The race to qualify for next season’s Champions League provided Man City with an opportunity to respond to last Wednesday’s elimination from the same competition. Manager, Pep Guardiola, said he failed to convince his players that attack was the best approach and it wasn’t until the second-half that they started to play with more conviction. That ploy extended to virtually the entirety of this entertaining contest as both sides tried to outpunch one another.
Fernandinho deputised at right-back as Yaya Touré returned to form an attacking 4-1-4-1 formation. The creativity of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in centre midfield would adjust Liverpool’s midfield from a staggered three to a more structured two-one.
Liverpool’s only change from last week’s win at home to Burnley was the return of Roberto Firmino as Divock Origi dropped to the bench. The Brazilian is a firm favourite of Jürgen Klopp’s, largely due to his pressing and movement which has seen him rank among the top strikers in Europe for chances created, tackles, sprints and distance covered.
With Guardiola’s teams preferring to play out from the back, Klopp and co looked to selectively deploy the famous gegenpress and claim a fifth straight league win against the blue side of Manchester.
Sparring to Swinging
There were similarities to the Manchester derby in September. That game saw Man City come flying out of the blocks with the contest opening up as time passed until both sides showed clear signs of fatigue by the end.
The key difference on Sunday was that City couldn’t find a breakthrough nor test Simon Mignolet in goal. The Citizens saw many dangerous low-crosses get cleared to safety, once via a foul that wasn’t easy to see during real-time.
Liverpool grew into the contest and began to test Willy Caballero in goal through Firmino and Adam Lallana.
But it was the second half that saw some serious exchanging of swings. Triggered by James Milner’s opener from a correctly awarded penalty just five-minutes into the half, both teams provided the epitome of end-to-end football by exploiting each other’s spaces at speed.
Klopp’s men were picky with their press, but it was Guardiola key changes that changed the tie. The Spaniard had no choice but to replace the legless Touré on 65 minutes as he essentially reduced the hosts to 10-men. But it was shifting the out of form De Bruyne to the right-wing that provided City with a second wind. This enabled the Belgian to do what he’s arguably best at and supply dangerous crosses from wide.
It was his teasing ball into the box from which Aguero equalised, five-minutes after Touré was replaced. De Bruyne’s first touch allowed him to release the cross before Milner could close down the angle.
In the first-period, both sides had claims for a penalty with City’s the more convincing, while Liverpool found the target with their efforts. Joel Matip was denied a goal by John Stones’ last-ditch block as the Reds gained a stronger foothold in the game.
The second-half saw Caballero deny Firmino what would have doubled the visitors advantage. With the scores level, Aguero stumbled at the wrong moment before De Bruyne struck the outside of the post while Lallana missed a golden chance to cap a fine move and take the lead with 10-minutes remaining.
There was still time for Sterling to lift the ball wide of Mignolet’s goal and Aguero to side-foot a far-post volley over the target in the dying moments as both sides squandered clear chances.
Two of the more impressive displays came from Man City’s Stones and Liverpool’s Emre Can. Both attacks did well until the finish but these players stood out for different reasons.
Stones had the second most passes (65/69) in the match but best pass completion (94.2%). He was joint-second for interceptions (two) and top for blocks, preventing two dangerous attempts at goal.
During the post-match press conference, Guardiola was hailing the cojones shown by the former Everton defender as he often received balls deep in his half to help create space for the pivot (Touré) in midfield.
The only blemish in his performance was the under hit back pass that allowed Mané to beat Ottamendi.
Can completed the most passes for his side (34/41) while also finishing joint-second for interceptions. The German suffered the joint-third most fouls (three) and provided the diagonal ball from which Firmino was fouled for the penalty.
Corresponding fixture comparison
Most notably, there were far more attempts at goal at the Etihad stadium than Anfield. While the total on New Year’s Eve was just 14, both teams managed 13 each on Sunday. Only some wasteful finishing saw the game finish with just two goals.
In terms of possession and number of passes, there’s little difference between both games. However, the pass completion did improve the second time around.
Liverpool had a similar approach in both matches which went against their season average of 588.3 passes per game and 57.9% possession, both of which are only second to Man City (593 and 60.7%).
Playing over 200 passes fewer than usual meant Klopp’s men attacked at a faster pace which was evident in the second-half. This tactic requires patience without the ball rather than in possession as the Reds have experienced against the likes of Burnley.
City, and in particular, Touré, looked dead on their feet as Liverpool went in search of a second. But Guardiola’s substitution and rotation of players boosted his side who finished stronger despite continuing to leave gaps behind their defence.
Given the quality and quantity of chances/opportunities, the draw was a fair result. Neither side deserved to lose after committing such effort in pursuit of victory.
After the international break, the big games don’t stop as Man City travel to Arsenal while Liverpool prepare for a Merseyside derby at home to seventh-placed, Everton. Let’s hope the race for the top four will be as exhilarating as this encounter.
EPL Results (Gameweek 29):
West Brom 3-1 Arsenal
Crystal Palace 1-0 Watford
Everton 4-0 Hull
Stoke 1-2 Chelsea
Sunderland 0-0 Burnley
West Ham 2-3 Leicester
Bournemouth 2-0 Swansea
Middlesbrough 1-3 Man Utd
Tottenham 2-1 Southampton
Man City 1-1 Liverpool