02 January 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke (h), Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

I'm struggling to remember the last time Liverpool ground out a 1-0 win in such a fashion.

1-0 has not been a common scoreline under Jürgen Klopp. It's happened in eight of his previous 74 matches: 1-0 v Bournemouth (League Cup), 1-0 at Kazan, 1-0 v Swansea, 1-0 v Leicester, 1-0 v Sunderland, 1-0 at Stoke (League Cup), and 1-0 v Augsburg last season; and 1-0 at Everton this season. But none of those matches saw Liverpool score so early, and so desperately (even if almost comfortably) hold onto a lead. Most of them saw Liverpool throwing itself against a brick wall before finally making a solitary breakthrough.

Even last season's early 1-0 Rodgers wins don't really compare. 1-0 at Stoke, a poor game with few shots won only by Coutinho's late late late miracle, and 1-0 v Bournemouth, with Liverpool scoring early but not really holding onto said lead, just exceptionally wasteful in trying to extend it.

You need to go back to the beginning of 2013-14 to find the first comparable fixture. The second match of the season, Suarez still suspended. Liverpool score in the 21st minute and proceed to take just one shot for the rest of the match, holding on for dear life as Villa take 18 shots, but are unable to equalize with 15 of them off-target. That, like Saturday, was very much an out-of-character, any-port-in-a-storm, win ugly at all costs.

That was the last time Liverpool took just five shots in a league match. I have no idea when the last time Liverpool took just five at Anfield was. It hasn't happened since 2011, which is as far back as my stats go. It hasn't happened since 2004, which is as far back as Andrew Beasley went on football-lineups.

But again, there are differences, most notably that Aston Villa – who finished 15th that season – are not Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. That Aston Villa side had 18 attempts at Liverpool's goal. Pep Guardiola's Manchester City had nine: just two in the penalty box, none in the Danger Zone, and none after the hour mark. Liverpool needed last-ditch blocks from Toure and Agger and a few outstanding saves from Mignolet that day; Klavan, Lovren, et al cleaned up before needing to make last-ditch blocks and Mignolet could have been sat in a lounge chair for most of Saturday's match. And, despite the modest attacking output, Liverpool still out-passed and out-possessed Aston Villa.

4-1 City (a) and 1-1 Tottenham (h) last season were the only league matches under Klopp, out of 49 in total, where Liverpool attempted fewer passes, completed fewer passes, had a lower pass accuracy, and had less possession than they did on Saturday. It was a role reversal from what Liverpool are usually used to. This time, they're trying to keep an arguably stronger side out. That often ends poorly; even in ostensibly similar matches under Klopp, where Liverpool score first and then defend reasonably well – see: the last two matches against Tottenham, last season at Dortmund, among others – they end up conceding the equalizer. Not this time.

Despite that massive disparity in Liverpool and City's passes on Saturday, that wasn't the case in the attacking third. There, the totals were almost exactly equal: Liverpool with 81 complete from 137 attempted, City with 82 complete from 129 attempted. 31.4% of Liverpool's passes came in the attacking third. Just 22.4% of Manchester City's did. Had Liverpool been more accurate – just 59.1%, compared to City's 63.6% – maybe Liverpool take more than five shots and score more than one goal. You're probably remembering a couple of counter-attack opportunities that were just one pass away from coming off.

On a related note, Liverpool's 19 interceptions were their most in a match this season, by some distance. 14 of those interceptions came in either the middle third of the pitch or Manchester City's defensive third. No matter that disparity in passing and possession, the above chalkboard shows more defensive actions in Manchester City's half than Liverpool's.

This is how Jürgen Klopp's sides are supposed to defend when Jürgen Klopp's sides focus on defending. We still get the high, heavy press, but also a quick drop into a very compact, high line 4-1-4-1 when out of possession for sustained periods. And it truly flummoxed supposedly free-scoring Manchester City.

As others have already noted, Saturday's performance was more in line with the Rafa Benitez and Gerard Houllier Liverpool sides than what we've become accustomed to in recent seasons, when better or when worse. A defensive juggernaut that does just enough going forward. A crushing machine that strangles and smothers the opposition. That, combined with some very Klopp features: the press, the pace, the work-rate.

Liverpool have now kept clean sheets in three of their last four games, in six of their last nine in all competitions. Liverpool are starting to get the defensive results that their previous allowances – one of the best sides at limiting opposition shots all season, but capable of conceding high-value chances and both unlucky and error-prone – would suggest they've merited.

We will still get the heavy metal, attack attack attack, and, yes, error-prone Liverpool. Probably more often than not. But it's more than reassuring to see Liverpool do ugly. To see Liverpool stifle and defend. To see Liverpool score early – not for the first time – but then capable of strangling the game. Another Top 6 scalp, as already done against both Arsenal and Chelsea this season, but achieved in a very different manner.

It's further evidence of this side's progression under a manager that's been here for little more than a year. And it's another welcome arrow in an already abundant quiver.

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