In the first part of our two-part analysis, we compared the quality of attacking play, using both classic and advanced statistical indicators, as well as descriptive measures. In the sequel, we focus on the defence, looking at the most important and relevant indicators at team and player level.
As we have seen with the quality of the chances created, there was hardly any difference between City and Liverpool, almost no difference in the brutal pace and efficiency of the attacking play of both clubs. Virtually the same can be said of the quality of defending, as we are talking about the teams with by far the lowest goals-conceded rate in the entire league. Only 26 times did the opponents manage to outwit the backline of the Sky Blues or Reds. Just to put it into perspective, the next two teams with the least number of goals conceded were Chelsea with 33 and Tottenham with 40 goals during the 2021-22 PL season. The two rivals also finished level in the number of clean sheets (21), for which not only the defence and goalkeepers deserve credit, but the whole team.
The statement above is also true for the expected goals conceded. Against Manchester City, the opponents have created enough chances for a xGA of 28.63, while against Liverpool the number was 35.02. In this comparison, Chelsea (34.4) also performed quite well, while Brighton (47.41) had the 4th most organised defence in terms of this advanced indicator. It was not just scoring goals that was the problem, but also creating chances. While the average number of shots against per 90 minutes in the recently completed Premier League season was 11.98, Ederson had 5.97 and Alisson 7.39 attempts to save. When ranked by the number of shots on target against, City (2.29) came out on top, but the team from Merseyside (2.87) were just shy of the mark, especially as no other team could manage to stay below average 3. Looking at the xG per shot against figures, we can see that when opponents did manage to get a shot off, they were able to try from medium quality positions. City allowed an average of 0.126 xG attempts to opponents and Liverpool allowed 0.125 xG, which puts the two giants in the second half of the ranking.
When discussing the defence in detail, we must start with the duels. City have had the fewest defensive duels per 90 minutes in the league (49.32), but Liverpool’s 56.68 is not too high either, with 16 teams averaging more than that. It is said of the really classy defenders that they can, by their mere presence, make opposing attackers so unsafe that they often don’t even have to engage in a duel. Virgil van Dijk is undoubtedly one of the best defenders in the world, and he proves this point. Incredibly, he has just 2.79 defensive duels per 90 minutes to his name, with Salah (3.18), Mané (3.57) and Díaz (4.42) all having more. From the Reds’ defence, TAA (5.41) and Konaté (5.71) have the most defensive duels, but in terms of the whole squad, Milner (8.55), Keita (8.36) and Thiago (8.02) are leading the duel charts among players with at least 900 minutes. The success rate is also a key indicator, with the Dutchman (74.26%) and Cameroonian (73.42%) leading the Pool defenders, but the Frenchman (69.12) is not doing badly either. It is perhaps not such a surprise that the respective rates of the two wing-backs are much lower (57.97% for Robertson, 56.22% for TAA), as their success in their roles is much more complex than that, just think of the huge number of assists they produce year after year.
Guardiola’s team has fewer defensive duels overall, with the veteran Fernandinho (7.12/90), Rodri (6.63) and Joao Cancelo (6.57) making the most of them, while Laporte (2.99) and Stones (2.69), like van Dijk, rarely get involved in such situations. Compared to Liverpool, who are 60.3% successful in this metric, Manchester City are slightly more successful in this respect, coming out on top 61.7% of the time. City’s Aké (74.55%) leads the way in terms of effectiveness, followed by Mahrez (68.85) and Bernardo Silva (68.02), with Stones (66.67%) and Cancelo (65.35%) also above the 65% mark.
Moving on to aerial duels, City are also averaging the fewest (25.79/90 minutes), but they are also the best in terms of efficiency (53.27%). The English and Dutch midfielder each have 4.78, the Portuguese has 4.09 followed by the Frenchman with 3.2 aerial duels, where Stones (70.31%) and Aké (69.81%) are the most effective ones. Liverpool have slightly more aerial duels (30.16), but it doesn’t look good that the Reds are only successful in 47.91% of them. Van Dijk’s 70% is particularly impressive, while Matip (62.73) and Konaté (59.02) are not among the best.
