Liverpool Opt for Control over Intensity in Win against Man City

wijnaldum

Despite the size and the reputation of the two sides involved, Liverpool’s New Year’s Eve clash with Manchester City didn’t exactly produce fireworks. There wasn’t much in the way of exciting attacking football, and due to a combination of high-octane intensity and the general sloppiness that infiltrated the contest, scrappy would probably be a fair way to describe the vast majority of the 90 minutes.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp called the encounter both “wild” and “intense,” and even though he rued the fact this left his team unable to execute with precision on the ball, he was nonetheless thrilled with the Reds’ defensive effort. “Our defending today was really good,” he said. Good, certainly, but in a lot of ways the approach to it wasn’t really typical of his Liverpool sides, as instead of pressing with intent, Klopp’s players engaged in a lot more sitting off in order to reduce the space available to City.

That’s not to say Liverpool looked like a different team altogether, however. They still pressed high from time to time, especially when City had the ball deep in defence. In those moments, and most notably those when goalkeeper Claudio Bravo found himself in possession, the men in red pushed up to close off any short options that would otherwise have been open to him. This strategy, for the most part, was aimed at forcing the former Barcelona shot-stopper into longer, less precise pieces of distribution, and given the way that Liverpool propelled themselves towards any second balls, it quickly became a successful way of going about their business.

Yet if this kind of pressing has come to define Klopp’s philosophy, the way that Liverpool spent much of the match in deep defensive positions illustrated the German manager’s more pragmatic side. In fact, once Liverpool hit the lead eight minutes in, through a tremendous header from midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, the pattern of folding back into an organised and compact defensive structure started to emerge. At that moment, 1-0 up and in charge on the scoreboard, Liverpool opted to manage the lead more than anything else.

In Klopp’s words, this was a necessity. “Games like this are very, very difficult and it’s not that we had a clear plan from the first second to stay deep or be deeper than in other games but you have to learn in the game, you have to adapt to the game,” he said. “We were the whole night not cool enough in possession. We lost the ball in the wrong moment. But they couldn’t create real chances because we defended really well. It was kind of a wild game. It was intense. It’s not about having a philosophy, it’s about adapting to the quality of the opponent and in this case we needed to defend from a compact formation.”

So, then, it wasn’t so much a case of Klopp ditching his “heavy metal football” ideals, but rather a case of his players simply having to adapt to the opposition in front of them. And, in general terms, they did that extremely well. Liverpool often filtered back into a narrow 4-5-1 formation in defence, something which was punctuated by the fact that wingers Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane took up very tight positions alongside Liverpool’s central midfielders. This became an asset for the Reds, as it allowed them to cut off the avenues available to City in between the lines. It meant that City’s primary playmakers, guys like David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, weren’t able to collect possession in their favourite pockets of space with any great consistency, and because of that, Pep Guardiola’s side simply couldn’t gain an attacking foothold in the game.

City tried to explore other avenues, though, most notably through shifting the ball wide to Raheem Sterling, out on the right-hand side. The objective here involved the young Englishman drawing Liverpool’s left-back, James Milner, out of the back line, before then hoping that De Bruyne could dart into that space left vacant by Milner. In simple terms, it didn’t work, and as illustrated by the fact that City only registered two shots on target for the entire 90 minutes, not much else worked for the Sky Blues either.

In another interesting statistic, Liverpool restricted City to such an extent that they only managed to attempt two shots from inside the box, something almost unheard of for a Pep Guardiola side. The Reds were therefore absolutely brilliant in defence, and although their approach was a long way from what could be described as pure Klopp, the odd moment of quick attacking play showed that they hadn’t totally dispensed with heavy metal football in the hunt for victory. Roberto Firmino nearly played in Lallana after Liverpool pinched possession on the halfway line, only to see the ex-Southampton man rendered offside. In another move, Milner very nearly played in Firmino with a defence-splitting pass, but as Klopp discussed in the post-match press conference, the Brazilian signified Liverpool’s lack of coolness in possession by failing to bring the ball under control.

There was, however, the decisive goal, and in contrast to the near misses described above, this was heavy metal football at its best. It started with a turnover deep in defence. Firmino then produced a brilliant bit of hold-up play, firstly to weave away from Yaya Toure before playing in Lallana along the left with a precise outside-of-the-boot pass. Liverpool’s number 20 retained the move’s momentum by darting down the touchline and crossing quickly on his left side, and with a strong leap and a forceful header, Wijnaldum ended the quickfire counter-attack with the match-winner.

With this in mind, Klopp’s philosophy still had a part to play on the night, but for the manager himself, that was secondary to the outcome. “We don’t want to show how good we are; we want the points,” he said to BT Sport. “We have another three, that’s great.” The former Dortmund boss then reiterated this stance in his press conference, arguing that, “Against Man City, you have to work for three points. If you are good enough, you can get them – and we are good enough and that’s cool.”

Cool it was, and in Liverpool’s chase to catch English Premier League leaders Chelsea, vital, too.