Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Liverpool's narrow 4-4-2, the space it creates with expansion and contraction

April 1, 2023 — Liverpool defended too narrowly against Manchester City when out of possession, which led to large amounts of space being open in the wide areas. Liverpool’s front six midfielders and forwards often became detached from their backline once the ball was played wide to either one of Man City’s center-midfielders or wingers.

Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, indicated what their defensive philosophy would be pre-match:

“The main thing against City is to cut off the passing options between the lines.”

Liverpool’s initial out of possession structure
Figure 1.1 - Liverpool’s initial out of possession structure; Alvarez should drop to help overload the midfield and escape the 2v1

From a static view, Liverpool accomplished what they initially set out to do. The double pivot and two central midfielders are being man-marked, and the passing lanes into the midfielders are completely blocked. To achieve this, they have to leave the wide spaces completely open with both full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, and central midfielders, Harvey Elliot and Jordan Henderson, tucked in. However, problems begin to arise once the ball is moved past Liverpool’s first and second line.

Figure 2.1 - Ball is played wide to Kevin De Bruyne, Fabinho and Andrew Robertson jump

Once Kevin De Bruyne makes a run out wide, stretching Liverpool’s midfield, full-back Andrew Robertson jumps to challenge him. Fabinho also jumps before the ball is played, creating a huge space centrally for Ilkay Gundogan. Now, both wings and the middle of the pitch are completely open, and Liverpool’s front six are detached from the back-line, making it far too easy for Manchester City on the break.

Figure 2.2 - Riyad Mahrez receives the ball then dribbles inside; Manchester City have the numerical advantage 4v3

Liverpool expand to cover the space once the ball is advanced into their defensive end. Rather than taking it to the corner, Riyad Mahrez elects to cut inside towards the other three Manchester City forwards. Julian Alvarez continues his run forward to create space behind him so that Ilkay Gundogan has room to receive the ball from Riyad Mahrez.

Figure 2.3 - Ilkay Gundogan plays the ball to Jack Grealish in space

Liverpool as a unit then contract on Ilkay Gundogan to try to win back the ball, but there’s enough room for the ball to be played out to Jack Grealish in space. Liverpool’s six defenders overcommitted to collapse on one player while leaving a runner open, which was a poor idea.

Figure 2.4 - Jack Grealish plays the ball to Julian Alvarez for the goal

Here is the TL;DR summary of the sequence of this play:

  • Figure 2.1: Six Liverpool player’s contract on Manchester City’s double pivot
  • Figure 2.2: Liverpool expand to cover space
  • Figure 2.3: Six Liverpool players contract on one player
  • Figure 2.4: Liverpool expand leaving the space open for Julian Alvarez to receive the ball and score

This is a common theme throughout the match. It’s a complete mess organizationally with the front six isolated from the back-line allowing Manchester City to take advantage of space wide by manipulating Liverpool with their movement from their initial positions. The contraction and expansion are symptoms of this disorganization as players improvise their defensive challenges, unsure of how to effectively win back the ball as a group. They ask themselves, ‘Should I be marking a man off-the-ball or should I challenge the ball carrier?’ and everyone defaults to challenging the ball carrier.

Figure 3.1 - Good view of the allocation of players and matchups

Liverpool commit too many players to defend the midfielders, leaving the full-backs isolated. In Figure 3.1, Liverpool committed six players to defend three midfielders, which left Trent Alexander-Arnold completely isolated in a 2v1 situation against Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish.

You may notice Kevin De Bruyne’s position on the left-hand side and wonder why he’s not on the right, as he was playing as a right center-midfielder on paper. In the second half, Manchester City made some adjustments to how Julian Alvarez, Kevin De Bruyne, and Ilkay Gundogan moved.

Figure 4.1 - Structure of Liverpool when Manchester City were in possession in the middle third in the first half

In the first half, as illustrated in figures 1.1 and 4.1, Liverpool focused on blocking off the middle of the pitch. Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne operated as they normally would in a 3-2-2-3 formation, occasionally moving into pockets of space but preferring to stay further forward in the left and right half-spaces. Julian Alvarez did not drop back; he stayed central and moved back and forth between center-backs Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate. At halftime, I mentioned that I would have wanted him to drop back more to help overload the midfield and link up play to transition Manchester City into Liverpool’s defensive end.

