We’re 23 games into the 38-game Premier League season and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have finally been defeated. Sunday’s wild 4-3 defeat at Anfield was, in truth, a much tighter game than the scoreline suggests, the goals tally boosted by a couple of defensive errors and some excellent finishing.
Nevertheless, Liverpool’s approach should be commended: they pressed in advanced positions to force those defensive errors at the start of the second half and City’s upcoming opponents will consider this the template for causing City a fright.
The manner of Liverpool’s success — proactive, aggressive and positive — is clearly good for the Premier League as a whole. After all, a long unbeaten run becomes almost self-perpetuating and generally means dull matches. When Manchester City reached the halfway point of the current campaign without losing a single game, they became so revered and so feared that opponents weren’t even trying to beat them. Their recent trip to St James’ Park, for example, saw Rafael Benitez shut up shop from the outset, only bothering to attack in the final 20 minutes.
Benitez was essentially playing for a draw, a result that would have been considered a success for Newcastle but also would have continued City’s unbeaten run. Newcastle nearly nicked a draw at a time when no-one else in the league had managed to gain a point from City, aside from an Everton side who had the luxury of playing against 10 men.
Liverpool’s success shouldn’t be considered in isolation, of course. Championship outfit Bristol City caused Guardiola’s side problems in last week’s League Cup semifinal first leg with a similarly bold strategy, pressing high to disrupt passing moves, making it difficult for City to work the ball into their attacking midfielders, the players this team is essentially built around. Guardiola praised Bristol City manager Lee Johnson afterward, claiming it had been a greater test than many Premier League sides had offered.
It’s worth remembering, though, that City did win that game (2-1, albeit narrowly) and the goal City scored at the start of the second half, through Kevin De Bruyne, came when Bristol City pressed high, left some space between the lines and Guardiola’s side played through them with speed and efficiency. For all the benefits of pressing aggressively, it “forces” City into playing lightning-quick pass-and-move football, which can prove disastrous for their opponents.
Liverpool also had the benefit of facing a City side without David Silva, only on the bench because of ongoing personal problems. They’re not the only ones, of course, but Silva is City’s best player in those type of frantic matches: his performance in the second half at Anfield in 2013-14’s apparent title decider is one of the most mesmeric performances the Premier League has seen.
The park-or-press debate is, of course, familiar from the days when Guardiola coached Barcelona, boasting an even more cohesive and talented side. That dilemma, though, was considerably more complex: Barcelona’s defenders were more comfortable than their City equivalents in possession, while the presence of Sergio Busquets shouldn’t be underestimated either. Busquets could receive the ball under pressure, shield it and lay it off to a teammate in order to break the press. For all of Fernandinho’s qualities, he doesn’t have the same command when he receives the ball in tight situations.
But the greatest difference between Guardiola’s Barcelona and Guardiola’s City, in terms of the opposition approach, is that they’re now less vulnerable to the reverse tactic: the sit-back-and-counter. At Barcelona, Guardiola often pushed his full-backs forward simultaneously, with Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez pushing into more attacking positions too, leaving Busquets protecting the two centre-backs by himself If teams could beat Barca’s press — admittedly easier said than done — they could burst into plenty of space.
Guardiola learned from counter-attacking defeats, particularly the shock loss to Chelsea in 2012, and when winning three straight Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, he placed huge emphasis upon defensive shape when his side had possession. Most famously, this involved full-backs Philipp Lahm and David Alaba pushing into central midfield positions, which created a more stable defensive base and meant Bayern weren’t so open when the ball was turned over. The Bundesliga was actually more based around transitions and counter-attacks than La Liga, yet Guardiola’s Bayern were less prone to counter-attacks than Guardiola’s Barca.
Sure enough, for all their time spent with the ball in the opposition third, City have barely demonstrated any vulnerability against quick breaks this season. Even though Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane both scored on Sunday, they rarely threatened with genuine counters.
City’s full-backs sometimes overlap but at other points they (particularly left-sided Fabian Delph) tuck inside next to Fernandinho to protect the defence. This emphasis upon defensive shape when in possession has been the most notable shift among top sides since Leicester’s counter-attacking title victory two seasons ago. Guardiola and Antonio Conte, in particular, have essentially played 2-3-5 shapes within the attacking phase, packing the centre of the pitch in preparation for passing moves breaking down.
And this is probably the better way to consider things: it’s not that Guardiola’s side are “vulnerable to pressing,” which gives the impression they’re somehow a bad side, it’s more that they’re not vulnerable to counter-attacks.
So why not try to press? The problem, of course, is that doing so for 90 minutes is exhausting. On Sunday, Klopp’s Liverpool pressed excellently at the start of both halves but tired towards the end of each 45-minute spell, reminiscent of his Dortmund side’s performance in the Champions League final against a (pre-Guardiola) Bayern side.
It’s probably no coincidence that Liverpool scored after the ninth minute of the first half and the 14th, 17th and 23rd minutes of the second. In other words, during the first half of the halves. City, on the other hand, scored after the 41st minute of the first half, then the 39th and 45th minutes of the second. This is an isolated example, of course, but it basically fits the expected pattern: once you tire, you have to resort to defending deep. Liverpool did that poorly.
Ultimately, Klopp hasn’t stumbled upon a magic formula for beating Manchester City, and it’s worth remembering that Liverpool have trained and played that way for the last couple of years.
Should Benitez’s Newcastle change tack and press heavily this weekend in the return game against City? Probably not: having defended deep all season, they’d be unaccustomed to it, and probably get thrashed. Nevertheless, Klopp’s approach will be studied in-depth by managers of upcoming Premier League sides, not to mention City’s potential Champions League opponents.
With the unbeaten dream over, Guardiola can now concentrate on putting resources into his efforts to win a third European Cup. With a bit of luck, they’ll be high-tempo games based around pressing, rather than attack-versus-defence exhibitions.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.