Liverpool started the brighter, took the lead and defended well for the last half hour against a City side that lacked pace and creativity in attack in a match where both sides ended with three at the back. Here are Sam Thompson’s observations…
Balotelli in the hole: City were without David Silva (injury), Yaya Youre (international duty) and Vincent Kompany (suspended). Joe Hart started in goal in a City side that lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Stefan Savic started at centre back and Gareth Barry sat alongside Nigel De Jong in midfield. Mario Balotelli was positioned behind Sergio Aguero with Adam Johnson sticking to the right hand side and James Milner frequently cutting in from the left.
Glen Johnson starts at left back: As expected Steven Gerrard started and he played alongside Jordan Henderson in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Craig Bellamy on the right of midfield and Stewart Downing the left – presumably to pose the problem of delivering crosses from wide to Andy Carroll. Martin Kelly was brought in at right back with Glen Johnson shifting to left back.
Liverpool start bright
The away side started far better, particularly in the first twenty-five minutes of the game. Mancini noticed Liverpool were on top and briefly changed to a loose 4-5-1 when defending with James Milner playing as third central midfielder told to press the deepest Liverpool midfielder – often Jay Spearing – and Mario Balotelli defending the left hand side. The biggest reason for Liverpool’s success was their excellent high pressing that forced City onto the back foot and put Nigel De Jong in particular under severe pressure when on the ball.
Liverpool’s intense pressing in midfield
As mentioned already, throughout this match Liverpool’s pressing was superb. They often pressed in short, isolated bursts, sitting deep and then pressing dramatically for a few seconds until they forced a backward pass where they then sat off again. Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard deserve particularly credit for this. As shown in the diagram to the right they consistently pressed Barry and De Jong in midfield and were often rewarded by forcing them to play either backwards, sideways or give away possession prompting a counter attack. Spearing sat deepest in midfield and was often left to track Balotelli and did a good enough job before the Italian was taken off without having any real effect on the game.
Gerrard continues his run of goals
Gerrard had an excellent shot from deep well saved by Joe Hart who managed to knock the ball out for a corner. From the corner a Downing volley was deflected forcing Hart into another save and giving Liverpool another corner. This time round Savic caught Daniel Agger in the box, giving Liverpool a penalty which Gerrard converted. Mancini’s side didn’t seem to be too affected by the goal. Milner started to drift inside frequently, giving Clichy the opportunity to run at Martin Kelly but when out of possession they still sat off Liverpool far too much, allowing them to control the game. Charlie Adam was brought on when Jay Spearing came off with a hamstring injury resulting in Gerrard playing slightly deeper alongside the Scot with Henderson given more license to attack and continue to press higher up.
City attack too narrow
Adam Johnson struggled tonight. He never really committed Glen Johnson by going down the line often enough. Instead he always tried to cut inside making City attacks down his side predictable and contributing to them being too narrow in attack with Milner cutting in from the left on the opposite side. When Milner moved centrally he often left Kelly in too much space which meant Augero was dragged wide to deal with him, leaving City with no focal point upfront to spearhead their attacks. At the opposite end Andy Carroll did a reasonable job upfront, making sensible decisions with the ball, staying central and working hard to close down Savic and Lescott. Samir Nasri came on for Balotelli before half time with Nasri going to the left and Milner moving into central midfield permanently with the task of closing down the deepest midfielder.
City end the half on top
Throughout the first half Liverpool looked comfortable. They were sensible with the ball and when they lost it, they pressed high to win it back quickly. City were too lazy and willing to let Liverpool dictate the tempo and when in attack were too crowded in central areas – hence why Richards was able to ram past Johnson just before half time when finally making use of the space out wide. Aguero again looked too isolated when playing as the main striker.
City needed to move the ball quicker
City started the second half with Nasri, Johnson and Milner playing as a fluid attacking three just behind Aguero. Henderson remained just ahead of Gerrard and Spearing in midfield. A header from Richards and a Martin Kelly back pass were the closest City came to an equaliser in the initial exchanges but Reina made a good decision to come off his line and close down Aguero early. It was obvious that City lacked not just creativity but emphasis with their attacks. De Jong and Barry moved the ball too slowly and predictably.
Liverpool switch to a lopsided 5-4-1
On the hour mark Jose Enrique replaced Downing and Liverpool changed to a funny looking 5-4-1 that became something close to resembling a lopsided 4-4-2 when in possession. Liverpool played a back five from right to left of Kelly, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson and Enrique – but Enrique moved into midfield when Liverpool were further up the pitch and Johnson moved to the left of the back four (as shown in the diagram to the left). Liverpool’s four man midfield was made up of Henderson, Gerrard, Adam and Bellamy – who with Enrique moving forward moved closer to Carroll upfront. Liverpool started to defend deeper with Gerrard and Adam at times only five yards in front of their defence.
Mancini goes for three at the back…again
Before long Mancini countered Liverpool’s change in formation by moving to a back three himself when Edin Dzeko replaced Adam Johnson. City now had Richards, Savic and Lescott as a back three with De Jong just ahead and Milner and Clichy as wingbacks. Barry played in a central midfield role just ahead, with Nasri in the hole behind Dzeko and Aguero – the Argentinian often dropped deep into Nasri’s space causing yet more congestion. However, Nasri did get on the ball more and with Liverpool sitting deep it seemed like a case of just trying to hold on – in the first 35 minutes of the second they had no shots and only 35% of possession. Glen Johnson moved to right wingback with Kelly becoming the third centre back and Enrique moving to left back but playing much more defensive.
Liverpool see out the game
Carragher replaced Bellamy as Liverpool sat deep and tried to defend their 18 yard box – at one point Reina and nine outfield players were in the box defending a cross from open play. City were far too slow in attack when moving the ball and for all of Nasri’s movement they were forced wide by Liverpool and made to cross it in. Most surprisingly they kept three at the back, even though Carroll was playing no further forward than an attacking midfielder – effectively meaning they had three players out of the game doing nothing (although Lescott did occasionally join the attack out wide). An Aguero header in the 91st minute grazed the top of the net but Liverpool held on to win the first leg of the semi-final 1-0.
Hats off to Dalglish
Despite the weather conditions, City weren’t up to scratch. They made the wrong decision in sitting off when Liverpool had the ball, attacked too narrow and took too long with the ball. It was clear they missed Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure, but mostly David Silva. Liverpool deserve a lot of praise. Henderson and Gerrard pressed high and early ensuring that it was their side who dictated the tempo at the start of the game. They took the lead when on top then defended well with a back five, and leave themselves with a good chance of going through to the final.