectation. Losing at Liverpool is no shame, and it is their general inconsistency that leaves them so far off the pace. Their inability to access advanced spaces and sustain attacks in dangerous areas was at the heart of City’s failure to threaten Liverpool’s goal. Whilst we can expect a level of improvement from Guardiola’s side, City fans will be hoping it does not come too late for a title challenge.