Here was Liverpool’s first truly Klopp-esque performance. Saturday evening’s 4-1 Etihad rout of Manchester City could easily have been even more emphatic, as the German’s charges swamped their hosts with a breathtaking display of relentless pressing and rapier-like counter-attacking.
Klopp looked to pack the middle of the park, reverting to the rather inert-looking 4-3-2-1 formation that had underwhelmed in the opening few games of his reign. This was very bad news for Manuel Pellegrini, who had obviously expected a walk in the park from this home fixture against mid-table opposition.
The Chilean selected a nominal 4-2-3-1 formation, with the, shall we say, languid pairing of Fernando and Yaya Touré sitting deep in midfield behind the Belgian number ten, Kevin De Bruyne.
On paper, this meant a two-man advantage for Liverpool in the centre of midfield. However, in practice, owing to City’s truly appalling defensive structure, the numbers game was rendered even more difficult for the hosts.
The high positioning of De Bruyne and the wide forwards, Sterling and Navas, meant that City often looked like a 4-2-4 out of possession. This has been a common problem for Pellegrini during his Etihad tenure, particularly when Touré decides he isn’t bothered at transitions.
That was the case today. City were ripe for exploitation on the break and Klopp’s boys – instructed to press City relentlessly high up the pitch – were the ones to do it.
Liverpool completed 34 tackles and 38 interceptions today, more than twice as many as City in both categories. The median figures across the league so far this season are 19.5 and 16 per game respectively. This vulture-like willingness to descend on the player with the ball brings Liverpool to the top of the Premier League table for tackles per game as of Saturday evening. They were second only to fellow pressers, Tottenham, this morning. Klopp is certainly making his mark.
Their first goal was classic Klopp – Coutinho dispossessing Sagna in the City half, before playing in Firmino. Elaquim Mangala kicked off a miserable showing by stepping up instead of following his man, before proceeding to knock the ball into his own net off Firmino’s resulting pullback.
The opener, therefore, was not only a microcosm of City’s vulnerability to the press and fast break. It also encapsulated their other two glaring deficiencies today – nightmare individual showings from both centre-backs and a crazy insistence on playing offside with no pressure on the ball.
As such, every time Liverpool won the ball in the City half, the through ball was on. The visitors’ four goal tally could easily have been doubled had the otherwise excellent Firmino not been bested three times by Joe Hart in one-on-one encounters. Christian Benteke also spurned one upon his arrival on the scene. Mangala was at least partly culpable for the majority of these clear-cut chances. Demichelis, whose last start came in the 4-1 defeat to Spurs in September, fared little better. Pellegrini must have been asking himself why he chose to rest Nicolas Otamendi.
And Fernandinho for that matter. The Brazilian’s energy, which often compensates for Touré’s laziness, was sorely lacking today. Pellegrini, to his credit, belatedly recognised how open he had configured his side at half-time, removing the Ivorian in Fernandinho’s favour – with Navas also making way for the equally energetic, Fabian Delph.
City were now also configured in a 4-3-2-1, with Fernando sitting and Sterling and De Bruyne playing just behind Sergio Aguero. Aguero had pulled a lifeline goal out of the hat from range just before half-time, outpacing Lucas easily outside the box. Alas for City, the Argentinian only lasted 20 minutes of the second period. His departure coincided with the end of a City purple patch and a resumption of normal service.
Gegenpressing par excellence for the ‘Pool, who move into ninth. For Pellegrini and City, this was another harsh lesson in how not to set up one’s side against strong opposition.