Pep Guardiola’s midfield tactical gaffe put Liverpool in pole position

John Dykes John Dykes

Liverpool will look back on another magical night of European football but John Dykes believes that it was Pep Guardiola’s tactical error that made the Reds shine.

It was always going to be a special occasion, a football match to both savor and to dissect with the benefit of hindsight and replays. Yet a few hours after Anfield finally fell silent following Liverpool’s remarkable 3-0 UEFA Champions League drubbing of Manchester City, it’s still a little hard to fully comprehend what happened there.

There was nothing surprising about the atmosphere, even if it has to be said the Liverpool police should have done a better job of protecting City’s coach and the players in it upon arrival at Anfield. As for the match atmosphere itself, Pep Guardiola and City’s players may claim they weren’t affected by the intensity of the support for Liverpool but they’d be kidding themselves.

Pretty much everything else that happened over the 90 minutes surprised me though.

Let’s start with Pep Guardiola’s team selection and tactical approach. On a handful of occasions in his stellar coaching career, Pep has apparently abandoned his principles in favor of perceived pragmatism. It’s something Sir Alex Ferguson did occasionally, and it usually went wrong for him. Well, last night was one such occasion where Pep appeared to be guilty of overthinking things.

Raheem Sterling should have started. He has been one of the players of the season and even if Anfield has proven to be a testing place for him to return to, Sterling is growing as a player and a personality, and should have been trusted to handle whatever was thrown at him on and off the pitch.

In putting Ilkay Gundogan into the mix, Pep disrupted his midfield shape. Kevin De Bruyne played further up-field than he has tended to and Gundogan occasionally drifted infield, allowing the hugely impressive Andy Robertson to surge forward and put pressure on Kyle Walker. Meanwhile, Aymeric Laporte may have looked convincing on the other side of the defence against Everton at the weekend, but this was a totally different Merseyside challenge.

Laporte’s discomfort was of course down to the presence of Mo Salah, but not entirely so. Pep’s main tactical flaw was his belief that an increased midfield presence would stem the Liverpool counter-attacks. Instead, the threat came from the flanks, from Liverpool’s full-backs and – most impressively – from Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The young defender has had his problems at times lately as he continues along the steep learning curve involved in playing regular top-level football. He most notably struggled against Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, who exploited the young man’s positional uncertainty. Last night, he not only nullified the threat of City’s Leroy Sane but he won possession more than any player on the field. He sent the ball forward to Salah on a regular basis, supported the Egyptian superbly and, for me, was the Man of the Match by a long way.

So, with City hamstrung by their manager’s tactical miss-step, guilty of making mistakes for all three goals and totally shocked by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s magnificently-struck second goal, Liverpool raised the roof at Anfield then left the pitch at half-time to an ecstatic ovation.

What happened next surprised me too. Not the fact that Jurgen Klopp asked his players to drop deeper and shut down City’s supply lines to Sane in particular, but that City were unable to force Loris Karius into a single save on the night.

Time and again, City sought out Sane, only for Alexander-Arnold and company to stifle the threat. When Sterling arrived on the scene, City did have another outlet, but by then, Liverpool’s defenders were not to be breached, such was the confidence flowing through the whole side.

If Liverpool score at the Etihad on Tuesday night, City must come up with five goals. It is not unthinkable, given that they have already done that once to Liverpool this season. Yet City will need to be perfect in the second leg to proceed. With the mischievous Jose Mourinho standing between them and Tuesday night’s game, it’s hard to see Pep Guardiola’s men being able to fully recover from last night’s first leg when they surprisingly lost their way and were ruthlessly punished.