Sunday’s clash between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield promises to be absolutely huge in the wider context of the Premier League. A win for Manchester City effectively eliminates Liverpool from the title race whereas a Liverpool win would truly open it up to the chasing pack. So who is likely to take the spoils on the day? Julian Bovill has put together this extensive Liverpool vs Man City tactical preview and to try and unlock the riddle and offer a prediction
Liverpool vs Man City tactical preview and prediction
Since arriving in England in 2016, Pep Guardiola has almost achieved everything that he set out to do. The Spaniard has built a formidable Manchester City team that has won two Premier League titles, one FA Cup and three League Cups. The plaudits his teams have gained in that time will also have pleased him: the Sky Blues have played some sensational football at times.
One thing the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach has not managed so far in England, however, is a win at Anfield. He is not on his own in this regard from a City perspective. They last won at Anfield in 2003, losing 13 of the 19 games they have played there in all competitions since. Pep – as with Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini before him – has been unable to end this hoodoo. In truth, he has seldom come close.
In his first season in England, his side were downed 1-0 by an early Gini Wijnaldum goal. They were pressed off the park. Then, in his second, they were battered for much of the game, and at one point found themselves 4-1 down. A brief resurgence in the final 10 minutes almost salvaged the game, but the 4-3 scoreline flattered City.
A few months later Guardiola’s side were drawn against Liverpool in what was a humdinger of a Champions League quarterfinal tie. The Catalan, worried about the counter-attacking threat of the ever-improving side that had hammered his a few months prior, dropped the in-form Raheem Sterling for Ilkay Gundogan to play on the left.
It was an odd concession by Manchester City, who sat well clear at the summit of the Premier League table. They were a better side than Liverpool at this point, but it was essentially their manager saying: “we’re going to tailor our team to you, rather than what we think is our best side.”
Pep of course has had a weird relationship with the Champions League knockouts in recent years. He has been accused of employing “galaxy brain” (that is, overly complicating an otherwise quite simple situation) tactics in these games.
The key to Manchester City getting something on Merseyside is Pep getting the tactical battles right. These are the areas in which he has got it wrong in the past, but if he gets right this weekend, City could be quietly confident of their fifth (third under Guardiola) Premier League crown.
Liverpool full-backs could be key
Any preview of Liverpool vs Man City would be remiss to avoid mentioning that Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane have all experienced quite significant drop offs in form this season, probably owing to the sheer number of games that all four have played in the past 3 years. Nonetheless, City will still be very concerned about the threat they pose from wide areas.
In the 4-3 back in January 2018, it was this persistent counter threat that flummoxed City. Guardiola played Sane and Sterling that day, and both were unable to stop the relentless machine that was Liverpool’s left and right side.
The high-press enacted by Robertson and Alexander-Arnold meant that Ederson was forced to play the ball long, and crucially not into his centre backs or full backs. The prevented the fast and direct progression of the ball up the field that is so crucial to Guardiola’s sides’ style.
There was very symbolic moment in that game where Manchester City’s back four found themselves in possession of the ball on the edge of their own 18-yard box.
It was the 76th minute and Liverpool were leading 4-1. The game was seemingly done. Not in Andy Robertson’s mind, however. He hounded and hurried and pressed John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi who looked shell-shocked. It was the absolute embodiment of Klopp’s Liverpool. From that point onwards, it has always looked like City were quite scared of Liverpool’s threat. There had been something of a changing of the guard; they had beaten Liverpool 5-0 only 4 months prior.
The influence of the fullbacks on these games in recent years cannot be understated. Typically, it has been Alexander-Arnold and Robertson who have had the upper hand. Supressing their threat is vital for City’s hopes.
Who will win the midfield battle?
In both the 3-0 Champions League game and the 3-1 league win for Liverpool in the autumn of 2019 the midfield was a crucial battleground that they convincingly won. The opening goals in both of these games display this.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to drive into the final third and rifled a shot past Ederson in front of the Kop; while Fabinho picked the ball up from a poor defensive clearance and arrowed his shot past Ederson.
Opposite ends of the pitch, but both players were able to find space in an area of the pitch that had crucially been abdicated by Manchester City’s midfield.
Guardiola has tried various tactics to try and combat the midfield battle that his side so often loses to Liverpool. Even in their 2-1 victory at the Etihad in January 2020, that essentially decided the league, the dynamism of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho ran City ragged.
His attempt at a ‘midfield square’ in Europe failed miserably. In an attempt to combat the threat of Mane and Salah, Guardiola deployed Gundogan as an extra body. Unfortunately it did not work as Gundogan found himself getting dragged into a more narrow position, leaving Walker on his own to deal with the terrifying left hand side of Robertson and Mane.
City come into this game with a midfield that is hot in form; whereas Liverpool comes into it with serious questions hanging over the viability of theirs. But, as impressive as the Citizens performance was at Burnley, the intensity of the Lancashire sides press does not compare with Liverpool’s.
Gundogan and Fernandinho are likely to start in a 4-3-2-1 shape on Sunday, and despite their stellar form, both have struggled at the champions before. Quick and accurate ball rotation and retention will be key for City protecting their two-midfield stars. If Liverpool rediscover their suffocating best, City’s midfield could be in for a long afternoon.
Liverpool vs Man City prediction
The form says yes. Manchester City’s record says no. Regardless of Liverpool’s poor form since the New Year, there seems something silly about backing against them.
The head says Manchester City will batter them, and the result will go with the form. The heart says Liverpool, through a combination of grit, determination and a relentless press, are going to kickstart one of the great Premier League title races.
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