Monday, January 22, 2018


This article originally aired first on ESPN's pages in slightly abridged form.

A rash of articles have appeared this week considering Liverpool’s “blueprint” on how to beat Manchester City. One or two, analysed the situation thoroughly and sensibly. We will have to wait to see if a) teams start to copy Liverpool’s magic formula or b) the defeat at Anfield triggers some greater crisis of confidence in Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled machine.

Taken in isolation, Liverpool’s success last weekend looks impressive and offers hope to the rest of the Premier League that there might indeed still be some life in the title race. Whether it can be considered a blueprint for playing City in the future is debatable.
A high press of the kind Liverpool produced at Anfield is not the kind of game-plan that would suit the majority of the other clubs in the Premier League. Liverpool’s squad has enough high-energy, skilful players to pull it off, but do any of the others? Notably, clubs from the league below have also given City a run for their money this season, with league Cup opponents Bristol City and Wolves being semi-successful. They both lost in the end, however, even if – in Wolves’s case -- it was by the narrowest of margins via a penalty shoot-out.

The trouble with pressing City is that you leave yourself horribly open to the swift counter attack, something Guardiola’s men are particularly adept at taking full advantage of.
City, as has been noted by their opponents this season, are notoriously difficult to pin down. This comes partly from the variety of sources of trouble. Any side that can call on the twinkling feet of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne to provide channel-opening passes is likely to cause damage.

Dennis Tueart scores one of his hat trick of goals against Chelsea at Maine Road in 1977-78 (6-2)

It does not stop there of course. Raiding full backs, advancing defensive midfielders, even cavorting Argetinean centre backs have played their part in the carnage of City’s first half season in 2017-18.
There is another factor which has been looked at, but deserves more illumination, however, as it is a factor, which brings something new to the attacking armoury of the club. It is something that has links with another great attacking side of City’s past, the one constructed by ex-captain Tony Book in the mid-seventies. That side relied on conventional strikers in the robustly built Joe Royle and the more agile figures of Brian Kidd and/or Mike Channon. All weighed in with their fair share of goals in a side that was built to attack at pace.

What made it different was the players positioned wide of those strikers. The addition of a pair of marauding wingers in Peter Barnes, down the left side, and Dennis Tueart on the opposite flank, transformed City’s attack into a four-man onslaught that often brought rich dividends.
Something else links Barnes and Tueart to their modern day counterparts, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling: the amount of goals they scored. Tueart in particular, a signing from Sunderland after the club’s famous 1973 FA Cup final win over Leeds, brought a new style of player to the top flight. The Geordie, full of pace and bite, seemed to fulfil two roles simultaneously, that of the dangerous goal-scoring striker and also the treacherously skilled winger, looking to go down the outside of his fullback.

Tueart was a breath of fresh air to that City side, averaging close to a goal every other game in more than 250 appearances for the club. By anyone’s reckoning, that’s good going from an ostensibly wide starting position in the team.
Barnes and Tueart close in on Leeds' David Harvey's goal during the tumultuous 4th round FA Cup tie in 1977-78

Sane and Sterling, with a glut of goals between them, are carrying on this rich tradition. In having wide men that can cut in onto their favoured shooting foot “from the wrong side”, Guardiola has an extra weapon that has been causing untold damage this season.

The Catalan speaks of “arrivals” in the box as a way of highlighting that it is not just the space-making genius of Silva and De Bruyne nor the goal scoring prowess of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus that count, but also the timing of other players’ -- notably Sane and Sterling -- in the danger area.
This variety of attacking intent makes City almost impossible to fully control. Indeed Liverpool’s “success” last weekend was only maintained by the narrowest of margins, despite City’s eleven  having a collective shut-down all on the same day. The delivery of those laser sharp passes from the flanks by the Belgian is an incisive part of City’s armoury, but for De Bruyne to function properly in wide positions, it is imperative that the two players holding nominal wide roles vacate their positions at the right moment, both for De Bruyne and for the successful execution of the attack.

That Sane and Sterling have been doing this to such wonderful effect illustrates perfectly how simple “pressing” City will never work. There are far too many holes to plug to stop them coming at you like a cavalry charge.

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