Man City and Leroy Sane Ruthlessly Exploit Numerical Advantage against Liverpool

saneeManchester City and Liverpool was shaping up nicely. Pep Guardiola’s men were getting their possession game going, and through the strike team of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, generating some important opportunities to score. Liverpool, meanwhile, were finding avenues into the final third through the pace of their wide men. Mohamed Salah was particularly important in this regard, and if not for poor finishing, it’s entirely possible that he would’ve scored in the opening stages.

Things were progressing well, but then a piece of over-enthusiasm from Sadio Mane reduced Liverpool to 10 men. His high boot caught Man City goalkeeper Ederson flush on the cheek, and although much debate raged over the decision in the aftermath, it wasn’t overly surprising that referee Jon Moss issued a straight red card. After all, a high boot to the face is never a good thing, so despite the arguments surrounding Mane’s lack of intent and his right to go for the ball, the action was, at the very least, a highly reckless one.

Following that flashpoint, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp tried to shut things down, especially once half-time arrived. His team were 2-0 down at that stage, and instead of trying to retain a bit of attacking impetus, he opted to go almost entirely defensive. He removed Salah, Liverpool’s main source of attacking inspiration prior to the interval, and brought on new signing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The former Arsenal man slotted into a three-man central midfield, and Emre Can, who had played in midfield during the first 45 minutes, moved into central defence. That meant Liverpool were now operating in a 3-5-1 formation, but due to the lack of attacking desire, they more regularly found themselves sitting back in a 5-3-1 shape.

Klopp’s idea obviously had to do with damage limitation, but it didn’t really work out that way. Man City piled on another three goals after the break, taking the final scoreline to 5-0 in the process. Whether this would’ve been different had he stuck to the 4-4-1 that Liverpool utilised for the end of the first period is tough to say, but one thing that’s clear is that the absence of wingers hurt the Merseyside club when it came to defending the flanks.

Man City, perhaps aware of the lack of numbers out wide, targeted this part of the pitch in a massive way after half-time. They were particularly keen to attack down their left-hand side, presumably because they had identified inexperienced Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, now playing at right-wingback, as the player they could rattle. In the end, 44% of City’s attacks originated along the left-hand side, and when you consider that the figures for the first half are factored into that, it’s probably fair to say they went even harder than that in the second period of play.

A big part of this process involved the substitution of centre-forward Jesus for natural winger Leroy Sane. Rather than playing with as a striker, the German divided his time between staying wider and coming infield into left-of-centre locations. Throw in the hard-running Bernard Mendy, who was now bombing on almost all the time from the left side of defence, and Alexander-Arnold had his work cut out.

That wasn’t all, though. David Silva, City’s most creative playmaker, also filtered out towards the left, while Danilo, who started at centre-back but finished the match in central midfield, would dart into attacking left-sided positions as well. This meant Liverpool, who were short on numbers to cover that side of the park to start with, ended up in a completely unworkable scenario. They couldn’t cover City’s ever-increasing presence on the left-hand side, and between Sane, Mendy and the others who helped City to thrive, there was little Alexander-Arnold could do.

The examples of this are too numerous to cover in detail, but one illustration ended in Sane teeing up Kevin De Bruyne. The move kicked off with City overloading the left-hand side. Silva sat out near the touchline, in a deeper position, while Sane did the same but higher up. Those two players drew two defenders, as Alexander-Arnold moved up to pressurise Silva and Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped into the wingback slot to cover Sane. As this was happening, Danilo found himself on the ball in a left-of-centre location, and Mendy occupied Liverpool centre-back Joel Matip by filtering into a left-sided pocket in between the lines.

This is where things went askew for Liverpool. With Matip occupied and Alexander-Arnold caught upfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain had a job ahead of him. He needed to prevent Sane from going to work, but when Danilo slid a ball in behind the Liverpool defence to find the German out on the left-hand side, it became clear the former Arsenal man wasn’t going to be able to get out there. Sane then cruised forward before cutting the ball back towards an onrushing De Bruyne. The Belgian connected with the pass in a lovely spot inside the area, only to lean back and sky his shot into the stands.

Despite the lack of a finishing touch, this is the kind of thing City were able to produce time and time again. They sent numbers out to the left and, in doing so, confused Liverpool’s 10 men. Pep Guardiola used this strategy to apply heavy pressure, especially to wingback Alexander-Arnold and right-sided centre-back Matip, and it had a big part to play in City’s second-half success. The club’s fourth goal, for instance, arrived after Sane received the ball in an inside left position. He then waited for Mendy, who had outpaced a now-overworked Alexander-Arnold, and played a pass to his overlapping teammate. The French defender returned the favour with a neat ball back to Sane, and with a crisp near-post finish, the former Schalke star side-footed City’s fourth into the back of the net.

This type of play enabled City to demolish Liverpool after they went down to 10 men. In simple terms, Guardiola’s players picked a target, the left-hand side, and ruthlessly set about exploiting it. They did so beautifully too, with a high-grade display of attacking football, and it served as an illustration of just how good this team could become.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have the excuse of being down a player, but once Klopp removed their remaining attacking threat, in Salah, and left them exposed on the flanks, things were going to be tough for them. This wasn’t a good day for the Reds, and it wasn’t exactly the heavyweight stoush that fans were waiting for either. It was, however, an interesting match. City demonstrated the dynamism and flexibility attached to their squad, and Guardiola showcased his ability to exploit a weak spot.

City are therefore looking good, and with a clash against Everton coming up next, they have yet another opportunity to highlight their improvement.

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