Liverpool expose Manchester City’s defensive frailties to lead Premier League by eight points

Liverpool dispatched title rivals Manchester City in a commanding 3-1 victory to move eight points clear at the top of the Premier League.

Despite a bright start, the visitors fell behind in the sixth minute as Fabinho struck from 20 yards to score his first goal of the season. Mohamed Salah doubled Liverpool’s lead before the quarter-hour mark, heading home from a typically pinpoint Andy Robertson cross. Both goals were surrounded by the seemingly never ending VAR umbrella, as a Manchester City claims to a penalty and an offside were waved away following review. The scoreline did little to reflect the early pattern of play as Jamie Carragher noted in commentary “Liverpool have had two passages of play and they’ve scored two goals.”

Any lingering Manchester City hopes of becoming the first team to win at Anfield from two goals behind in the Premier League era were dashed by the in-form Sadio Mane, who headed an exquisite Jordan Henderson cross past stand-in goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. But despite the scoreline, the away side continued to threaten, with Aguero somehow failing to connect from Kevin De Bruyne’s cross summing up another miserable afternoon for the Argentine. City’s inevitable goal did eventually come twelve minutes from time as Bernardo Silva swept home from just inside the area. A late rally followed, but it was simply too little, too late.

Fantastic front three

As expected, both sides headed into this weekend amongst the four most efficient outfits in front of goal, thanks to goal conversion rates exceeding 13%. However, it was Liverpool who proved to be the more ruthless on Sunday afternoon, scoring three times despite having six fewer attempts than their opponents and losing the xG battle 1.10-1.29.

Such a ruthless streak is typical of Liverpool’s displays this season and the hallmark of potential champions. Realising Manchester City’s defensive difficulties in Aymeric Laporte’s absence through injury, the Reds continue to seize their opportunity and defeat everyone in the path, aside from Manchester United.

That day was the only occasion that one of the front three was absent, as Mohamed Salah missed out through injury. Whilst United performed admirably in the 1-1 draw, the result and Liverpool’s lethargy until an Adam Lallana goal sparked a late surge of pressure, underline the importance of all three being fit.

Beyond the trio’s undeniably impressive goalscoring statistics, scoring a combined 219 goals in 471 Liverpool appearances, their contributions to create a cohesive attacking unit are even more vital. As a consequence of Laporte and Ederson’s absence, City were naturally less comfortable when playing out from defence, with Alisson parrying an Aguero shot after 25 minutes the only significant goalscoring opportunity worked from back to front. Liverpool’s attacking trio recognised that vulnerability and despite no repeat of opposition half dispossessions leading to goals as in the 2018 4-3 win, their in-sync press limited City’s counter-attacking opportunities.

Furthermore, the defensive effort of the front three, particularly Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in the second half was vital in preventing Manchester City staging a comeback. Their gradual deeper positions are indicated by the average position map, with Jordan Henderson (14) ultimately operating further forward than both Firmino (9) and Mane (10).

Liverpool average position map vs Manchester City

Henderson was replaced in the 61st minute, with Liverpool 3-0 up following his run and cross down the right to assist Mane’s goal. Thereafter, Manchester City’s pressure for a goal and route back into the game intensified, forcing Liverpool to retreat in order to limit spaces for the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva to work in. Firmino and Mane dropped in during the final 30 minutes, leaving Salah as the lone front man in a switch from Liverpool’s natural 4-3-3 to a more rigid, traditional 4-5-1 (and subsequently 4-4-2 in the eight minutes between Firmino and Salah being replaced).

Therefore, Liverpool’s front demonstrated efficiency in front of goal, contributed defensively both high up the pitch early in the game and in their own half in the final 30 minutes and most significantly, in their biggest game of the season to date. That is why they are so highly regarded.

A Contrast of full-backs

Despite spending upward of £150 million on full-backs Kyle Walker, Joao Cancelo, Benjamin Mendy and Angelino, it was Liverpool’s £8 million duo that again took the headlines. It is no secret that Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are amongst the best attacking full-backs in Europe and this victory was testament to that.

