From Manchester City's squad being stretched to Liverpool's new-look midfield still finding its way, Alex Keble analyses the tactical battle between the two managers in one of the BIGGEST modern-day rivalries in the Premier League.
A chilly and constrictive 1-1 draw didn’t quite live up to the pre-match hype and for that reason alone it is Liverpool, ending Man City’s 23-match winning streak in all competitions at the Etihad Stadium, who leave the more contented side.
This match-up is normally a chaotic end-to-end mess, but thanks perhaps to the early kick-off slot, the proximity to the international break, or perhaps deliberate conservatism from Jurgen Klopp, it was considerably less frenetic than usual.
And in keeping with that contrast, the explosive passage of play that ultimately defined the contest – Alisson’s save and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s equaliser moments later - was itself a kind of rejection; the heroes and villains playing against type in the context of the 90 minutes.
Alisson wobbled throughout but pulled off an exceptional save from Erling Haaland. The City No 9 became the fastest player to 50 goals in Premier League history but that miss was a more telling contribution. Jeremy Doku had dominated in his battle against Alexander-Arnold but the Liverpool right-back ultimately made the headlines.
If the Liverpool goal felt a little upside down, Man City supporters might think it was a sign from the universe that something was wrong. They could – and will feel they should - have been 2-0 up just minutes earlier when Alisson was adjudged to have been fouled as he fumbled a cross turned in by Ruben Dias.
Nevertheless City had the chances to put this game to bed after a controlled second-half performance, their superior Expected Goals (xG) score of 1.75 to 0.63 telling the story.
But Liverpool dug deep, defended for their lives after the equaliser and snatched a vital point.
Here’s what we learned from the match:
Liverpool’s midfield decisive for both goals
From a tactical perspective the game was ultimately decided by the configuration of Liverpool’s new-look central midfield which, given Klopp substituted all three of them during the match, we can safely say is still a work in progress.
Throughout the first half Man City found it too easy to play through the lines, starting with Rodri and building out to Doku, and although that was partly because Klopp’s 4-5-1 didn’t block the passing lane into Rodri, it also said a lot about his No 8s.
In fairness, Man City at the Etihad are the best team in the world at keeping the ball, but Liverpool could have expected more from their midfielders. The pair amassed just one successful tackle and zero interceptions in the first 45 minutes.
What’s more, Haaland’s goal came from Nathan Ake breaking the lines by carrying the ball far too easily around Szoboszlai (No 8 - small arrow), while Alexis Mac Allister (No 10 - big arrow) was out of position and should have closed the angle to Haaland.
Unlike Jones, he was showing for the ball in tight spaces, evading Man City pressure and carrying the ball dangerously into the opposition half. It was the kind of forward thrust Liverpool needed to unlock a claustrophobic contest that Man City had been carefully controlling.
And it led directly to the equaliser. It was Gravenberch (No 38) who weaved through a crowd to launch Liverpool’s counter-attack seconds after Haaland’s shot was saved by Alisson, indirectly setting up Alexander-Arnold’s (No 66) superbly-taken goal.
Trent has last laugh in Doku duel
Speaking of which, it didn’t quite fit the pattern for Liverpool’s right-back to have such a big impact.
That’s not to say he had a bad game, far from it: Alexander-Arnold won more possessions than any other player, with 10, and was quietly effective.
However, for most of the 90 minutes it was the man he was supposed to be neutralising, Doku, who stole the show, completing more dribbles, with 11, than any player has managed in a Premier League match since September 2021 – and the most since records began (in 2006/07) against Liverpool.
Doku dribbles v Liverpool
Green circles = successful dribbles, red circles = unsuccessful dribbles
Every time the ball came out to Doku (and there was no doubt Pep Guardiola had instructed his players to clip balls out to the Belgian whenever possible), he looked dangerous and Liverpool’s defence looked terrified.
His brilliant turn past Harvey Elliott and low cross gave Haaland the chance to make it 2-0 seconds before the equaliser; Doku’s dribbling teed up Julian Alvarez for a shot he should have buried; and the controversial moment when Alisson spilt the ball was from a corner earned by Doku’s trickery.
Haaland breaks another record
Haaland has become the fastest player to score 50 Premier League goals, obliterating Andrew Cole’s record of 65 matches by doing so in just 48 appearances.
It was a slightly scuffed shot that Alisson should have kept out – in keeping with the Brazilian’s up-and-down performance.
Indeed it was his second error of the move. Alisson’s attempt to quickly release Mohamed Salah on the counter-attack led to a frantic swipe at the ball, gifting possession back to Man City at a moment when Liverpool’s defence was out of position.
Coupled with the dropped cross and several other misplaced passes (he completed 67.5 per cent of his passes, down from a season average of 85.4 per cent), Alisson needed that big save from Haaland to redeem himself.
But arguably he could have been put under greater pressure had Guardiola helped Haaland with some fresh legs in the second half.
The Man City manager didn’t make a single substitution, although in fairness injuries had left him with no senior attacking players to bring on.
Man City have flaws - title race is wide open
Those injuries have left Man City looking notably weaker this season compared to last, and today’s 1-1 draw means Guardiola’s side have now won just three of their last seven Premier League games, collecting 11 points in that time.
Indeed, following a 4-4 draw with Chelsea before the international break, Man City have now failed to win back-to-back Premier League matches for the third time in 2023 – which is as many times as in the previous three years combined.
That seems significant, and conforms to the sense that Man City are no longer imperious, a feeling that will only grow now their 23-game winning streak at the Etihad is over.
As for Liverpool, the central midfield remains a work in progress and one still subject to constant change, although supporters will be pleased with the defensive sturdiness of Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip, seemingly back to their best after a difficult 2022/23.
A strong defence was the bedrock of Liverpool’s title success back in 2019/20. On today’s showing, when they went toe-to-toe with the champions to maintain just a one-point gap, it looks like they have the raw ingredients to challenge Guardiola’s side.