Liverpool head into their first game of 2019 still unbeaten and 7 points clear of arguably the best ever Premier League side, reigning champions Manchester City. Manchester City were on course for another incredible year, and still are by anyone else’s standards, however losing at home to Crystal Palace and then Away to Leicester in 2 of their last 3 games was not in the script for their next documentary.
Up to Christmas, City had been unbeaten too, sitting top of the league and had already played all of the other ‘Top 6’ sides away from home. it was looking like the question was whether City could go unbeaten, with Liverpool doing amazing to just keep up. A severe dip in form, a key injury and some incredible shooting against them saw City relinquish the lead in the title with Liverpool not looking like slowing down at all.
A Liverpool win at the Etihad and the gap becomes 10 points, arguably the title race is over without a Liverpool collapse (not impossible). A draw would maintain the 7-point gap, but would also give Liverpool hope that they can continue in their excellent season since the champions couldn’t beat them at their own ground. Whilst a win for City would reduce the gap down to 4 points, which means City are still relying on Liverpool messing up, but it also means that Liverpool are no longer untouchable and City will have put doubt in Liverpool’s minds.
Considering City finished champions 25 points ahead of Liverpool and won 5-0 in this fixture last season, if I were to say to you that this was the most even game of the season so far would be surprising to say the least. It shows how far Liverpool have come in such a short space of time that that is indeed the case, this game was incredibly even and almost any result could’ve happened if repeated.
City did end up winning 2-1, however the Expected Goals (xG) from Understat suggest it wasn’t an easy win. The xG score was City 1.18 – 1.38 Liverpool, suggesting arguably Liverpool would win this game more often than City if repeated and a draw is most likely. For a game with two of the highest scoring teams in the league, there were not that many shots or chances created with only 9 – 7 for City – Liverpool respectively. This low shot volume adds to the variance in xG numbers and emphasises that it would be more down to individual skill at finishing or luck to determine this game rather than an overwhelming inevitability that someone would score.
In terms of finishing and scoring goals, Liverpool were not very clinical however they did create the best chance of the game with a lovely cross field pass followed by a first time cross across the box for a tap in to an empty goal. They also had a ball cleared off the line by centimetres following a scramble after a rebound off the post. Other than those two, Liverpool were limited to shots through crowds of bodies. City managed to manufacture some chances through counter attacks, and also capitalise on the fact that Sergio Aguero is an incredible finisher from tight angles. Whilst Liverpool scored with their highest xG chance (0.62), City missed both of their highest xG chances (0.49, 0.32) and scored from two lower xG chances (0.06, 0.05) which suggests that it was City’s finishing when needed was the difference in goal scoring.
Since not very chances were being made, most of the game and interesting plays were between the two boxes. There are three players I’d like to highlight, all playing central midfield: Fernandinho, Bernado Silva and James Milner. It’s hard to quantify the effect that these players had on the game, but all three were excellent in denying the opposition any space or progression up the pitch.
No player had more ball recoveries than Silva with 10, Fernandinho had 9 and Milner whilst only being on the pitch for about an hour had 7. In of itself ball recoveries doesn’t mean much, however especially for City players it’s the area of the pitch that they win the ball back that’s so great.
5 out of the 10 ball recoveries for Silva and 4 out of 9 for Fernandinho were in Liverpool’s half, which suggests that City were winning the ball back high up the pitch and not allowing Liverpool to progress much further. Compared to other players with high recoveries, this is significant. Not only recoveries, but Silva also completed 3 tackles on the halfway line out of 8 (!) attempts and made 4 interceptions in Liverpool’s half. As you can imagine Silva got around the pitch a lot this game and managed to cover 13.7km which is the most in a game this season. I don’t usually like those kinds of stats since they don’t suggest anything about a player’s involvement in a game but maybe suggest that they’re just out of position recovering for the whole game. However, Silva was definitely involved and sometimes that extra effort you put in makes others do the same.
A lot of Fernandinho’s work is done off the ball, in ways that aren’t quantifiable by tackles or interceptions or distance covered. It’s clear how large an impact he has in City’s midfield since the two games he didn’t play due to injury were the two games they lost so far this season. Fernandinho deserves more than a paragraph of one game to highlight his skills, he’ll be the focus of an upcoming post in the future. But City need to find a replacement quickly for him, or find a way of playing that doesn’t rely so heavily on him sweeping up behind the front 5’s press.
It’s a shame that James Milner had to be the one to come off early in the second half, Milner plays similarly to Bernado Silva when Liverpool have the three in midfield and was as effective as Silva defensively until he got taken off. Moving to 4-2-3-1 since they needed to score was probably a sensible move, however needing a goal and leaving Jordan Henderson on the pitch alongside Fabinho (better version of Henderson) doesn’t always end well. It worked out since Liverpool scored an amazing team goal but they may have been more of a threat if Milner was alongside Fabinho. Also, doesn’t help pushing Wijnaldum out to left wing with several wingers sitting on the bench but hey.
Come the end of the season, this game will be regarded as a turning point whatever happens. Whether Liverpool collapse and City come back to win their second title in a row or Liverpool brush it off and continue in the same manor we will find out, but Manchester City have showed their hand and they are here to stay until the end of the season. We have our first real title race in years, take it in and enjoy it.
Thanks to @StatsZone and Understat for images, stats and xG numbers.