Shape shifters: Comparing Liverpool and Manchester City’s unique approaches to the 4-3-3

Those three numbers are what appear to make these sides so similar, yet oh so different, at the same time. James Noble dissects the formations that make this steadily intensifying modern-day rivalry all the more fascinating.

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If we wished to find a single topic that best summarises the relationship between Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s charges, perhaps it would be this one.

So many elements — whether it be in terms of intensity, dominance or success-rate — tend to be shared. And yet the application, the bridge between blueprint and outcome, is what gives the Reds and Sky Blues such individuality when placed side-by-side.

They are two sides whose formation of choice is 4-3-3. Both of whom morph it into a 2-3-5 of sorts in attack. A multi-directional attacking force backed up by what feels like a double-layered anti-counter-attack shield. More grounded descriptions are almost certainly out there but, in a week of big build-up, why not join in?


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It is a shared shape that allows both superbly tuned pressing, relentless sustaining of attacks and an ability to almost instantly suffocate the opposition if and when they win possession. That’s what you get if your unlucky enough to catch either of these two outfits at their best, at least.

They are all about maximising the collective. Yet a large part of achieving that is utilising its individual components as efficiently as possible. It is here we find what feels like the primary route of the sides’ distinctions.

A logical aim of the respective approaches is to bring their greatest creative threats into the most dangerous areas possible.

For City it very often means inverting the full-backs — seeing them become part of the three alongside the holding midfielder — in order to allow the two ‘No. 8s’ to step up towards the forward line. This effectively sees the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva (or more likely namesake Bernardo this weekend) become inside-forwards within the de facto front-five.

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This places them in what is often known as the half-space — the vertical zone between the central and wide areas — as well as between the opposition’s horizontal defensive lines. In simple terms, it makes it about as awkward as possible for opposition players to coherently pick them up.

Particularly in the case of De Bruyne, this positioning is what allows him to so often get into such dangerous areas to either cross from deep or from the byline having gone on the over or underlap.

By stretching the pitch horizontally and vertically in such a way, Guardiola has created a shape that allows the players generally seen as his most technically gifted to receive the ball in the most dangerous areas and provide for willing and pacey runners around them such as Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero.

When that is combined with five more players being stationed a few yards back, with the intention of sniffing out any counter-attacks, City’s dominance in so many games at times appears to border on the inevitable.

Liverpool’s approach is so often similarly suffocating. It may at times appear a little less intricate or pleasing on the eye, but that is because there are a slightly different combination of strengths to play to. It is very much in The Reds’ interests to get the ball forward quickly.

Klopp’s aim — at least from an offensive perspective — within his system, is to maximise the attributes of the front-three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané and full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.

All are relentless in their own way — the full-backs mainly in terms of stamina, the front-three in terms of pace and pressing — and all possess considerable technical qualities.

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It’s for these reasons, amongst others, that it is they who so often make up Liverpool’s own ‘front-five’ when they are fully set in attacking shape.

The two centre-backs represent the deepest two — with Virgil van Dijk’s superb ability to cover the space left around him one of the key benefits he’s brought to the team — while the central midfield make up the three screening them. Though they do of course often advance into the spaces behind Salah and Mané in particular in order to support attacks and add to the numbers in the box when the ball goes wide.

Jordan Henderson has also proved immensely effective when making dummy runs to create space for either Alexander-Arnold or Salah down Liverpool’s right.

Getting such a large number of players to attack the last line also inevitably gives both full-backs all the more targets to hit with their deliveries into the box.

Mané represents a form of hybrid in that he feels like a pacy, direct winger one-minute but can then offer an aerial threat akin to a classic No.9 the next. Such traits make the job of those around him that much easier for so many reasons. For Sadio, a ball dropped in-behind feels just as inviting as a stood-up cross.

In simplistic terms, both Klopp and Guardiola have created a system that places their most potent attacking threats in various positions of maximum opportunity whilst backing them up with the most solid of defensive bases.

How either boss tweaks their respective approach in response to the other’s will be one of the most fascinating elements of a Sunday afternoon where Anfield will provide the soundtrack to a game likely to be as much about speed as subtlety.

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