Creating two chances apiece, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold ranked behind just three players on the pitch – Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Angelino. Despite creating just 17 chances this season, 25 fewer than fellow full-back Alexander-Arnold, the quality of Robertson’s deliveries are such that he racks up assists. This is indicated by 29.4% of his deliveries being ranked as big chances, compared to 21.4% of Alexander-Arnold’s. This nearly matches last season’s respective percentages of 30.0% and 22.9%, with the Englishman again creating chances more chances per 90. The bottom line being, Alexander-Arnold creates chances with incredible regularity, but Robertson’s often put attackers in more favourable goalscoring positions. It is no surprise that with the same number of chances created against Manchester City, that Robertson grabbed a solitary big chance created and an assist to boot. Neither player should be criticised for this, they are exceptional but different.

Despite appearing on the losing side, Angelino’s ventures forward were impressive. This will not come as a surprise Eredivisie fans, as the Spaniard score four times and provided 16 assists in a combined 68 appearances for NAC Breda and PSV. As mentioned, his three chances created was the joint most of any player in the match. Meanwhile, a deflected 29th minute effort which bounced off the post after a one-two with Kevin De Bruyne was yet another indicator of his willingness to attack. It was also his cross that resulted in Bernardo Silva’s late consolation goal. But despite offensive comparisons in the match with opposite number Robertson, the 22 year-old was part of a fragile defence that looked like conceding every time the Reds attacked. Guardiola has facilitated the development of so many Manchester City players in his three and a half years in charge, none more so than left-sided partner Raheem Sterling. It is up to Pep to work his magic again and sharpen Angelino’s defensive capabilities. If he can, City will have finally solved their problems at left-back during any future Benjamin Mendy absences.

City’s defensive woes exposed

In the meantime, Manchester City’s makeshift defensive unit remains fragile. Ederson may have saved efforts from Fabinho and Mane at the start of each half that slipped past Bravo, but recent defeats to Norwich and Wolves with him in the side demonstrate that his absence yesterday was not the defining factor. Aymeric Laporte’s injury in the August sunshine as Manchester City swept aside Brighton by four goals to nil at the Etihad remains City’s biggest obstacle to winning a third consecutive league title.

Not only is he the club’s best defender by a distance, he is also the starting point of many attacks as they play out from the back. Guardiola demands his players to keep the ball moving in order to shift the opposition players out of an organised shape and open up gaps for the likes of De Bruyne and Silva to operate in. It is no coincidence that Laporte completed 2998 passes in 2018/19 (the third most behind Jorginho and Van Dijk), as City retained possession for minutes at a time before picking their moment to raise the tempo and carve through their opponents. Ultimately, Laporte is a huge loss both in the defensive and transitional phases of the game. City have to find a way to get through the Christmas period without the gap between themselves and Liverpool widening any further. By then, the Frenchman will be nearing a return from injury, but City will have the option of opening their chequebook on another central defender as they did with Laporte two years prior.

Title race significance

Despite the nine point gap Liverpool have opened up on Manchester City and eight on both Chelsea and Leicester City, this one game far from confirms the destination of the Premier League title. Casting an eye back to January of last season, Newcastle’s 2-1 victory over Manchester City gave Liverpool the chance to open up a seven point gap the following night against Leicester. They went on to win their next 14 league matches in an irrepressible run of form to edge a single point clear of Liverpool by May. City’s strength in depth ensures that they remain capable of repeating such a run at some point this season and they will surely need to do so to subdue a currently unstoppable Liverpool.

A total of 26 unpredictable rounds of Premier League matches remain, with many twists and turns inevitable over the next six months. Nobody could have foreseen Manchester City losing three of their last eight games but Laporte’s injury combined with a lack of in-form alternatives at centre-back made that materialise. What if Salah, Mane or Firmino pick up a significant injury? How will Liverpool cope with participating in up to 18 matches in all competitions during December and January? These are the questions that remain and always pose a threat to even the most resilient of sides. Nonetheless, the controlled manner of Liverpool’s victory, in tune with almost all of their games this season, suggests that near perfection will be required from a rival to stop them winning a first league title in 30 years.


Stats from Transfermarkt and Fantasy Football Scout

One comment

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