The Tactics Behind Liverpool and Manchester City’s Title Triumphs [Book Excerpt]

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You can buy Record Breakers: The Tactics Behind Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s Title Triumphs by Rob Weaver on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

As is the case with many football tactics, placing every type of cross in the same category is far too simplistic. A slow, high cross from the touchline with just two men attacking the box, is very different to a whipped cross in behind the retreating centre-backs with three or four players arriving at the perfect time to attack the ball. For a cross to be successful – or in other words for it to result in a shot at goal – the players attacking the ball must time their run at the right moment, into the exact position that the ball is being crossed to, despite neither the crosser knowing exactly where the player attacking the cross will make his run, nor the player attacking the cross knowing the exact destination of the delivery. In addition, for it to be successful, the attackers must beat the defenders to the ball. With these factors there is a certain amount of randomness, which City and Liverpool aimed to reduce as much as possible to increase their chances of success.

Much was made of City’s high volume of crosses in Guardiola’s fourth season (they averaged 20 open play crosses per game compared to 13 in 2017/18), with the suggestion that his side crossed the ball too often instead of using their regular patterns. This criticism usually followed a game which they failed to win. Following City’s incredibly successful record points winning seasons, more and more opposition teams chose to defend very deep. Guardiola has made the admission that when opposition teams simply defended in their own third with nine or ten players, there was little space to do anything other than cross the ball, and get as many players in the box as possible in the hope that one of them managed to beat a defender to the ball. This was especially the case when losing or drawing late on in games, which occurred more often in his fourth season, and partially explains City’s increased crossing volume. Crossing when the opposition were camped deep in their penalty area was clearly not ideal for the players Guardiola had; City lacked tall players in their front five. On the other hand, during their record points winning seasons, City were a team who crossed the ball in selected scenarios, and in specific ways, which rendered the lack of height Guardiola’s players possessed unimportant. The main principle was to ensure their crosses avoided aerial duels, removing the importance of the height advantage of the opposition defenders over their front five. Liverpool, also disadvantaged in terms of the height of their players attacking the box, would to some extent also look to cross in situations where they could avoid aerial duels. However, Klopp’s team were not so limited in terms of the exact scenarios when they looked to cross the ball; the quality of the delivery, the movement of their front players, and the number of players who attacked between the width of the goal meant they could score even when the situation required being on the right side of the randomness which results from crossing. This has parallels with the general difference in philosophy between Guardiola and Klopp; Guardiola wanted everything his team did to be controlled, whereas Klopp didn’t mind some randomness as long as his players did the right things to maximise their chances of success.

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Beginning with City, let’s examine the two types of cross they scored many of their goals from, having immediately entered the final third (Figure 50): 1) A smashed cross from the byline between the defensive line and goalkeeper. 2) A cutback from the byline in front of the centre-backs. These actions usually occurred in the scenario where City’s winger had beaten his full-back on the outside, or when their number 8 had made the classic channel run on the inside of the full-back. Neither of these crosses usually involved an aerial duel, which meant there was no advantage to the defending team in terms of height. If City were able to access their front five quickly and attack the opposition defence before the rest of their team could recover, there usually wasn’t much of a numerical advantage in the box for the opposition either, as there would have been if the opposition team had been able to recover into their box early. This was one of the merits of playing with five players so high up the pitch; the crosser potentially had four other players to pick out. The runs that City’s front five made when attacking the box were patterned, so although the crosser didn’t necessarily know the exact location of where he needed to deliver the ball, he could cross into particular zones into which City’s players were expected to arrive. All these factors enabled City to reduce the randomness, converting the cross into more of a pass.

The first type of cross involved the ball being delivered the ball into the available space between the centre-backs and goalkeeper, crucially before the opposition defensive line could drop back and fill it. This was the classic De Bruyne cross, whipped in with incredible pace behind the defenders. In a 7-2 win over Stoke in October 2017, De Bruyne registered two assists with very similar early crosses in behind Stoke’s defence, firstly for Gabriel Jesus, and secondly, Leroy Sané, to reach before their markers. In fact, the latter assist for Sané could be labelled a through pass more than a cross – but this was City’s aim with their crossing – for them to be more like passes. Of course, there are multiple examples of when the cross didn’t require the outstanding technical ability of De Bruyne to take advantage of the space; many of City’s goals from crosses involved a fairly simple final ball. Both centre-forward options, Agüero and Jesus, were clever; they would often start level with or even behind the defensive line before the pass to the winger preceding the cross occurred, giving themselves a vertical advantage to reach the ball ahead of the centre-backs. Jesus’s tap in against Wolves in January 2019 is a nice example of this. Jesus, starting level with the Wolves defensive line, reacted to the through ball from Aymeric Laporte to Sané before the Wolves defenders, giving him the necessary advantage to get to the cross first.

In addition to the centre-forward, City’s winger on the opposite side to the cross’ origin always made the back post. As the ball was delivered early with the aim of missing out the opposition centre-backs, a race to get to the ball first was created between the opposition full-back and City’s winger; the duel became about speed rather than height, giving City’s winger the edge. During 2017/18 and 2018/19 Sané laid on eight very similar assists for fellow winger Sterling. Both players were simply too quick for their full-backs; the ball would be slipped through for Sané who would make a square pass/cross to the back post for Sterling to arrive ahead of the opposition left-back to score. With many of City’s goals from an early cross, the defensive line often could have done more to fill the space between themselves and the goalkeeper earlier; often their reaction was too slow. The higher the defensive line however, the more difficult it was to recover into the space; early crosses between the defence and goalkeeper following a pass in behind the full-back were perhaps one of the main reasons which discouraged teams from defending higher up the pitch against City. The goalkeeper could facilitate the situation by being ready to move off his line and intercept the cross; when the ball was being delivered from near the byline, there was no reason why the goalkeeper could not take up an aggressive starting position, an extra couple of yards off his line.

You can buy Record Breakers: The Tactics Behind Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s Title Triumphs by Rob Weaver on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk