Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
By planting his foot square in the face of a sweeping Ederson, Sadio Mané delivered a knockout blow to Liverpool’s chances of punishing a cavalier Pep Guardiola selection.
Reversion to a back-four away to Bournemouth, just before the international break, implied that Guardiola was going to do the sensible thing here. Watching Jurgen Klopp’s front-three dash into the spaces either side of Arsenal’s hapless central-defensive trio only buttressed that suspicion.
Arsene Wenger was forced into a half-time switch to 4-2-3-1 against Liverpool, to reinforce his overwhelmed defenders with a much-needed spare-man. Nonetheless, Guardiola apparently assumed that the likes of the rash Nicolas Otamendi would fare infinitely better in one-on-one skirmishes.
The Spaniard was wrong, of course. Embarrassingly so. Manchester City were carved open in the channels prior to Mané’s dismissal; saved only by Mohamed Salah’s woeful finishing and decision-making.
Salah, mining the cavernous space in behind Benjamin Mendy, got Otamendi booked in the sixth-minute, before becoming a central-actor in all three glorious first-half chances fashioned by Klopp’s side.
City’s determinedly high-line, that forced their Brazilian goalkeeper to sweep and almost meet his maker, didn’t help either. But it did create chances in Liverpool’s defensive-third, where the Reds were often ponderous in the face of a committed home press.
City too were beneficiaries of a frontline-overload, and that is precisely where their opening goal stemmed from. Modern central-defenders are no longer accustomed to two strikers playing on their shoulders; hark at how Ragnar Klavan lost track of Sergio Aguero’s run. Would-be-coverer Joel Matip was, of course, occupied by Gabriel Jesus.
This 2-v-2 was the positive flip-side of Guardiola’s potentially kamikaze reversion to 3-1-4-2. And it directly led to City’s second goal too, when Jesus — one of four City bodies in the Liverpool area — drifted between Klavan and Alberto Moreno to head home one of many Kevin de Bruyne key-passes.
Despite apparently not caring if his defenders were overloaded, Guardiola was careful to deprive Liverpool of defensive cover throughout. Just 12 minutes after Klopp’s half-time switch to 5-3-1, the City manager instituted a rough 4-2-1-3 shape, by deploying Leroy Sané on the left-wing in place of Jesus.
Sané, a now lone-striking Aguero, and de Bruyne, pushed up onto Liverpool’s back-three for the game’s remainder, increasing the goals tally to five, and totally nullifying the visitors as an attacking force in the process. Unable to play out, Liverpool failed to add a single shot on goal to their first-half tally of seven.
Guardiola also enacted one other telling tactical change at the commencement of the second-half, by-the-by. As the Spaniard had done at home to Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s Everton, he felt it necessary to swap Otamendi with his outside-centre-back colleague, removing the defender from the right-channel line-of-fire.
That change served as a reminder of how lucky the City manager was here. His decision to go with a back-three backfired spectacularly; spared only by Salah’s profligacy, and Mané’s recklessness. Next time, he won’t be so lucky.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112