Incredible. Perhaps the game of this Premier League season, an unbelievable day at Anfield which drew out a dizzying blend of raw emotion, massive goals, controversy, bravery and stupidity, all hinging on three points and a potential league title for the victors. It was the men in red who made it ten successive league wins, after blitzing City for the first half hour, threatening to do what they did to Everton, Arsenal and Spurs before them. However as pointed out by Brendan Rodgers after the game, there is a reason City were favourites to win the title, he said ‘they are a team of top players, and top players respond’.
I’ve used the yellow lines to illustrate how pinned the back four were during the first half hour in particular. Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez had probably their worst games this season, however this was because the back line made a point of securing this zone. As I mentioned with the Tottenham game, if the defence worry too much about the front two they will sacrifice a lot of space for the midfielders, which gave Coutinho and Sterling a lot of joy from their deeper positions.
Mamadou Sakho made a point of staying tight to Edin Dzeko and nearly paid the price for getting a bit too carried away in this process. Meanwhile Jordan Henderson was not as galavanting in his play, and made more of a job in stifling Yaya Toure in the early stages. Manchester City were suffocating while Liverpool piled on to create chance after chance.
Without making any significant changes, City simply picked themselves up and fought back, and did it to devastating effect with David Silva grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and forcing the game back to 2-2 in front of a shell-shocked Kop. At this stage it looked certain that Liverpool had wasted their opportunity, and it would only be a matter of time before Pellegrini’s men wrapped up a winner.
This occasion however, was a case of Liverpool pouncing on a moment of weakness, during a weak period of their own and sucking themselves out of their downward spiral which had worsened as the clock ticked on.
Steven Gerrard described this game as one of the longest 90 minutes of his career, looking up at the clock in the corner of the stadium and feeling like it was running backwards. Holding onto the lead from the 6th minute after such an incredible start, and a number of squandered opportunities that he feared they would soon regret.
Early City Meltdown
Liverpool were explosive from the first whistle. As mentioned, the front two created the space for Sterling to play which you can see above. As Suarez sets and spins, Zabaleta is in the top left corner tracking back, and Javi Garcia has to fill in as a make-shift right back because Suarez is now sprinting away into that zone. Meanwhile, Kompany and Demichelis frantically drop off while Clichy tucks in.
Here you can see how Suarez making his run wide instead of central affects the back line, they are stretched, and Sterling can take a run at Javi Garcia 1v1, hardly a match.
By the end of the move, Liverpool have four bodies in the box looking for a sneaky ball through, which forces a desperate clearance from Demichelis, which leads to the Gerrard free header, and the Skrtel goal.
The series of defensive mishaps in the build up to this goal was astounding. Perhaps it was Yaya Toure who had been assigned the duty of marking Steven Gerrard on corners, which resulted in his free header. This doesn’t really add up though, as Liverpool rotate their corner kick takers, and still doesn’t account for why Gerrard was left to his own devices.
A moment earlier, there were five City players around Gerrard, Henderson and Sakho – Kompany walks off to mark Skrtel, David Silva hovers on the edge (presumably zonal) and doesn’t mark, and Edin Dzeko walks off to do the six yard box, leaving Garcia and Zabaleta with the three most plain-sighted threats.
What makes matters worse, is that Garcia (see above) is the only Manchester City player who picks up on Gerrard being left free, and is screaming at his team mates to rectify this five seconds before the corner is swung in. He feels he cannot leave Sakho, but the fact remains he watches Gerrard go and win that header, instead of trying his best to do a half and half job on both Sakho and Gerrard (better than nothing).
David Silva confuses his priorities – he decides the edge of the box is more dangerous than Steven Gerrard on his own eight yards out, and City deserved to concede from this. The following corner was not as bad, but Coutinho still made a mess of Cities organisation and pulled out of some space for Skrtel to run into, where Kompany made it very easy for him to escape and plant his header beyond Hart.
City actually improved after losing Yaya Toure (anything would have been an improvement though, as they had barely got going). The combination of Toure and Fernandinho is two box-to-box midfielders who dovetail as a partnership, and will each attack or defend as much as the position of the other allows. With Toure being slightly more cavalier however, it placed a burden on Fernandinho to be responsible defensively, and the introduction of Javi Garcia relieved this weight from his shoulders and allowed him to play his natural game.
The other switch involved bringing on James Milner for Jesus Navas. The purpose of this switch was to overload the centre more often, as Navas is relatively limited in his attacking approach, hugging the touchline and attacking from wide areas, reluctant to drift central. Not only did Milner bring more ‘legs and dirty work’, but he also improved the quality of the build up play in the final third, a massive component in City’s comeback.
The point Brendan Rodgers raised after the game was that there came a point during the match when their diamond became redundant. City had worked out how to combat their midfield disadvantage, and were now attacking Liverpool’s weakness – their lack of presence in the wide areas.
He spoke of the need to ‘block up the sides’, and the injury to Daniel Sturridge was a catalyst for this change. Joe Allen came on to steady things in the midfield – his composure, discipline and calming influence was not spoken of highly enough post-match. This shifted Coutinho to the left, giving him less defensive responsibility, and the opportunity to drift in off the sides like he did for his winning goal. Sterling also shifted out from central to right, leaving Luis Suarez as the lone figure up front.
This change allowed Coutinho to protect Flanagan, and Sterling to protect Johnson in the areas where City were beginning to slice Liverpool open far too regularly. Gerrard played a hybrid position, often looking like a third centre back for large parts of the game, drifting forward in support as the third midfielder at other times.
The statistics reflect a fairly evenly matched contest, however this was certainly not the case. This was the classic case of two halves, total annihilation from Liverpool in the first (enjoying 60+% possession), and Manchester City descending into dominance in the second, finishing with a massive 150 successful final third passes.
City opted for crosses (21 attempted) as their major threat, the classic example of Milner getting to the byline and cutting back to Silva for the first goal. Liverpool opted for dribbles (26 attempted) and aggressive play – Raheem Sterling made a total of 6 successful dribbles (out of 8), which was 4 more than any other player on the pitch.
I doubt there is anybody reading this who didn’t see the game. However for anyone who didn’t see the reactions at the final whistle, it was abundantly clear what this win meant to the players, fans and staff. It was a combination of determination, perseverance and the occasion which eventually pulled Liverpool through.
Even the strongest of anti-Liverpool neutrals couldn’t help but feel a sense of emotion and delight for Steven Gerrard, for whom this has meant everything since he first put on a red shirt. He could be seen looking up at the sky seconds before kick-off, almost in prayer, and his reaction at the final whistle was something anybody who understands the game (especially anyone who plays) would admire. In potentially one of the biggest moments for his club in the last 24 years, he immediately screwed his team mates heads back on by huddling them together and telling them ‘this is gone now’. And right he is.
That victory is worth nothing if Liverpool go to Norwich next week and throw away points, absolutely nothing, and Gerrard spent post-match making a point of that in hilarious fashion to Geoff Shreeves. He went on to tell him ‘I think you know exactly what I said to those players in the huddle’. Perhaps he was simply trying to add fuel to the fire, as all journalists do, but the way Gerrard batted away the ridiculous questions made one thing clear about his mentality:
People and players who think that way at the top level get nowhere. You can never afford to be complacent even for a second, and the moment you let your guard down and assume you have something won is the moment you get punished in any sport. Well done Steven Gerrard.