Liverpool’s Resilience Against Man City
Would you have taken a point ahead of kick-off against Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime? If you wouldn’t have at 12:30, you almost certainly would have just after 2pm, with the Reds a goal down and time rapidly running out.
It was always going to be difficult for Liverpool to create chances, just as it is for any visiting side at the Etihad. Across Jürgen Klopp’s preceding eight matches there in league or Europe, Liverpool had averaged just 7.9 shots per game, only reaching double figures three times. By those standards, the eight goal attempts fired off by the class of 2023/24 was a decent return, and the expected goal total of 0.77 was only a shade below the 0.87 non-penalty average from the previous seven league visits (per Understat).
Key Moments in the Match
Opta deemed only one of the Reds’ shots to be a clear-cut (or ‘big’) chance, an opportunity where “a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter.”
Yet, in truth, that classification felt generous for the opening in question. It occurred in the 34th minute, when Darwin Núñez tried to score from a tight angle on the left of the six-yard box. While it could be deemed a one-on-one, with only Ederson between the Uruguayan and the goal, such was the City goalkeeper’s proximity to Núñez that saying he was ‘reasonably expected to score’ feels a bit of a stretch.
Clear-cut, big or merely regular, the chance was Liverpool’s closest to goal, so it at least feels fair to deem it their best opportunity of the contest. The brief move which led to it showcased two key aspects of the Reds’ attacking play which they have shown against City better than any other team around.
It was initiated via a counter press. Diogo Jota closed down Rúben Dias, and though he was able to get the ball to Manuel Akanji, Núñez had blocked his passing lane to Bernardo Silva. Akanji then passed to nobody, allowing Dominik Szoboszlai to record what Opta call a high turnover (which is starting an open play possession sequence by recovering the ball in the final 40 metres of the pitch).
In total Liverpool logged six high turnovers at the Etihad, with two leading to shots. As well as the big chance for Núñez, Alexis Mac Allister won the ball and unleashed a shot himself seven minutes later.
Unfortunately, Opta does not publish data on how many high turnovers leading to shots teams concede, only generate for themselves. However, as the top sides for this in 2023/24 (Arsenal and Tottenham) have amassed 25 in 13 games, it’s fair to assume that it will be rare for a team to have two such moments in a match against City.
The other interesting aspect of Liverpool’s highest value opportunity was that it occurred thanks to a through ball from Szoboszlai, just his second in the Premier League. They might not be that common for the former RB Leipzig man but they have occurred fairly frequently for the Reds, both on the day and in general this season. In the context of facing Pep Guardiola’s side, their efforts last weekend were truly remarkable.
Crucial Through Balls
Liverpool completed four through balls on Saturday. The other one of note occurred in the second half, when Mohamed Salah slotted a pass to Núñez, whose subsequent shot to the near post was saved by Ederson. While not a brilliant standard of chance, it did mean that the Reds’ two highest value shots were set up with through balls.
Szoboszlai’s other such pass for 2023/24 occurred in the 16th minute of this game, in the attack which petered out when Núñez could not quite get the ball out from under his feet at the edge of the box before defenders converged around him. We had to wait until stoppage time on top of stoppage time for the other example, Ryan Gravenberch lifting the ball through to Luis Díaz, whose header couldn’t find a teammate. These defence splitting passes led to two of the Reds’ best ‘nearly’ moments.
Only Bournemouth have attempted as many as four through balls against City this season, but they were only able to complete one (and lost 6-1 for their trouble). No team completed that many against the Treble winners in 2022/23, meaning the last side to complete four were Liverpool themselves, in a 2-2 draw at the Etihad in April 2022.
The 2020/21 season passed without any team even attempting four through balls against City, much less being successful with that many. Their efforts last time out took Liverpool to an average of 2.92 per game for the season, a rate only bettered five times by any team in the last six completed Premier League seasons.
This style of pass has led to go-ahead goals against Chelsea, Newcastle and West Ham already in this campaign, with only the Magpies having more through ball assists (and only one, at that). Yet as impressive as this all sounds, it’s worth looking in the other direction and how many of these passes Liverpool are allowing.
City only attempted one – thanks to Julián Álvarez – and it was unsuccessful. In the corresponding fixture last season, they completed three out of four, with the Reds’ far more porous midfield being much more inviting to opposition passers.
Liverpool are conceding 1.4 attempted through ball passes per match in 2023/24, fewer than in either of the last two seasons and a touch better than in their championship-winning campaign. By limiting them at the back and delivering them up front, the Reds’ through ball stats against City show how they can go a long way in the title race this season.