I've seen some hand-wringing and questions as to how Liverpool were lined up yesterday, especially in the second half.
I tried to explain the set-up and the reasons for it in yesterday's match review, but pictures always make things easier. Not a 1000 words easier, but easier nonetheless.
Liverpool's first substitution obviously wasn't planned, and Spearing's exit restrained the away side more than they would have liked in the first 45 minutes when on top. But there was a clear strategy with the next two substitutions. The second half followed a simple narrative. Mancini made a change, Dalglish would respond. Mancini made another change, Dalglish parried a different way.
Adam Johnson was key to both sides' tactics, City's most dangerous play-maker with Silva absent, even after Nasri came on. Glen Johnson began on the left in response, an inverted full-back used to mute an inverted winger, evoking fond memories of Arbeloa on Messi four years earlier. When the Manchester City winger stopped playing down that flank early in the second half, shifting into the hole with Milner on the right and Nasri on the left, Enrique came on. Glen Johnson went central, as a left-sided center-back, partly to still keep an eye on Adam Johnson and partly to continue doubling up on Micah Richards' dangerous overlaps. When Dzeko and Kolarov entered, Johnson went to right back, tasking with keeping Nasri and Kolarov from getting crosses in for the target-man, while Carragher came on as defensive midfielder. Or, to go all in on the nomenclature game, as a libero: Carra Baresi, just as he's always fancied himself. Really, he came on to add another body in defense, because Liverpool certainly weren't looking to add anything to attack. Just to seal any possible cracks in the armor.
The most debate will probably be about the "second sub" formation: was Johnson a third center-back or a defensive midfielder? This sort of detail borders on semantics, splitting the finest of hairs, but I'll argue he was a center-back. Johnson stepped forward the few times Liverpool were in possession, but as soon as City entered the final third, Johnson was on the same line as Skrtel and Agger, defending like a center-back, making tackles in the penalty area, most notably on Agüero in the 68th. If Liverpool had more possession and Johnson was able to spend more time stepping forward, there's more an argument for calling him a midfielder. But Liverpool were almost always on the back foot. Yes, partly by design. And partly because Manchester City is still Manchester City.
Was it risky? Sure. Any time you invite pressure, you invite risks. Liverpool's defensive 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge last season was risky too, but Liverpool's five-man defense held on for the win after getting the goal. Any time you play a team as strong as Manchester City, especially on their ground, you have to take risks, no matter the key players they (and Liverpool) had absent.
Was it overly defensive? Nope. Because Liverpool won. There was no guarantee of a second Liverpool goal had the away side kept up the pressure seen the first 15 minutes. But there certainly would have been a greater danger of conceding an equalizer. City's two goals against United on Sunday, despite being down to ten, clearly loomed large in Dalglish and Clarke's minds, a reminder of what the league leaders are capable of when you give them space to operate, even at a man disadvantage. Preventing that from happening, keeping Liverpool's narrow edge for the second leg, was the only goal. And understandably so.