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Liverpool v Man City: The midfield battle

Manchester City emerged from Anfield with their unbeaten record over 2011/12 intact but not without a fight as Liverpool gave them arguably their toughest test (in the Premier League at least) of the season so far and were thankful to goalkeeper Joe Hart for a couple of smart saves late in the game to preserve the draw.

It was an absorbing game, fast-paced, full of incident and with both sides willing to take risks throughout the game to get the win. Both sides adopted a similar set up heading into the game; a notional 4-5-1 with a small forward ahead of two forward thinking midfielders (slightly different with Liverpool’s pair operating from a wider position) ahead of a central trio.

Whilst both sides will feel they could have got the win, they will also know defeat was a possibility so a point was a satisfactory return – particularly for Manchester City given the pressure they faced in the latter stages. Credit to Liverpool though as no side has managed to take the game to Manchester City this season whilst simultaneously being effective in preventing their much vaunted attack from creating at will, as the numbers show:

Of particular note from the head to head numbers (above) is City’s relatively low number of shots and chances; almost 50% less than their season game average but perhaps no surprise given Liverpool lead the Premier League with a low 41 chances allowed heading into the game. City’s passing numbers were also down on their season average and were under 50% possession for only the third time this season.

What in particular was telling from the game is the battle in the midfield as both sides traded blows throughout and at times each enjoyed the upper hand. In the first-half, Manchester City held sway with Gareth Barry, David Silva and Yaya Toure composed and controlled, but having equalised so quickly after falling behind Liverpool came out strong after the break and in the main looked the more dominant side in the second-half.

It is the respective central trios – Gareth Barry, Yaya Toure and James Milner for City and Lucas Leiva, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson for Liverpool – where the battles really took place and the numbers make for fascinating reading:

Post-match, Lucas Leiva has grabbed both the headlines and the plaudits for his performance and whilst it was his defensive contribution that helped stymie City’s attacking threat, his offensive contribution in support of Charlie Adam was also telling and it was truly an all-round performance from him. The standout areas were his ability to win possession (13) and the ball (7 interceptions and 7 tackles) but from an attacking sense 15 final-third entries and a 95% pass completion rate (39/41) in City’s half, with the overwhelming majority of these positive in being played forward.

For Manchester City, the standout midfield was another player who at times is maligned in Gareth Barry. With Nigel de Jong not selected the expectation was that he would slot in to the ‘anchor’ role with Milner and Yaya adopting a more advanced role. The numbers suggest otherwise though: not only did Barry perform well in the defensive aspects of the game, but his influence further down the field was telling and he was more influential than either of his team-mates in the opposition half, completing 40/46 in Liverpool’s half (50% more than in his own half). Added to this Barry had more final-third entries (13) and passes than either Yaya Toure or Milner.

Both Lucas and Barry – although standing out – were far from standalone performers with both Adam and Henderson and Yaya and Milner effective and the individual midfield numbers illustrate quite how fluid and capable the respective midfields were and a large factor in contributing to a game in which both sides posted a continual threat thanks to the platform that the central trios provided, but ultimately also ensured neither side could steal a march on the other.

Managing Editor of SBNation's Manchester City blog 'Bitter and Blue' and author of 'Man City 365'.
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