Slick Positional Play Key to Liverpool’s Thumping 3-0 Win over Man City

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Liverpool may have missed out on the Capital One Cup after losing the final to Manchester City last weekend, but a few days later, they got the chance to get revenge against the Sky Blues in the English Premier League. They made the most of it, too, bouncing back from the recent defeat to claim an emphatic 3-0 victory. Jurgen Klopp, the club’s manager, was particularly enthusiastic about the outcome. “The best word I can say to describe this is: Boom!”

Based on the way his players performed, you’d be hard-pressed to argue with the German’s assertion. Liverpool produced a display that was characteristic of Klopp’s so-called “heavy metal football,” one made up of relentless pressing, solid possession play and, perhaps most importantly, a cutting edge in the final third.

Yet for all of the aspects attached to Klopp’s philosophy, what really stood out was the cohesion between the players out on the pitch. They interchanged positions seamlessly, covering for one another in the defensive phase of the game and vacating spaces for others in attack. There was a real sense of exercises on the training ground being brought to life out on the pitch, such was their ability to anticipate the need to both occupy and vacate certain patches of turf.

At its most obvious, this could be seen in Liverpool’s pressing exertions. There was a moment in the 27th minute, for instance, when centre-forward Divock Origi shifted out to the right-hand side in order to cover for winger James Milner, who was caught infield. Not long after, Milner found himself filling in for central midfielder Jordan Henderson, who was now out near the right touchline, and this level of teamwork carried on throughout the night. When a player was out of position his teammate would cover for him, and in a line-up that prides itself on intensive pressing, this was necessary to make up for the kind of positional shortfall that can sometimes occur.

More than that, Liverpool’s interchangeability in the final third really allowed them to shine. There was a true cohesion to their movement, and the way they traded positions with one another enabled them to drag City’s defence out of shape. Particularly important to this process were the two wingers, Milner and Adam Lallana, who regularly drifted infield as a means through which to overload a certain part of the pitch. This meant that Manuel Pellegrini’s men were often left shorthanded when trying to deal with the influx of Liverpool players in a particular area, and in the lead-up to both the first and second goals of the match, City were simply unable to handle that.

For the first goal, Liverpool launched an attack down the right-hand side. This wouldn’t have come as a surprise to City, given the fact that the Reds attacked down this flank 41% of the time over the 90 minutes, but that didn’t make the move any easier to stop. Liverpool kicked things off with a long possession chain and, after positioning a number of players along the right-hand side, forced City’s defence to shuffle over to cover that part of the field. The problem, though, was that they didn’t notice Lallana working his way infield from his nominal starting position on the left wing.

The Englishman surged into a space between the lines, completely free of any attention from the opposition, and received a short pass from Milner. There was nothing remarkable about it, but due to the fact that Liverpool had dragged the City defence away from the space in between the lines, Lallana was now free and clear. He took possession and turned towards goal. Then, somewhat nonchalantly, he took his time to line up a shot. He hit the ball hard and low towards the near post, and though Joe Hart flung himself to the floor in order to stop it, Lallana’s strike was such that he couldn’t get near it.

Liverpool’s second goal also came about down the right, and again, they overloaded City along the outside of the field. Here, Roberto Firmino floated away from the centre and out towards the touchline, something which drew the attention of City left-back Gael Clichy. Lallana picked up on this and, rather perceptively, sprinted into the space behind Clichy. This meant that City centre-back Nicolas Otamendi had to leave the heart of defence to get out to Lallana, but due to a smooth backheel, the Reds attacker took the Argentine out of the equation.

Firmino soon latched onto the backheel and, having made a run back inside, found himself not only with space in between the lines but also with time to pick a pass. He settled on Milner, who had again drifted in from the wing, and after a slick first touch and prodded finish, the ex-Manchester City man scored against his former team.

This piece of play signified much of what Liverpool were trying to do with their movement. They wanted to drag the Manchester City defence towards the wings and then, with some well executed combination play, bring the ball back through the centre. They did this beautifully on the night and, importantly, finished things off just as well, netting three times against a City side who are challenging for the title. Klopp labelled this performance as one that has to become the “model” for Liverpool, and with such a cohesive display of positional play, it was hardly surprising that he took that view.

For Klopp, this is the kind of performance he envisions when he sets up his Liverpool side. There was pressing, there was ball retention and there was intensity, and when combined with some intuitive movement and an incisive attacking game, the Reds were so good that City couldn’t really compete with them. So good, in fact, that they went long way towards putting the Capital One Cup final behind them.

Now, the challenge is to produce this kind of performance more often.