Last season, Jurgen Klopp was asked who he thought was the best coach in the world. His answer was instant.
“For me, it’s Pep (Guardiola).”
Later in the season, Guardiola said Liverpool were the toughest opponent he had faced in his career as a coach.
Klopp and Guardiola have both learned from each other, and the competition has made them even better. Their games have evolved over the years, inspired by each other.
“Jurgen (Klopp) is an inspiration to me. With what he did in Dortmund and Liverpool, he made me think a lot about football and my team,” Guardiola said after winning the 2020-21 Premier League title.
This week, there was another flavor to that inspiration.
Against Crystal Palace, Liverpool only managed to equalize after a dominant display in the first half. Darwin Nunez’s red card limited Liverpool, but before that they were constantly breaking through the palace’s defensive block. Liverpool’s idea was to overload parts of the Palace’s five defense.
The How interesting.
In that match, Liverpool’s midfield consisted of Fabinho, Harvey Elliott and James Milner, the latter operating on the left side of the midfield. Here, his positioning is natural for the left midfielder in the 4-3-3 Liverpool game – think Ginny Wijnaldum more than Thiago…
…but what happens is that Milner moves from the left side of the midfield, to the right side to position himself on the right half. With Marc Guehy and Terek Mitchell both occupied by Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Milner’s unorthodox positioning creates an overburden on the left flank of Palace’s five-way defenses.
This was a theme throughout the first half. Milner, Liverpool’s left midfielder of the day, moves into the right half of the space to create an overburden…
…and provide penetrating pass options into the defensive block of the palace. From this attack, Milner found Alexander-Arnold just wide and then made a low cross to Salah, whose shot the first time narrowly missed.
Another example shows Milner in the normal starting position while Liverpool advance from his right side…
… But as the attack progresses, he begins to move inward to position himself on the right half…
… Because of Salah and Nunez’s positioning, a gap arose between Guehi and Joachim Andersen. This is exactly the space that Milner is looking to attack. Placing it in the right half puts it in the perfect spot to do that run. Normally, Alexander-Arnold plays the ball easily at Milner but here the Liverpool right-back fails to do so.
Liverpool wanted to install the Palace defense with five, then used Milner, who was moving between the lines, to penetrate the defensive block. This weekend, Manchester City used a similar idea against the same opponent.
After losing 1-0, City’s form of possession was more of a 2-2-5-1/3-1-4-1 depending on Kyle Walker’s position. Joao Cancelo and Riyad Mahrez were wide and wide, while Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne placed themselves between the Palace defense and midfield. In simple terms, the idea was to have an overload on the last line, but just like Milner, the timing of the movement was critical.
The trigger for the overloads was when the ball was going too far to the City player near the touchline, usually Cancelo or Mahrez. Once either of them receives the ball, the widest Foden, Bernardo and De Bruyne will move on to pull Joel Ward or Guihy from their position, while Erling Haaland retains his central position to install Andersen.
The gap that arose from that is where the other City player needed between the lines to conduct his career.
As is usual with City, all players understand the different roles and this means that they can seamlessly switch positions, providing unpredictability.
In this example, De Bruyne switches positions with Mahrez, but the idea of attacking remains. Bernardo’s movement pulls Guehi out, while the central Haaland pins down Andersen and space is there for Mahrez to attack.
De Bruyne found him with a perfectly weighted pass, but the Algerian failed to control the ball.
City consistently had many options between the lines to carry out this run; The problem in the first half was the execution itself.
Here, Rodri is already moving behind the palace midfield even before Walker plays the pass to Mahrez away. Meanwhile, Guehi fears Bernardo and Mahrez will overload Mitchell, so he moves to support his left-back. City knows this from the Liverpool game.
When Mahrez receives the ball, Rodri runs into the gap between Guehi and Andersen which Haaland pins. Another thing worth noting here is that Andersen can’t pass Haaland to Ward behind him, because Ward is already busy with De Bruyne. Andersen gambles on the pass to Rodri…
…and win the lottery by denying the city.
In another attack, Andersen gambles and is aided by the execution of the City players. While Walker plays the ball for Mahrez, the other City players are in their positions. Bernardo moves wide to drag Guy with him, while Haaland centrally installs Andersen, De Bruyne, Foden Ward and Nathaniel Klein respectively to prevent Palace from switching tags.
The main player here is Rodri who is behind the palace midfield even before Mahrez receives the ball…
…so when the Algerian does, Rodri does the space sprint between Andersen and Joey, and City have a four-for-three in that part of the court.
With Andersen moving to pick up Rodri and Ward late as he was occupied by De Bruyne, Haaland is free to take this crossover from Mahrez. The Norwegian indicates that the ball will be played with him, but Mahrez did not put the cross.
Eight minutes later, there was a similar move but again the execution wasn’t good enough.
You can see how this approach from City is causing problems for the Defenders of the Palace. When Guehi is dragged out and Andersen is overloaded, the latter signals Ward to pick up Haaland. But Ward has his eye on Foden.
So when the ball is placed, Andersen is in the neutral zone – not close to Rodri or Haaland. Fortunately for him and fortunately for Mahrez Palace, Mahrez’s cross was broken.
The idea of overloading certain parts of the Palace’s five backs is what the City attacks were about. They wanted to force the defenders of the palace to gamble, and as you know, the house always wins. In the second half, the execution was much better, and that was the beginning of City’s comeback.
In preparation for City’s first goal, they try to sneak off their left side and Gui Haaland watches. This leaves Mitchell saddled at the far post with Bernardo and Mahrez looking to attack the distance between Mitchell and Joey.
As De Bruyne plays the pass to Rodri, Mahrez runs into the gap created by Bernardo and Haaland’s positioning.
This leaves Mitchell with two options: move towards Bernardo or follow Mahrez’s path. He chose the second, meaning space and time on the ball for Bernardo.
After the first goal, Guardiola brought Ilkay Gundogan and Julian Alvarez instead of Cancelo and Mahrez, to move Bernardo and Foden widely. Subs were familiar with the approach, and it showed up in a tie.
When the ball is played wide, Gundogan and Alvarez ran towards the penalty area knowing that De Bruyne would pull Guehi out of his position.
When that happens, Gundogan isn’t in the right space between Guehi and Andersen. But Alvarez’s threat forces Klein to move inland to support Ward and Andersen, leaving Foden completely free on the far side…
…to take his time and hit the cross when the ball reaches him. Halland meets Foden’s cross and heads the ball into the net.
It is important though to examine the surrounding landscape. Gundogan’s initial run into the chest forces Andersen to pick him up, helping free Haaland with Guehi unable to duel after he is dragged away. Behind them stands Bernardo, who is looking to attack the void between Guehi and Chris Richards should Haaland not reach the cross.
Guardiola’s first question in the post-match press conference was “Would you buy Erling (Haaland) for days like this? Do you end up like this?”
“Yes, sure. But I will say my thanks. He replied, maybe only half joking.”
Or was he?
(Top Image: Sean Bottrell/Getty Images)