Manchester City were dominant last season, yet tasted defeat to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool three times. The weaknesses of Guardiola’s team Their own dominance of possession usually insulates City’s defence by the Reds and derailed their hopes of winning the Champions League. However, inconsistency amongst their title rivals meant that Manchester City were able to open a gaping points deficit in the domestic league. However, this year the competition from Chelsea and Liverpool for the Premier League title appears genuine.
Liverpool won 4-3 and 3-0 in home games against City last year and displayed how their press can overwhelm opposing teams. Low-tempo possession football is risky at Anfield and Klopp sides seek to punish lapses in concentration. Guardiola’s Manchester City won’t waver from their possession-based approach, which should present Liverpool with opportunities to pinch the ball and spring into their attacking phase.
It’s ironic that Klopp’s pressing philosophy has generated so many problems for Guardiola over the years, given that the Spaniard would usually welcome the opposition’s press. His sides are schooled to exploit openings that are created when players vacate their position to close-down the ball-carrier. Yet, Liverpool’s press is so aggressive and organised that even City’s most accomplished passers know to be wary.
Manchester City, too, are accomplished pressers. Guardiola has now constructed a squad full of mobility that are as adept at regaining possession as they are at retaining it. City’s press is focused upon quickly surrounding the ball-carrier, and that is most evident in the phase immediately after they lose possession. It forces the opposition to find a pass quickly or play the ball long to retain control of the ball. Liverpool’s ability to switch from defence to attack quickly should aid their chances of coping with Manchester City’s press.
Liverpool may be without Naby Keita for this weekend’s fixture despite receiving the all-clear after concerns over a potentially serious back injury. Virgil Van Dijk is back to full fitness having played a whole part in the Red’s draw at Chelsea last weekend after initial fitness concerns lead to his early withdrawal against Southampton a fortnight ago.
Klopp will want his side to attack in the opening stages of the game. This is the period where the Red’s high-tempo system is most energetic and incisive. Liverpool are, perhaps, the team more suited to guarding a lead, as they demonstrated in last season’s Champion’s League first-leg victory. Having flown into an early 3-0 lead, they were able to frustrate Manchester City’s patient build-up. Liverpool were unable to effectively counter-attack in the second half on that occasion, but Klopp would be confident that the pace in his attack should be able to maintain a threat when defending with a deep line in this weekend’s fixture.
Liverpool’s options in midfield have been further restricted after this week’s injury to Keita. The Malian might have been able to replicate Oxlade-Chamberlain’s progressive running that was effective against Manchester City in Klopp’s midfield-three last season. Instead, Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum are likely to start the match. The trio must ensure that their passing isn’t overly negative as this may encourage City to press deeper into the Liverpool half.
Mo Salah has netted three times in his opening seven, though having scored almost a goal per game in the league last season, the Egyptian has had to deal with his side’s goals being more evenly spread among the squad so far. There is some suggestion that he is failing to reproduce the performances of last season and his early withdrawal against Chelsea last weekend exaggerated these concerns. Yet, Salah has been averaging more key passes and dribbles per game than last season and still manages to fire an average of four shots at goal, the same as last season. Salah’s underlying statistics appear positive, but he must ensure that he isn’t starved of touches against City, who will dominate possession.
Predicted line-up: Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, van Dijk, Robertson, Milner, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Salah, Firmino, Mane
City’s left-back area will concern Guardiola this weekend. Injuries to Mendy and Delph meant that third-choice Zinchenko was selected for last weekend’s league victory. And Laporte, who struggled to contain Salah in this role last season and may be targeted again, was re-examined against Hoffenheim on Tuesday night. First-choice Benjamin Mendy is back in training with the team, but it is unclear whether Guardiola would risk the Frenchman in such a demanding fixture.
The City manager’s use of his full-backs is fascinating. They drift inside and occupy more of a midfield position, with wide-players Sterling and Sane hugging the touchline. An inside position minimises the opportunity to over-lap but creates better passing angles into City’s wingers and strikers. Passes often target the space in between full-back and centre-back for Sane or Sterling to pick up behind their opponent’s defensive line. Oleksandr Zinchenko completed over one-hundred passes against Brighton, more than any player on the pitch; an indication of City’s full-backs creative responsibility. However, against Liverpool and especially if Laporte is played at left-back, Pep may utilise his full-backs more conventionally to guard against the pace of Mane and Salah.
Having been absent from the City squad in the opening weeks, Leroy Sane has returned to form in the last few matches. The pace and width that he adds to the team should pin back Trent Alexander-Arnold who succeeded in nullifying the German last season. Aguero and Sterling are most likely to accompany Sane in the City attack, though both have struggled in prior visits to Anfield.
A tactical adjustment could see the latter lose his starting place allowing Bernardo Silva to occupy Sterling’s right-wing role with Gundogan re-instated to central midfield. If Raheem Sterling does retain his starting position on the wing, it is very likely that one of David or Bernardo Silva would drop to the bench in place of Gundogan. The German’s inclusion gives the City midfield greater balance and reduces Fernandinho’s defensive burden.
Manchester City tend to focus their build-up play around the corner-point of their opposition’s penalty area. From this position and if given time, the likes of David Silva can either: thread passes through the defensive line, play the ball wide to a winger or cross the ball into the box. Liverpool will have to ensure that these areas are well manned.
Predicted line-up: Ederson, Walker, Kompany, Otamendi, Laporte, Fernandinho, Gundogan, D. Silva, B. Silva, Aguero, Sane
Watch out for: Last season, a ploy of Guardiola’s was for Manchester City to play the ball all the way back to Ederson. This would draw the Liverpool press deep into the City half, creating space for his teammates up-field for Ederson to kick into.
Prediction: Liverpool 2 – 1 Manchester City
Liverpool should be able to exploit Manchester City’s defensive shortcomings, particularly their lack of depth at left-back. City’s defence are usually insulated by their own dominance of possession, but Liverpool’s bolder approach than other teams and pressing style pose a much greater threat to their back-line. Concentration in midfield would be crucial for Manchester City, as Liverpool will be seeking to profit from hesitant possession.
Klopp’s side are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe and if they can strike first, it would be difficult for Manchester City to break down an improved defence and cope with Liverpool’s movement on the counter.