Interceptions, recoveries, ball losses
Since Manchester City (68.2%) and Liverpool (61.5%) have the highest ball-possession, it is not surprising that these two teams do not have the highest figures for preventive tackles. City operate at 32.29 interceptions per 90 minutes, roughly 6 fewer than Chelsea (38.76). In this element of football, it is typically the players who read the game superbly who lead the way, with Rodri (4.37) and Zinchenko (4.31) being the in-house kings. By comparison, the Liverpool average 40.00 interceptions, which is the 4th fewest in the league. In Klopp’s team, Milner (5.67) Matip (5.63), and Konaté (5.29) are the best at intercepting the ball.
Retrieving the ball is also a very important skill, especially when they prevent the opposition from having a quick counterattack, and is done at their own half. At a team level, the Reds have 86.16 recoveries – no club has more. Of those who have played at least 900 minutes, they have 6 players averaging more than 10 recoveries, with the three midfielders aces in this. If we rank the teams according to the number of recoveries in the opponent’s half, Liverpool (35.39) are still unbeatable, followed by Brighton (32.18) and rivals City (31.47). Broken down by player, Thiago (6.48), Fabinho (5.44) and Milner (5.19) stand out the most in this comparison. The Manchester Blues have far fewer recoveries (74.42), with only 5 teams having a lower figure. Despite this, however, they collect the 3rd most balls in the opponent’s half, with Rodri (5.42), Zinchenko (4.31) and Cancelo (4.01) all performing at an elite level.
The picture is complete if we also mention the volume of ball losses. City players give away the fewest balls (86.87), compared to Liverpool’s 109.7, which is drastically higher. In case of Manchester City, Cancelo (11.8), Kevin De Bruyne (11.36) and Sterling (9.58) are the main culprits in this respect, while TAA (15.24), Firmino (14.24) and Tsimikas (12.82) are at the other side. However, it is also true that most of these occur in the opponent’s half, with the Reds losing the second fewest balls (28.68) in their own half after Guardiola’s team (23.74).
Some other relevant indicators
Last but not least, we would like to highlight a few other parameters to round off the analysis, which could also provide us with interesting information regarding the defensive performance of the two teams. If you’re a fan of defending deep and the stylistic characteristics that go with it, you may not be the most ’excited’ by these two teams’ matches. Clearances are not very common for either Manchester City (10.11) or Liverpool (13.47), so much so that they are at the bottom of the list in this indicator. As for shots blocked (1.42 vs 1.79) and dribbles against won (8.92 vs 8.97), they are also the leaders. Neither team is characterised by breaking up the opponent’s play too often: City’s 8.47 fouls committed is the lowest in the league, while Pool’s 9.39 is also well below the 10.07 league average. They also have the fewest yellow cards (42 vs 50) and red cards (1-1), which shows that neither clubs have a ‘dirty style’.
Similar to the analysis of the attacking play, there was hardly any difference in the quality of the two rivals’ defensive game. They were neck and neck in terms of goals conceded (26) and clean sheets (21), and although City conceded significantly fewer shots (227 vs 281), Alisson was a real wall for the Reds. In term of xG per attempt against (Pool: 0.125; City: 0.126), there was almost no difference between the two teams, meaning that on average they conceded roughly the same quality of chances.
Given the fact that in the vast majority of their matches both teams had the courage to dominate and there is no team that can keep up with them in terms of possession, the very low number of defensive duels, interceptions, clearances and shots blocked is hardly surprising. What was noticeable and visible to the naked eye, however, was the difference in the number of recoveries and the amount of ball losses: Klopp’s side did better in the former, while Guardiola’s did better in the latter. On the basis of the advanced statistical parameters used to analyse the defensive play of the teams, it can be said that, overall, the Sky Blues’ off-the-ball play was perhaps a touch more effective in the 2021-22 PL season.
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