Jurgen Klopp’s bold team selection for Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester City heightened the feeling of a changed dynamic within the rivalry that has come to define the present era in English football and its two main tactical protagonists.
Pep Guardiola has run through a range of configurations during his City tenure when confronted by the man with whom he began a compelling duel in their Bundesliga days.
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund first placed the high priests of juego de posicion and gegenpressing in direct competition, the two strategic approaches that still dominate elite European football.
According to positional data collected by Opta, in each of his previous 11 encounters with Guardiola in England, Klopp wheeled out his trusty 4-3-3 – high intensity, high pressing and highly successful.
But prolific Anfield newboy Diogo Jota presented a conundrum. A midweek hat-trick against Atalanta made the Portugal forward hard to leave out, even if it meant breaking up the esteemed from three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
Easy. Just play all four of them.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 8, 2020
Salah reaps rewards for flying start
Klopp’s call soon appeared as calculated on the sodden Manchester turf as it had cavalier on paper.
The equation weighed up by the Liverpool boss was a City defence buoyed by three consecutive clean sheets but unproven under prolonged scrutiny was worth the risk of a thorough examination.
City are not the free-scoring machine of their 100-point season in 2017-18 or the titanic tussle with Liverpool over the subsequent 12 months. In the first seven games of this Premier League season, City have scored only 10 times – 17 fewer than at the same stage last season. Before Sunday’s match, their xG per game figure of 1.3 was their lowest in the competition since Opta began putting together such data in 2013-14.
The Reds were relentless early on, skidding balls in behind City’s defensive line. The presence of a front four did not dissuade full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson from their usual raids.
While 51.8 per cent of City’s first-half attacks came down the left flank where Raheem Sterling roved with intent against his former employers, Liverpool’s assaults were split more or less evenly across the right, left and central channels.
One point is better than nothing in a tense game like this but definitely could have claimed more today. Time for international break and we go again pic.twitter.com/IX5yqcqboH
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) November 8, 2020
Kyle Walker’s clumsy foul on Mane for Salah’s opening penalty was the culmination of an opening 13 minutes under siege.
Roads to Rodri closed off
The escape route Guardiola mapped out for his men was blocked off, with Salah and Firmino allowing central defenders Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias to have possession, while blocking off passes to holding midfielder Rodri.
The Spain international was named man of the match for a robust showing against Sheffield United last weekend but he toiled badly here. He won one of seven duels and a pass completion rate of 83.6 per cent dropped to 72 per cent in the opposition half, meaning he fulfilled neither of his briefs to provide protection and control.
Even for the most part of his eight career losses to Klopp – more than he has suffered to any other coach – the sense has been of Guardiola setting the terms of engagement. That was not the case here, but a City side in transition have shown they can operate in a more circumspect manner in recent weeks.
The space Klopp afforded to Kevin De Bruyne allowed the master playmaker to arrow a pass into the feet of Gabriel Jesus, whose Dennis Bergkamp impression illuminated a dank evening and lifted City.
De Bruyne’s searching cross met Joe Gomez’s elbow to earn a penalty that was nowhere near as accurate.
1 – Kevin De Bruyne’s penalty is the first to miss the target completely in a @premierleague game since October 2018, when in the same fixture at Anfield, Riyad Mahrez blazed over against Liverpool for Manchester City. Spooky. #MCILIV pic.twitter.com/OesSCn9NSk
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 8, 2020
It was a glaring miss Guardiola would be left to rue after a Jesus header was the closest either side came in a second half of few chances.
A 1-1 draw where adrenaline gave way to attrition leaves City 11th after seven matches, but with a game in hand on Liverpool, five points better off in third.
Laporte and Dias taking City back to basics
Sections of the City fanbase have complained over Guardiola’s failure to unleash a talent-stacked team as he once did. But without David Silva’s quicksilver creativity and Leroy Sane’s explosive wing-play – two world-class talents who loved these games – they are a different beast. Seven shots was their lowest in a Premier League fixture at the Etihad Stadium since February 2010, also against Liverpool
The teeth may not be so sharp, but there is added streetwise bulk. A combined outlay in the region of £120million means Laporte and Dias should provide reassurance, but plenty of City’s other high-profile buys at centre-back confirm price tags are not guarantees.
After that rocky opening, they shut Liverpool down impressively. Laporte’s four clearances were more than any other player on display, he and Dias won all of their aerial duels and the Portugal defender completed 93.7 per cent of his passes.
While Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan could not provide the requisite control in front of them, losing possession 25 times between them, Laporte and Dias brought the steel.
If Klopp’s team selection on Sunday suggested a return to the heavy metal football on which he turned down the volume on to achieve greater clarity, Guardiola showed further evidence of a growing pragmatic streak. Following the 5-2 loss to Leicester City, his team have scored once in each of their subsequent Premier League games.
As the quality and entertainment waned after the break, it occurred that grinding rather than flying to wins might have be the way to go as a compelling rivalry shifts its shape again in this strangest of seasons.