Figure 4.2 - Change in the movement of Manchester City in the second half

Manchester City made adjustments to the movements of Julian Alvarez, Kevin De Bruyne, and Ilkay Gundogan in the second half, becoming more expressive and free in their off-the-ball actions. However, Liverpool did not react to this movement and maintained their tight central shape.

Figure 5.1 - Manchester City win the ball back from a turnover and Julian Alvarez drops to receive the ball, plays the ball through to Riyad Mahrez, ultimately ending in a goal by Kevin De Bruyne

Manchester City were much more fluid and their movements became completely unpredictable. This movement from those three made Liverpool split into two groups during the buildup phase:

  1. The front-line and second-line which moved with the ball carrier
  2. This isolated back-line

In the first half, Liverpool moved as a complete unit with no separation between those two groups during the buildup. The separation only occurred when a midfielder from the second-line jumped forward. In the second half, Manchester City’s movement was forcing the front group to push forward while the back-line stayed static in position, further exacerbating the issue of space in the wide areas.

Figure 6.1 - Manchester City building up, with Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan moving out of position
Figure 6.2 - Ilkay Gundogan switches the ball to Jack Grealish in space

You can see the separation between Liverpool’s front six and backline, and this space is now amplified, putting Manchester City in complete control. Additionally, Liverpool didn’t press aggressively enough, allowing midfielders to have ample time and space on the ball, as shown in Figure 6.2, to pick their passes and play the ball vertically out wide.

What I think Liverpool should have done instead

Figure 7.1

I liked the idea of Jota, Gakpo, and Salah blocking off the passing lane to the double-pivot of John Stones and Rodri, but I would have preferred to see them press Manchester City’s back-line, forcing them to move the ball backwards into their defensive end. I have two ideas to help balance their defense:

  1. The wide central-midfielders would have been better utilized man-marking rather than remaining static within the larger front group of six: Jordan Henderson can tightly man-mark Kevin De Bruyne, and Harvey Elliott can mark Rodri.
  2. Both center-backs did not have to mark Julian Alvarez, as that seems like a plan they made with Erling Haaland in mind, not Julian Alvarez: Since Ilkay Gundogan is normally the furthest forward, it would make sense for Ibrahima Konate to man-mark him.

If you take Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, and Rodri out of the game while pushing Manchester City’s back-line back into their own defensive end with continued pressure, then Liverpool would have been able to force turnovers and not allow Manchester City to advance into their end.

The changes I made also have the added benefit of cover out-wide because the center-midfielders are closer to Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish. Harvey Elliott can block off the passing lane to Jack Grealish from Nathan Ake, forcing Manchester City to play through the right side with Riyad Mahrez, John Stones, and Manuel Akanji, who are weaker on the ball than the left side.

Figure 8.1 - Liverpool's narrow 4-4-2 in their 5-2 loss against Real Madrid in the Champions League on February 21, 2023

Credit goes to Liverpool for defending wider against Manchester City as compared to their game against Real Madrid. There is a theme of using a narrow 4-4-2 out of possession, but they need to find a balance within the formation to block off progress through the midfield while still providing enough cover in the wide areas.

Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, on their performance:

“Minute 1 to 93 was a perfect performance. We concede the goal, we were playing very well, and of course there was the threat they have in transition with their runners but we play really really good. One of the best performances in these past 7 years.”

I completely agree with Pep, that was a complete performance. Credit to Manchester City for taking advantage of their qualitative superiority. They played incredibly, continuing the run of form they’ve been on, now 11 games unbeaten since their loss to Tottenham Hotspur on February 5, 2023. The final highlight was this 4-1 win against Liverpool. In addition, Manchester City has been on a roll, winning their past two matches against RB Leipzig 7-0 in the Champions League and Burnley 6-0 in the FA Cup, advancing in both competitions.

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