Liverpool knew it was coming. For one whole week, they waited for the onslaught. Manchester City had been overwhelmed, beaten 3-0 at Anfield on a typically raucous European night. But there was a second leg to come at the Etihad. And, given Liverpool threw away a three-goal lead away to Sevilla earlier on in this season’s Champions League, there was genuine reason to believe that this quarter-final was far from over.
Tonight, in the second leg, Manchester City did all they could. They certainly couldn’t have made a better start. Within just two minutes, they were 1-0 up. Raheem Sterling ushered Virgil van Dijk off the ball and went on to receive before playing in Gabriel Jesus. Goal. One down, two to go. What followed was one of the tensest halves of footballing cat and mouse seen at the top level in recent years.
City had their chances. Bernardo Silva, coming inside from his right-sided role, found the post with a wonderful left-footed strike. Then Leroy Sané, wounded from a first leg in which he was tackled and harried out of the game by Trent Alexander-Arnold, had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside.
But Liverpool saw out the storm with a mix of good fortune, hard defensive work and refereeing controversy.
The second half simply couldn’t be any worse than the first as far as they were concerned. And, gradually asserting some kind of control on the contest, Jürgen Klopp’s side found opportunities of their own. They took them, first a Mohamed Salah chip, then a calm Roberto Firmino finish, to secure a 2-1 win on the night, a 5-1 win on aggregate, and a place in the Champions League semi-finals.
Here are five things we learned from tonight’s absorbing clash.
GUARDIOLA BOLDNESS PAYS OFF
Guardiola’s boldness was once again on show tonight in the way he set his team up for arguably their biggest game of the season. With a mountain to climb, there was no way to avoid risks. Instead the Catalan accepted them, and put out a team that, even by his standards, was outrageously attack-minded.
Many were rightly startled reading through the lineups before the match kicked off. After City’s goalkeeper, defensive three and Fernandinho as the shield came a series of attacking midfielders, wingers and forwards. Where on earth, asked the collective footballing unconscious, would they all play?
As it turned out, Guardiola played two natural wingers – Bernardo Silva and Sané – instead of wing-backs. He also stuck by Gabriel Jesus up front, with support coming from Sterling. While ultimately the move didn’t pay off with a win and progress, it did reaffirm that Manchester City’s boss is one of the most audacious tacticians around.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
For many City fans, the main question after the game will be ‘What could have been?’ had Sané’s goal been allowed. The German finished from close range after a Loris Karius punch was ricocheted back into danger by James Milner, only for the strike to be ruled out for offside by referee Mateu Lahoz.
To say that this was the difference between the two teams on the night would be naïve in the extreme – Liverpool still went and scored two perfectly legitimate second-half goals to seal the result, after all – but the timing of this moment was critical.
It happened on 42 minutes, with Manchester City riding the crest of a wave, and had it stood they would have come out for the second period with momentum and a more real sense of belief that they could topple the deficit from the first leg.
LIVERPOOL STRUGGLE AGAINST WIDER CITY
In the first leg, Guardiola was perhaps guilty of eschewing his usual bravery in favour of a more stable setup. With his side’s 4-3 defeat at Anfield in Premier League action back in January still fresh in the memory, he lined his team up to ensure numbers around the ball in build-up. However, this had the negative impact of further congesting the centre and playing into Liverpool’s pressing ambitions.
This time around, Guardiola went for natural width in Sané and Bernardo Silva, opting to make the pitch bigger when attacking. This was a risky ploy, often meaning his back three were up against Liverpool’s pacey front trident. But, for much of the match, the move paid off.
Using two natural wingers had the effect of making the pitch bigger. As well as completing four dribbles and three key passes, Silva offered an excellent out-ball on the right and, with his quality on the ball, he was more than willing and able to receive passes over the top near the touchline. All of this meant Liverpool’s centralised midfield press wasn’t quite so impactful.
CITY OVERLOAD AND SWITCH PLAY
Kevin De Bruyne’s role was also tweaked as Guardiola sought to play around or through Liverpool’s exceptional pressing system. The Belgian, who was deployed through the centre last week, often pulled wide right tonight. This was done to take him outside of pressure, giving him more time and space to get on the ball.
The results of this were clear both statistically: De Bruyne had 147 touches compared to last week’s 117, and he made 115 passes compared to last week’s 93. Tactically, this ploy also had some nice consequences as far as City were concerned.
Firstly, it enabled them to build out from the back more comfortably. Instead of playing risky passes into a congested centre, they could go wide to their main playmaker.
Secondly, the player’s movement to the right drew Liverpool over and allowed for one of Guardiola’s favourite manoeuvres – overloading on one side to switch to the other, where Sané could get into 1v1 situations against Alexander-Arnold.
SALAH ROTATION HELPS LIVERPOOL
The final major modification of this match came not from Guardiola, but from Klopp. It was subtle, but effective, as it involved rotating Salah’s position. The Egyptian was brought inside from the right wing early in the second half, with Sadio Mané going to his old role and Roberto Firmino moving out left.
Some may have seen this as nothing more than a basic switch-up to try and discombobulate the Manchester City defence. But it actually had more influence on the game than that. With their fastest attacker playing more centrally, Liverpool had more of an outlet for quick counter-attacks from deep.
In response to this move, City’s defensive line appeared to back off ever so slightly, perhaps wary of the speed of their opposition’s new focal point. This helped Liverpool to build counters, with more space in the final third to exploit.