Mike Caro, who literally wrote the book on poker tells, says that when making a decision, a player should, “judge what [your opponents] want you to do and do the opposite.” As with many lessons from around the poker table (e.g. “strong equals weak”), this is one that can be applied far and wide.
And it is one that Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp should consider when constructing a game plan to see Liverpool through to the Champions League semifinals against Manchester City.
What do City want? Well, so far this season, they have thrived when opponents have sat deep within their own half, allowing time and space for City’s attackers and creators to do what they do best—attack and create.
What don’t City want? Judging by the two Liverpool victories (and the come-from-behind win by that other, less important Manchester side at the weekend), City absolutely do not want to be forced to defend in their own half.
For all the talk about Liverpool’s defensive frailties, City have struggled this season when teams come out to attack them. They could not cope with Liverpool’s assault in the second half of their first Anfield showdown, nor with the assault in the first half of their second Anfield clash. In both cases, Liverpool were able to find the back of the net three times in the decisive halves (a strategy that United were also able to replicate on Saturday).
City still have the best defensive record in the league, letting in just 24 goals in 32 matches. However, like Liverpool, their defensive strength comes not from solid defensive organization and tactics, but rather from pressing and winning the ball back in their own half. Unlike Liverpool, their midfield contains Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, giving their pressing and possessing of the football a bit more oomph. It is that added quality and consistency in midfield that has culminated in a run-away league title instead of Liverpool’s also-ran status.
Attacking City will not be easy. If it were easy, more teams would do it. It certainly wasn’t easy for Liverpool last week, and the first half exertion showed in the lackluster second half. By the eightieth minute in both Anfield victories, Liverpool were gassed by the collective effort they put in. That exhaustion nearly cost Liverpool a victory the first time around, and it’s not far-fetched to think it could again if City are chasing that third, fourth, or fifth decisive goal.
Regardless Liverpool have shown the ability to get in behind the City defenses each of the three times we’ve played. Were it not for a Sadio Mane red card, it’s hard to imagine the Reds being shut out in September, and the other two occasions resulted in 7 goals for Liverpool. Realistically, the Reds need only concern themselves with scoring one more. Two or more, and Kloppo can probably look to an enthusiastic traveling Kopite for his final substitution.
Vincent Kompany’s bravado notwithstanding, 3-0 for the home side is not an unrealistic goal (a goal that would only ensure extra time and possibly penalties). 5-1? 6-2? 7-3?! Those seem far less likely, even for Manchester City’s extremely talented strike force, even when considering the home field advantage.
Liverpool’s goal must be to create a Sisyphean task for Pep Guardiola’s boys. With each goal Liverpool manage to score, that boulder will become heavier, and that mountain will become taller.
Pep will no doubt have a plan going into Tuesday: get an early goal or two, control possession, give his side a chance. For his plan to work, he needs Liverpool to drop deep and defend in our own area, as his technicians work the ball in and around the box to create space and chances.
As I said in the intro, we need to do the opposite of what he wants. We need to be aggressive in the press, and pose a constant threat on the counter and in possession. We need to force them to defend deep in their own territory, the way few teams have forced them to do so far in this stellar season.
And most importantly, we need to score. Make it a shoot-out if necessary, but score.
Klopp is unlikely to change his tactics for this match. The last two times against Pep were the perfect blueprint to repeat tonight. Liverpool will not need to dominate possession, but they will need to be quick to close down spaces, press City’s defense and midfield, and take their chances when they come.
It is also important to remember that many players on this team were here last time Liverpool took a multi-goal advantage to Manchester on a European night. Two years ago, Liverpool took a 2-0 lead to Old Trafford, only to concede a penalty after half an hour gone. It could have been a nervy second half for the Reds, but Liverpool struck back just before the half, chipping David de Gea and effectively ending that tie.
A repeat of that confident performance—to strike first, if possible, or strike back, if necessary—would see Liverpool through to the Champions League semifinals for the first time since 2008, and keep our European dreams alive.
Up the Mighty Reds.