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Tactics Board: The genius of Salah and Man City target Milner as Anfield serves up a classic

Shane Keegan breaks down the standout Premier League game of the weekend, between title rivals Liverpool and Man City.

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Following on from last week’s clash between Chelsea and Manchester City, this was another battle between two of the most intriguing bosses in football.

Both managers, effusive in their praise for each other in the lead up to the game, were looking for the three points they needed to keep them ahead of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.

On paper, it had the potential to be one of the games of the season.

It didn’t disappoint.

liverpool-v-manchester-city-premier-league-anfield Mo Salah shoots beyond Ederson after weaving his way past the Man City defence. Source: PA

Liverpool start on front foot

Such was Man City’s dominance from the middle part of the second half on that seemed to be completely forgotten just how well Liverpool had started this game.

Pressing from the front in two compact lines of three, very similar to Tottenham’s approach on the opening day of the season, they forced City into a lot of early turnovers.

The example below shows how brave they were, with Fabinho in particular being proactive. He chose to step forward onto Rodri rather than dropping off onto Jack Grealish, who was trying to find space behind him.

This was made possible by the high line that the Liverpool defence were taking, meaning they centre-halves could quickly step in to Grealish if required. With no way through, Aymeric Laporte looks to go longer and Liverpool have the ball back.

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In possession, Liverpool were looking good too. City seemed confused as to who was chiefly responsible for Fabinho. On a few occasions, we could see Grealish dropping back onto him, while at the same time Rodri was stepping forward towards him.

In the example below, Joel Matip took advantage of this by threading a ball between the two players to Diogo Jota who then had enough space to turn.

This also gave us our first glimpse of Sadio Mane’s intentions. Here we can see him looking to play in the space between Kyle Walker and Ruben Dias, before making a driving run inside off the shoulder of Dias.

On this occasion, Jota’s pass was slightly overhit and the chance was passed up, but later in the game Mohamed Salah would get the weight just right.

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The two ‘average position’ images below, which were displayed on the fifteen-minute mark, show just how in control Liverpool were early on.

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Manchester City go after Milner relentlessly

Coincidentally, it seemed to be from this exact moment on that Man City awoke from their slumber and started to grow into the game, targeting one area of the field in particular.

Pep Guardiola would have known from early in his training week that Trent Alexander-Arnold was likely to miss this game and it would be foolish to think that they didn’t work hard on exploiting whoever his replacement was likely to be. Phil Foden was chosen as the man to do the damage.

Jurgen Klopp, somewhat surprisingly, decided to go with James Milner at right back and it’s fair to say he had an eventful afternoon.

In the 19th minute of the game, Bernardo Silva produced a wonderful piece of individual skill that saw him get away from the challenges of four different Liverpool players.

When he lifted his head and saw how narrow Milner had come, he played a delightful ball through to Foden, whose decision to take a touch, rather than shoot first time, allowed Alison to advance and make a great save.

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From this point on, it seemed as though almost every Man City player took the decision to go after Milner.

Below, Matip can be seen gesturing to Milner to get wider as Kevin De Bruyne this time slides Foden in.

Milner gets back to make a questionable tackle right on the edge of the box, but the referee deemed there was no foul. Had he decided otherwise, he would likely have had to follow up with a red card as Milner appeared to be the last man.

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Silva, sensing blood, then wandered across to the left before slipping the ball in behind the now relentlessly targeted Milner. Foden rushed onto it and delivered a fantastic cross the diving De Bruyne should really have done better with.

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Next up was Joao Cancelo, playing a ball from deep in his own half, to set Foden away as Milner floundered on the ground having failed to intercept the pass. De Bruyne again should have done better with the eventual shooting opportunity.

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Finally, just before the half-time break, Man City goalkeeper Ederson decided he wanted to get in on the act. Kicking from just outside his own six-yard box, he put Foden through on goal only to see his fellow countryman Alisson make a crucial saving tackle.

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Guardiola must have wondered how his team’s focus on exploiting Milner hadn’t yet produced a goal. As the half-time whistle went, Klopp raced back to his dressing room to try and find a way to help his team improve.

End to end second half as Liverpool step up again

And improve they did. Despite no half-time changes in personnel, Klopp’s men managed to get back on the front foot at the beginning of the second period.

Taking the approach that ‘prevention is better than cure’, they looked to press higher again and did a good job in cutting off the supply line to Foden.

In possession, mirroring their start to the first half, it was that combination again of a through ball from Matip to Jota that produced their first decent chance.

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Ten minutes later, the Anfield crowd were on their feet in celebration. Salah’s fancy footwork was too clever for Joao Cancelo and as he raced away from him he lifted his head to see the familiar sight of Mane positioned between Walker and Dias and driving inwards.

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The timing of both the run and the pass were perfect and the Senegalese star provided the finish.

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But it wasn’t long before an old problem raised its head again.

Liverpool looked to press high again but a clever out ball by Ederson, followed by some neat footwork by Silva to wriggle away from the attention of Roberto Firmino, helped City to progress into the final third.

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As Gabriel Jesus drove inside, we were faced with the sight yet again of Matip pointing to let Milner know he was too narrow. This time they were unable to rectify the situation and Foden finally got his goal.

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Salah genius

Next up, in a half that was swinging chaotically from end to end now, came the moment of the match. Quite how Salah goes from the first image below, where he is surrounded by five players, to the second, where he is blasting into the back of the net, is almost unexplainable.

It defies tactical breakdown and should simply be enjoyed for what it is — a moment of sheer individual brilliance.

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But City weren’t done yet. Milner, having somehow managed to stay on the pitch despite what looked a nailed on second yellow card for a foul in the 72nd minute, was eventually substituted five minutes later.

Would Joe Gomez introduction finally solve their problems at right-back?

In a word… no.

Just three minutes after his arrival on the pitch, De Bruyne picked up a ball in a central area. Gomez initially looked to be in tandem with the rest of his backline before taking the inexcusable decision to step forward in an ill-fated attempt to play Raheem Sterling offside.

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This gave the ever-influential Foden the extra time he needed to control the ball and get his head up.

Granted, there was some good fortune in the manner the ball found its way back to De Bruyne but given that this was his fifth decent chance of the game, Liverpool couldn’t say that it wasn’t coming.

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Amazingly there was still time for one more big chance for either side. Following a free kick, Rodri somehow managed to get a block to Fabinho’s effort when a goal looked a certainty, while in injury-time Sterling generously allowed Matip to get back goal side of him when he looked like he had a clear run to goal.

When the final whistle eventually came it was probably a case of both managers being relieved with a point.

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