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Manchester City vs Liverpool: Pressing pitfalls and the exploitation of space

It's a heavyweight clash at the Etihad on Saturday and RealSport discuss the tactical set-ups and structures that may decide the game.


Both sides go into the game with seven points out of nine and aspirations to win the Premier League title.

This fixture last season ended as a 1-1 draw at the Etihad, with that now infamous Adam Lallana miss and Roberto Firmino pre-celebration.

However, it was duly regarded as one game of the season with both sides going toe-to-toe in a true 'you attack, we attack' thriller.

Chances are, it will be the same this Saturday lunchtime.

Liverpool's gegenpressing

Last season, Liverpool finished top of the mini-league out of all the teams who finished in the top six, accumulating 20 points from these ten games. They were unbeaten against their rivals and Manchester United were the only top six side they failed to beat.

But why?

This is largely down to Jurgen Klopp's gegenpressing style and the big teams falling into its carefully planned trap.

Liverpool use a high, ball orientated press. This means players will often leave their positional zones to gang up on the opposition player who has the ball, as a group, suffocating him into giving it away.

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It is a high risk, high reward system and largely requires opposition teams to set up with a high line, leaving space in behind and aiming to play out from the back, pertaining to counter-attacking opportunities.

Most of the big sides play this way. They leave their line high, aim to play their way out from the back and play through the press. It led to Liverpool dominating sides such as Tottenham and Arsenal last season.

Ironically, the only side in the top six of last season who the Reds failed to beat was Manchester United, who sat back, stayed compact and didn't give Liverpool the opportunity to win the ball at the back, playing over the top of their press rather than through it.

Manchester City vs Gegenpressing

Pep Guardiola has always been an advocate for possession football, insistent on his defence and goalkeeper to play out from the back.

Knowing this is what Liverpool want, it will be interesting to see if City alter their tactics slightly and play more direct.

However, the issue last season was the limited attributes of their fullbacks, who could not cope with Guardiola's demanding style of football, ultimately leaving the centre-backs exposed on the counter.

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With Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy now occupying the flanks, both defenders who come from high-pressing systems themselves, the story could read differently. Both have the pace and stamina to track back and offer defensive support against the counter.

The pitfalls of pressing

Both sides work best when there is space to work in. Liverpool's style and, at times, almost sole reliance on their gegenpressing to be their creative outlet can also be their downfall.

The ball-orientated press is a risky game if a team can either play through or over the press. This is due to the high amount of players that Liverpool push high up the pitch to win the ball.

If they fail to retrieve possession, three or four players can then be caught high, and behind the ball.

Space then left for the other team to exploit in front of their defence can devastate, especially for a side with the creative talents of City.

Exploiting space

Effectively, the risk is that Liverpool can fall victim to their own trap.

Creative midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva can find spaces to exploit in the tightest of midfields. If you afford them time, they will hurt you.

Not only that, City, similar to Liverpool, use a front three that is filled with pace, skill and end product. Allow these players to get the run on you and they will punish.

City like to occupy the five vertical lanes to stretch the opposition; wide right, wide left, inside right, inside left and the centre.

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Liverpool, as a team who like to gamble and push players high without the ball, can often be stretched if a side occupies these five vertical lines like City aim to do.

Width is crucial to Guardiola's side as it allows his central players to flourish. If Liverpool's gegenpressing fails to prevent City's build-up play, then Klopp's side must remain tight and use a mid to low block defensive structure, which means sitting deeper than usual and occupying all five vertical spaces.

Wide men Sadio Mane and Mo Salah may have more defensive work to do than normal to ensure Liverpool cover the width of the pitch when in their defensive shape.

A draw

Therefore, this is arguably the most intriguing battle of the season.

It's clear that both sides strengths can be exploited through their weaknesses, but it remains to be seen who will gain that advantage.

What is almost a certainty, however, is that it will be an exciting, unpredictable affair.

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Harry Brooks

Harry graduated from UAL in Elephant and Castle with a 2:1 BA Hons degree in sports journalism.

He has an NCTJ diploma and also coaches football and teaches PE in schools.

Harry loves to talk football tactics!

Manchester City vs Liverpool: Pressing pitfalls and the exploitation of space

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