For the better part of half a year, Manchester City had looked, and indeed been, unbeatable. Yet now, with fifteen minutes to go at Anfield, they found themselves three goals down.
Andrew Robertson, Liverpool’s left back, roared forward with the approval of half of Merseyside. Nicolas Otamendi, perturbed by Robertson’s pressure, tumbled clumsily to the ground on the edge of his own box. The referee’s whistle ensured City’s deficit didn’t expand yet further.
Pep Guardiola’s side would pull two goals back in the closing ten minutes but that moment, with Liverpool already three goals in front, summed up neatly how Jurgen Klopp’s Reds had thrown City off their guard.
Imperious all season long, they found themselves under siege via a relentless red wave. Three goals in nine second-half minutes all came through Liverpool’s advanced harrying.
Robertson, a fullback, popping up in the visitors’ box on the opposite side of the field was a glaring example of the lengths Klopp had asked his men to go to.
Undoubtedly, gegenpressing will take a sizeable role when the two sides face off in their upcoming Champions League quarter-final ties.
Guardiola and Klopp have long been active proponents of a high, aggressive press and to look at their current club sides is to see two teams that have steadily grown accustomed to the tactic under their respective managers.
Guardiola’s City – viewed by many, already, as one of the Premier League’s greatest ever sides – are perhaps world football’s most accomplished current proponents of the high press. Across the season, they have consistently proven adept at the ‘transitions’ that form the focal point of their manager’s footballing worldview.
There is little reason to believe they will move too far from that on Wednesday. What should result is a repeat of January’s enthralling tie, with both sides frantically seeking to regain the ball as quickly as possible. That was the case in the opening half hour of City’s 5-0 victory over the Reds back in September, a game skewed hugely by Sadio Mane’s sending off before half-time.
It is likely to be a tale of two attacking threes: in the red corner, Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino; in the blue corner, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus. Each of the three are comfortable running with the ball and all have scored double figures this season.
Yet while there is a wealth of talent on display, much will depend upon the performance of Firmino. It was he who was integral to Liverpool’s 4-3 winter victory, hassling and harrying as he did throughout, the epitome of leading from the front.
The Brazilian began his professional career as a defensive midfielder and he has carried traits he utilised there into his attacking role; he will act as the first line of defence and attack simultaneously.
Dejan Lovren, speaking to The Times earlier this week, lamented his belief that critics are ‘searching for [my] next mistake.’ Lovren, who retains a reputation for being error-prone, has largely been excellent for the Reds this season, yet mistakes against both Manchester United and Spurs have had many wondering about his concentration on the biggest stage.
Back in that 4-3 win at Anfield, Lovren found himself the subject of criticism again, primarily for his role in City’s third goal, whereby he missed the cross that fell to Ilkay Gundogan and was promptly poked home by the German midfielder.
That this partially overshadowed the rest of the Croatian’s performance would suggest he has a point about his critics. Whilst the front three garnered the pressing plaudits, Lovren too was a keen contributor to the wider gameplan, making six interceptions. Two of them came inside the opposing half, underlining the proactive nature of Klopp’s approach.
With Joel Matip out for the remainder of the season with a thigh problem, Jurgen Klopp now finds himself with little flexibility in the central defensive areas. However, Lovren’s performance in January suggests he is more suited to the plan that Liverpool will need to execute should they wish to run out victors again.
Similarly, Guardiola himself has a decision to make at the centre of defence. John Stones remains a doubt with a head injury, so the City boss must decide whether to risk his £50m man or stick with the experienced Vincent Kompany. Kompany is more likely to shrug off the physical pressures that so irked Stones last time around, but his lack of mobility and ageing legs are surely a huge concern for Guardiola.
With that in mind, he may well opt for Aymeric Laporte. The Spaniard performed ably on the left of a three in Saturday evening’s 3-1 victory over Everton, and with Danilo ready to step into the left fullback berth, it seems sensible that Laporte should get the nod. Indeed, that Everton win gave him something of a rehearsal for what awaits from Salah et al., pitting him as it did against the fleet-footed Theo Walcott.
An ability to remain calm under pressure and recycle the ball efficiently will be pivotal for both sides at the back, given the aggression and pace of the respective forwards on display.
It seems remiss, given the quality on display there, that no mention has yet been made of the importance of the midfield tussle. Whilst the high intensity of both sides’ pressing will mean that time on the ball in the centre of the field is at a premium, it remains that neither side will be able to pressure for 90 (or 180) minutes non-stop.
In January’s meeting, City profited from the tiring of their hosts. Both Mane and Firmino were substituted and, by the end, Liverpool were hanging on, unable to keep up the exertions that had propelled them into the lead. As a result, the likes of Kevin De Bruyne were given more space and, with De Bruyne’s ability to find space almost unrivalled, holes appeared in the Reds’ backline.
The presence of David Silva will exacerbate Klopp’s worries. Both Silva and De Bruyne are expert proponents of vertical passes, able to bypass numerous opposing players with one slick ball.
As the game wears on, Klopp’s side, who are likely to cede the possession battle anyway, will need to ensure that they keep a tight shape and do not allow the fluid movement of City’s front three to drag them out of position.
To that end, Klopp may well opt for James Milner alongside Jordan Henderson in midfield. Should he be fit, Emre Can is likely to start as the most advanced central midfielder; Milner would offer a more robust defensive presence than Georginio Wijnaldum and has the stamina required to support the likes of Salah and Mane in their attacking bursts.
Whatever the personnel decisions, this coming Wednesday and the following Tuesday are unlikely to be dull evenings.
In what is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated tussle between two English sides in the Champions League since Liverpool met Chelsea back in 2005, these two games will be far removed from the cagey defensive affairs that took place then.
Both Guardiola and Klopp prefer aggressive, attacking football. On the biggest stage, neither will seek to strip their approach back. It should make for a fascinating battle.
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