Slaying monsters. Every video game has it. After trying many times you eventually know their weaknesses. In a coded video game the monsters don’t evolve, they maintain the same movements, attacking strengths and defensive strengths.
Over time you figure out the needed strategy to beat them. So the question that presents itself here, what if monsters evolve?
Spotting your trends, your movements, your typical attacking strategies. Encoding them, processing them and putting them through an extremely sophisticated Spanish AI algorithm. Then the monsters’ strategy evolves, and that in addition to their raw strengths makes level 10 as hard as level 1000.
The Premier League is our video game and Manchester City are its current monsters. They await gamers one by one, all queuing up to give it a try. None could inform the other of a certain trick to beat them, as in each game the monsters adapt to their opponent.
Next up in the queue is the game’s current champion. The last player to have annihilated the monsters, he was after all a monster himself. Yet circumstances have meant that he is, of today, part of the queue.
At Anfield, Manchester City haven’t won in the league since a Nicolas Anelka double got Kevin Keegan’s side the win eighteen years ago.
City’s revamp in possession have transitioned the light away from their ideas out of possession. Since the revamp, it has been a 4–3–3 out of possession and that was the case in the first half against Liverpool.
The notable aspect was the narrowness of their midfield and front three. Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez were more focused on pressing Liverpool’s build up. Pressing Fabinho and Jordan Henderson while Phil Foden covered Gini Wijnaldum.
Or pressing in a 3 vs 3 when Trent Alexander-Arnold was narrower with Foden still making sure the passing lane into Wijnaldum is covered.
The pressing of the front three was extremely narrow and focused on denying Liverpool any easy build up, whether with a two-man or a three-man. And once Thiago or Curtis Jones dropped to support, one of Manchester City’s midfielders moved out to press him. Foden, Sterling and Mahrez kept their places.
In this example, Bernardo Silva rushes at Jones while the other City players were limiting Jones’ passing options. Forcing him to pass backwards towards Alisson Becker. Bernardo Silva continued the pressure while covering the passing lane into Jones, giving Alisson one option which is to boot it forwards. City regained possession.
Another example shows the narrowness of the press, mainly concerned with denying Liverpool any central build up.
When Roberto Firmino dropped like he always does, Ruben Dias followed….
…resetting the situation for Liverpool. As that happened, Mahrez got narrower to take out the option of Thiago and maintain the pressing in the central area. Wijnaldum moved backwards….
….then when Henderson tried to find Thiago it was Bernardo Silva moving out to disrupt the build up. Liverpool lost the ball and possession once again was in City’s hands.
The narrowness of Sterling and Mahrez didn’t only help in pressing Liverpool’s build up. As the first half was more of a pressing royal rumble between the two teams, it gave City a slight edge centrally when trying to regain the ball. An example here shows Sterling and Mahrez covering Thiago and Jones respectively, allowing Gundogan to double up with Bernardo Silva against Wijnaldum to dispossess the Dutch midfielder.
The narrow shape of City’s pressing however meant that Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were free when Liverpool were trying to build up.
As a result Liverpool tried to find their full backs quicker without depending on central circulation. Henderson’s long ball here was intended for Mohamed Salah, but the ball fell for the free Alexander-Arnold after Oleksandr Zinchenko’s clearance.
The space Alexander-Arnold had allowed him to dribble past Zinchenko and cross the ball towards Sadio Mane. The Senegalese’s header though, went over the bar.
Liverpool kept finding Alexander-Arnold directly before Sterling or Ilkay Gundogan moved out to defend that side.
Resulting in the right back crossing from his favorite position, but his crosses were mostly cleared by the defensive duo of John Stones and Dias.
And on the other side Liverpool kept finding Robertson directly as well.
Liverpool’s full backs had space, but it was Stones and Dias’ aerial ability that minimized the threat of these crosses.
“We couldn’t control the width of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold. The second half we adjust a little bit our setup.” Pep Guardiola told Sky Sports after the game.
“In the second half we changed the setup, to defend we played with a 4–4–2 and the beginning was a 4–3–3.” Moving to this shape allowed Manchester City to contain Robertson and Alexander-Arnold by positioning Mahrez and Sterling wider than they were in the first half.
It also presented a different pressing scheme where one of the front two, Bernardo Silva and Foden, would push out to press the center-back on the ball as the other covered Wijnaldum. In case it was Henderson on the ball, Bernardo Silva moved out to press him while Foden marked Wijnaldum.
In case it was Fabinho on the ball, then Foden moved out to press while Bernardo Silva marked Wijnaldum. This was in conjunction with Sterling and Mahrez’s wide positioning which removed the option of progressing through the full backs for Liverpool. Here, Fabinho didn’t have a passing option and went long. Denying Liverpool of any build up and providing City with possession of the ball.
The same scenario occurred again after a couple of minutes. An identical pressing setup with the addition of Gundogan moving forward to track Thiago. The result though was different. From this retrieval of possession, City circulated the ball and managed to open the scoring through Gundogan.
Once another Liverpool midfielder dropped to assist the build up, Foden and Bernardo Silva were focused on denying the pass into them. Meanwhile, the midfield four line was in position to contain Liverpool’s full backs.
In this attack, Bernardo was late in marking Thiago and Liverpool managed to combine across the field. Sterling and Mahrez’s positioning though, minimized the threat. Initially, Sterling’s position denies Fabinho the direct pass into Alexander-Arnold…..
….then once Liverpool started circulating the ball Mahrez moved out wide, anticipating the ball into Robertson. The threat coming from Liverpool’s full backs was neutralized in the second half.
The pressing, continued. Again, the front two focusing on Wijnaldum and James Milner. While Foden — who was now playing as a right winger — and Sterling in position out wide.
Liverpool couldn’t find a passing option and when Alisson was on the ball, Gabriel Jesus approached him slowly while looking over his shoulder to make sure he is blocking the passing lane into Wijnaldum.
Alisson hesitated and passed the ball to Fabinho, giving Jesus and Sterling time to pounce. The constant pressure Fabinho was under throughout the game probably resulted in him booting the ball forward when Wijnaldum was a better passing option. On the other hand, the importance of Sterling here is that he blocks the passing options on the right side while putting Fabinho under pressure, forcing the Brazilian into a long ball. A long ball that throughout the second half City were ready for and won it constantly. This was the build up to City’s second goal before Alisson fumbled his pass.
Even the long option wasn’t available. Mahrez was in position for any pass towards Robertson out wide.
The third goal also originated from a pressing situation. Robertson was out of position and City, using the same pressing scheme, suffocated Alisson. Foden and Jesus eliminating the passing options out wide, Bernardo Silva pressing Fabino and Sterling marking Wijnaldum in the center.
Fabinho played the ball into Wijnaldum and Sterling was breathing down the latter’s neck. Wijnaldum had no option other than to pass it backwards towards Alisson. The other three options in his vision range were all marked and he didn’t have time.
After the ball reached Alisson, Sterling continued his run while keeping Wijnaldum in his shadow. In this situation, Alisson’s near options are taken out and even a floated ball into Milner would have given Foden time to recover. Alisson hesitates again, and gives City their third goal of the evening.
Manchester City’s adaptation at half time eliminated Liverpool’s threat and smothered them into self destruction. The pressing forced the errors and re-positioning of Mahrez and Sterling kept Liverpool’s full backs quiet.
The monsters showed a different strength point. Flexing their muscles upon the awaiting gamers. Attacking patterns, defensive prowess, positioning, pressing, you name it.
They evolve and adapt, and that’s where their real strength lies.