If anyone can stop Manchester City from becoming the new Invincibles, it’s Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s confrontational attacking tactics are precisely what’s needed to finally disrupt Pep Guardiola’s astonishing season, making Sunday’s match one of the most eagerly anticipated of 2017/18.
The overall tactical pattern of this match will go one of two ways. Either the high-pressing strategies of both sides will lead to a claustrophobic, low-scoring match played out in the tight midfield spaces, or Liverpool’s boldness will force City to concede territory – triggering an elongated pitch and a frenzied end-to-end match. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
Here are five key tactical questions ahead of Liverpool v Manchester City:
1) Will fear of the front three see City’s defence drop off, disrupting Pep Guardiola’s formation?
On paper, the main tactical riddle facing Manchester City on Sunday is how to ensure their high defensive line is not exposed by Liverpool’s rampant front three. But counter-intuitively the main threat to Pep Guardiola’s meticulous plan isn’t how high they sit, but rather how low they might drop; City’s defenders must show bravery or risk the entire pressing system falling apart.
John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have rarely had their leadership skills tested this season, but the raw speed of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah will ensure City are finally confronted high up the pitch. If the City centre-backs respond by fearfully backpedalling (and Adam Lallana’s long balls might just force a territorial retreat, as discussed below) then a gap will yawn open between a high-press midfield and a stand-off defence.
Mane, Firmino and Salah are more comfortable dropping between the opposition lines than they are running in behind; if City don’t bravely maintain their high line, Liverpool will run riot. This is precisely what happened throughout the 2016/17 campaign, explaining the shambolic counter-attacking goals that were so frequently conceded in Guardiola’s inaugural year in England.
This psychological battle is equally important for Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker. Guardiola’s inverted full-backs cut inside to support Fernandinho as a flat midfield three during sustained periods of City pressure (stamping out counter-attacks by creating a box around the opposition midfield), and so if either player nervously drops off then the entire pressing system could fall apart. For neutrals, this is the best case scenario.
2) Can Adam Lallana assume Philippe Coutinho’s mantle and initiate Liverpool’s counter-attacks?
The above situation will only develop if Liverpool can successfully trigger a City retreat, which will require plenty of early long balls forward that force Stones and Otamendi to sprint towards their own goal. Liverpool’s key player, then, is Adam Lallana – the man tasked with filling Philippe Coutinho’s false eight position.
Coutinho was largely used in central midfield this season after Jurgen Klopp discovered a new role for the Brazilian in last season’s 2-1 victory against Middlesbrough. Coutinho’s no-back-lift through-balls and unusual ability to dribble through a crowd in central areas meant he could trigger Liverpool breakaways from within his own half. Lallana has directly replaced Coutinho in both matches since the 25-year-old left for Barcelona.
Assuming Man City pick both Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, Lallana only needs to wriggle free from Fernandinho on Sunday to launch the counter-attack – in theory. In reality, City’s press is far more complex, but nevertheless the England international will fancy himself against Fernandinho and the supporting inverted full-backs. If Lallana can successfully weave away from the initial challenges he could spark numerous counters with long passes into the final third.
Adam Lallana isn't fit to write Coutinho's farewell YNWA message to us mugs, nevermind replace him in our best starting XI. Let's not fool ourselves here.
— Kevin (@emptyMINDZ) January 9, 2018
3) Will Liverpool’s top-heavy team afford Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva too much room?
If Klopp does field all four of his attackers (which is highly likely given he did so at Arsenal in December) then City’s playmakers might run rings around the Liverpool midfield. Arguably the most intelligent aspect of Guardiola’s tactics is his use of half-spaces, those channels that run between the widest opposition player and the next player across. City’s constantly rotating formation allows both Silva and De Bruyne to drop neatly into these areas, often hiding on the blind side behind the opposition’s midfield line.
It is difficult to assert with confidence that any two of Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, James Milner, Emre Can or Jordan Henderson will adequately track the Premier League’s two most inventive footballers. After all, domination of central attacking midfield defined City’s 5-0 win over Liverpool at the Etihad in September, when Liverpool’s entire midfield completed just two tackles between them.
Lallana’s defensive work will be crucial on Sunday, but equally important will be Mane’s and Salah’s willingness to track back and help close off the passing lines to De Bruyne and Silva.
Kevin De Bruyne in the Premier League = 🔥🔥🔥
— Team of the Year 2017 (@ChampionsLeague) January 10, 2018
4) Will Virgil Van Dijk get the better of an immobile Sergio Aguero?
Injury to Gabriel Jesus means Guardiola will be forced to field Sergio Aguero against Liverpool, something he is increasingly reluctant to do against bigger teams. This is because City’s ultra-fluid football requires universalism from each individual component, something a traditional striker like Aguero struggles to provide. His lack of movement outside the penalty area, and inability to drop off the front line, means extra creative pressure is placed upon De Bruyne. If Alexis Sanchez arrives this month, expect him to exclusively play up front as a false nine.
Aguero is, of course, a deadly finisher, but he won’t pull the Liverpool defence around too much at Anfield. Consequently Virgil van Dijk, on a high following his goal against Everton last Friday, will fancy his chances of keeping the Argentine quiet. Van Dijk isn’t the most agile of footballers and occasionally struggles for pace over five yards, but Aguero won’t be able to exploit these vulnerabilities in the Dutchman’s game.
It is worth noting that in Man City’s 2-1 victory over Southampton back in November, in which Raheem Sterling scored a 95th-minute winner, Aguero managed just 36 touches of the ball and three shots on goal, all of them off target. Van Dijk was excellent at the heart of the Saints defence.
5) Can Mohamed Salah exploit a wayward Fabian Delph?
Salah’s scarcely believable start to life on Merseyside makes him the single biggest threat to Ederson’s goal, and unfortunately for City fans the Egypt international just so happens to be up against City’s weakest player – Fabian Delph. The 28-year-old makeshift left-back has done an admirable job in Benjamin Mendy’s absence, but there is no getting away from the fact he doesn’t have the positional instincts of a defender.
Salah loves dancing into the space between the opposition left-back and left-sided centre-back, which is exactly the manoeuvre that makes Delph uncomfortable. On numerous occasions this season the former Aston Villa midfielder has been guilty of pressing at the wrong moment, getting drawn to the ball and thus leaving space between himself and Otamendi. Salah will punish the slightest error in judgement.
Alex Keble – follow him on Twitter