The final Premier League game of 2016 saw two of the top three battle it out in a much-anticipated game. Unfortunately for the spectators, it failed to live up to expectations as a solitary goal decided a tentative affair between the division’s top two scorers prior to gameweek 19.
Midfielder Emre Can replaced forward Divock Origi as Jurgen Klopp opted to return Roberto Firmino to his preferred central position with Adam Lallana moving forwards into the wide left position.
Firmino’s ability to press, intercept and defend from the front would have heavily influenced his manager’s thinking, particularly against a side known for wanting to play from the back and not always succeeding.
Man City welcomed back Sergio Aguero following his four-match suspension while Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov replaced Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy at full-back. Pep Guardiola would have hoped Kolarov’s ability from set-pieces could prove telling against a side whose defensive deficiencies from deadballs had been heavily scrutinised.
Possession and Shape
A fight for ball retention was predicted with both sides top of the league for possession this season. But surprisingly, Liverpool ended up allowing Man City to have the ball before looking to counter through selective pressing and quick turnovers.
The goal was an outcome of this as Yaya Toure delayed on a central free-kick before lofting a ball to Kolarov which left the Serbian with only one clear pass option. Unfortunately for City, Kolarov’s attempt at that pass was loose as the pressure led him to play it first-time. Georginio Wijnaldum and Firmino retrieved the ball before the Brazilian played a long ball out wide on the safe side of Lallana, preventing Zabaleta from making an early challenge. The former Southampton player then found himself to the left of the area before clipping in an inviting cross for Wijnaldum to power home with a firm header. The Dutchman benefitted from having the run on Kolarov as he timed his movement to perfection.
Taking an eighth minute lead only further encouraged Liverpool to drop off their opponents and restrict the service to Aguero and co as mentioned by Klopp during one of his pre-match interviews.
The Reds would form a five-man semi-circle to shield their defence with Firmino in the centre shepherding the Citizens to go down one particular side. That subsequently made it harder for balls to be played through the middle while Claudio Bravo found himself going long more often than usual.
A key aspect of the game was Liverpool’s organisation which limited the impact of Man City’s front four. Both teams struggled in possession as they misplaced a number of passes. City were 4.4% down on their season average pass completion while the home side were a massive 13.1% worse off than usual. But despite the heavy media focus on set-pieces and goalkeeping issues, Liverpool have conceded the fewest shots on goal per game with just 7.7 – Man City are second with 8.3.
It was this level of defending – which Ragnar Klavan deserves plenty of credit having seamlessly steeped in for the injured Joel Matip in recent weeks – that restricted Guardiola’s side to just two attempts on target, both of which were from outside the area. Of the nine in total, only two were taken from inside the 18-yard box and both were from improbable angles.
And while Liverpool only managed five attempts and one on target, they did come within inches of creating one-on-one situations on two occasions during the opening 45-minutes.
Six of Man City’s nine attempts came from the front four of Aguero, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne who were playing in a game against one of the other top six sides for the first time this season. Despite that, it was still the fewest combined efforts by those players with a total of eight achieved against Man Utd and Arsenal (minus Aguero) as well as Tottenham (minus De Bruyne) while the Chelsea loss yielded 10 (minus Sterling).
In terms of take ons, Sterling was clearly advised to target Milner at left-back with 13 attempted dribbles but the former Liverpool winger only succeeded with six.
Fourteen of the 17 attempted crosses came from De Bruyne and Sterling yet only one led to an opportunity which was a blocked Kolarov volley from a second-half corner.
Most notable were the number of completed passes in the attacking third. At Anfield, De Bruyne, Silva and Sterling only managed a total of 32 while the same three players finished with 69 at home to Arsenal. Only the loss at Tottenham can compare with Saturday but the 28 listed below was without De Bruyne. His replacement that day, Jesus Navas, finished with 11, even though he was substituted in the 66th minute, which takes the total for that match to 39.
Guardiola’s record of two wins and three losses against the title rivals doesn’t look favourable compared to Klopp’s three wins and two draws. In order to improve on that in the second half of the season, the Spaniard will need his quartet to not only play together more often but also contribute more in the crunch games.
Subs involving the four players made during the above games:
– Sterling came off after 60 mins v Man Utd
– De Bruyne came off after 90 mins v Man Utd
– Sterling came off after 87 mins v Tottenham
– De Bruyne came off after 84 mins v Arsenal
Liverpool had less possession and fewer attempts on goal yet they deserved the win such was the lack of threat from Man City.
The two-time Premier League champions just didn’t do enough and that’s a combination of Liverpool’s organised defence and City’s poor attacking display, particularly during the first half. They now find themselves fifth and 10-points off Chelsea while Liverpool remain six-points behind as like a treadmill, they have to run just to stand still in the title race at the moment.
The Reds and fellow challengers will be hoping that Tottenham can finally put an end to Chelsea’s winning run as the Blues go in search of equaling a league record 14 on Wednesday. But Monday will see both Liverpool and Man City take on Sunderland (away) and Burnley (home) respectively to potentially add further pressure on Antonio Conte’s men.
EPL Results (Gameweek 19):
Hull 2-2 Everton
Burnley 4-1 Sunderland
Chelsea 4-2 Stoke
Leicester 1-0 West Ham
Man Utd 2-1 Middlesbrough
Southampton 1-2 West Brom
Swansea 0-3 Bournemouth
Liverpool 1-0 Man City
Watford 1-4 Tottenham
Arsenal 2-0 Crystal Palace