The Reds’ widemen were given freedom to roam the City half at Anfield on Sunday, and their incisive runs and clever link-up play inhibited the visitors and proved to be decisive
By Tom Maston
If Liverpool’s previous nine Premier League victories had allowed them to dream of glory, then their 10th on the bounce, against arguably their biggest title rivals, may well have their supporters expecting a first league title for 24 years.
Full of the pacey counterattacks that have become a signature of Brendan Rodgers’ side this season, they tore Manchester City apart for long stages, and if not for a David Silva-inspired comeback from the Citizens they could have secured a fairly routine victory.
As it was, Philippe Coutinho’s fine finish after Vincent Kompany’s error proved enough to secure the points for the Reds, but despite a typically breathtaking start they did not have it all their own way.
Goals, and lots of them, have been a feature of Liverpool’s play this season, with the three on Sunday taking them to 93 for the campaign. They have regularly struck early on in games, finding the net 56 times in the opening 45 minutes of league games so far this term. That stat is made even more impressive by the fact that no other team has scored more than 37 in the opening period of matches.
Against Manchester City, they were set to come up against one of the league’s meanest defences, and one which were yet to concede a goal inside the opening 15 minutes this season.
So for Raheem Sterling to open the scoring in front of the Kop after just six minutes will have sent shockwaves running through the City defence. With Kompany not fully fit and a backline that looked susceptible to any kind of pace, they never recovered.
Though as a team they made 23 interceptions – with Pablo Zabaleta making 10 on his own at right-back – they were only able to make 65 per cent of their tackles successfully.
The fact that they were unable to keep the ball in their own half also inhibited them; they surrendered possession 20 times in that area, inviting more pressure. Only once this season has their passing accuracy in their own half been lower than the 86% they mustered on Sunday.
The confidence of the away side was largely hit by their inability to pick up the runs of Sterling and Coutinho as the wide men ran riot.
To call the Liverpool pair wingers would be to do them a disservice. Rodgers sets them up to start out wide but in truth they are given the freedom to pop up wherever they best see fit.
Coutinho’s touch map clearly shows his starting position on the right-hand side, but the sheer number of times he picked up the ball in a central role shows just how difficult a task Pellegrini’s defenders had in keeping tabs on him. Even when he was moved to the left he continued to probe centrally.
It is impossible to tell from Sterling’s map where exactly the youngster was supposed to be playing, but far from the anarchy it suggests in isolation, as part of this Liverpool system it just seems to work. Like Coutinho, he swapped wings in the second half but continued to drive through the middle in tandem with Suarez.
When you compare those two with those of City’s widemen, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri, it is clear to see why they failed to have the same impact. Both were glued to their respective touchlines and were largely anonymous because of it.
Rodgers’ tactics of allowing his creative players freedom to express themselves has paid dividends in recent weeks and especially here. It helped swamp City, restricting everybody in their defensive roles and blunted the wingers’ impact.
But the players are not just handed free roles, attacking at will; Coutinho made a season-high total of five successful tackles – more than anyone else in red on the day.
Fortunately for the visitors, they did have one man who was allowed to roam in the guise of the mercurial Silva. A goal and an assist from the Spaniard almost stole the City a point, and though he missed a gilt-edged chance to complete a remarkable comeback and possibly seal the title, his performance cannot be overlooked.
No player attempted more passes than his 65 during the crucial encounter, with his accuracy an impressive 85% in such a high-pressure (and high-pressing) setting. Though he wasn’t able to make as many successful dribbles as he would have liked, with just one run leading to anything of note, he was certainly the pick of the City side as they stretched their number of second-half goals this season to a Premier League high of 49.
He truly thrived following the appearance of James Milner from the bench. The game turned in City’s favour almost as soon as the England man replaced Navas, as he created Silva’s goal and contributed to a number of attacks as well as providing a more workmanlike presence in the middle. Milner is regularly overlooked by club and country in terms of starting on a consistent basis, but his showing at Anfield gave another example of his importance to England with the World Cup on the horizon.
Navas could barely take his eyes off the Kop during the pre-match Hillsborough tributes, and whether he was caught up in the emotion of the day is unclear, but Milner certainly improved his team after his introduction. As an example, he was successful with 79% of his passes in the Liverpool half, a clear improvement on the 64% that Navas managed.
As it was, the showings of both Silva and Milner were not enough to salvage anything from the game for City. The two proved to be the exception rather than the norm. Liverpool were able to call upon a number of individuals at the top of their game as they grabbed a 10th consecutive league victory.
Of all Coutinho’s touches on the day, his sweet strike following Kompany’s hashed clearance proved decisive. The Brazilian was pushed further forward – and over to the left – following Daniel Sturridge’s withdrawal, but he popped up in the middle once again to keep up Liverpool’s fine record against the top teams.
In their five home meetings with top seven sides they have scored 17 goals and conceded just three. If they can maintain that record against Chelsea in their next home match then the title will be almost within their grasp.
If they are to secure that first league trophy since 1990, Liverpool’s performances will have to match the irresistibly high level that they have set since the turn of the year, but if we have learnt anything from Rodgers’ firebrands this season it is that can turn their hand to practically anything.
Stats and graphics provided by Opta