Even if Liverpool win at the Etihad and go ten points clear of Manchester City the majority of their fans won’t let themselves believe the title race is over (once burnt, twice shy). But for neutrals, it would surely signify the end of Pep Guardiola’s challenge.
A draw probably isn’t good enough for the hosts either, which is why this should be a more open game than the 0-0 stalemate at Anfield. Man City have to come out and attack their opponents. Liverpool are devastating on the counter-attack. It could be a classic.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Man City v Liverpool:
1) Will Liverpool play conservatively, or is the temptation to attack too great?
Having been let down by the hesitancy of both clubs in the 0-0 draw in October, neutrals aren’t letting themselves get carried away this time; fear of defeat could once again lead to a low-scoring game. More importantly, City’s need to win means Liverpool can afford to sit tight and wait. Guardiola’s side will be forced to commit bodies forward in pursuit of victory, so the visitors are likely to absorb pressure and play on the counter, exposing City’s high line and vulnerability in the full-back positions.
Liverpool’s 5-1 victory over Arsenal was a rare example of the Reds in full-throttle in 2018/19 as Klopp let chaos reign, banking that his side’s superior quality would ensure they benefit most from an elongated pitch and an open contest. He won’t be so confident against City, of course, which means quashing the excitement that built at Anfield three days ago. The full-backs will sit back and the 4-3-3 will return.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean a dull game. When the opportunity to counter-attack arises Liverpool probably won’t be able to resist pouring men forward. It’s in their nature to pounce on wounded animals. This could accidentally create an end-to-end game as Man City counter-counter, although one notably improved aspect of Liverpool’s tactics in 2018/19 is game management. They have become superb at raising and lowering the tempo when appropriate, soothing a game when it becomes too adrenalised or increasing the pressure when things become flat.
2) Will Walker and Fernandinho be able to shut down the counter-attack at source?
Assuming the pattern of this match is Man City possession and Liverpool counters, perhaps the most important area of the pitch for City is to the centre-right of midfield. Kyle Walker seems set to return to the starting line-up for this one, and he will probably play as an inverted right-back to cut off the passing line from central midfield into Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, the two most important players in a Liverpool breakaway.
Firmino dropping deep to collect the first pass, before finding the feet of Liverpool’s best dribbler, is the visitors’ most obvious source of counter-attacking. City, then, need to ensure their two-man defensive shield is fully operational; during long periods of possession, Fernandinho and Walker will sit almost side by side, waiting to sweep up should the ball be lost.
Mane’s battle with Walker is made particularly interesting by the latter’s complex positioning. If the game wears on at 0-0 then Guardiola will be forced to encourage Walker to bomb forward, and yet to do so would clearly leave City vulnerable to Mane’s pace. Equally, should Mane hug the touchline then it will be very difficult for Walker to justify holding an inverted position, and yet to follow Mane would leave City – once again – looking soft in the centre.
It’s all a bit complicated. Basically, keep an eye on how Mane and Walker interact with one another.
3) Do Liverpool have a plan to stop Mahrez and B. Silva combining on the right flank?
The Mane-Walker battle probably means neither player will be involved in City attacks, which increases the likelihood of the hosts finding success down that flank. In Kevin de Bruyne’s absence (and he is unlikely to feature on Thursday) Guardiola has been relying on Bernardo Silva’s clever movement in the right-centre column, the Portuguese often linking with Riyad Mahrez to create a unique partnership in the Premier League.
Throughout the last couple of months B. Silva and Mahrez have interacted like double right wingers; when one goes wide the other comes inside, creating a system that eliminates the need for an overlapping right-back – and generally confuses opposition defences. The combination led directly to City’s first goal last time out against Southampton, who sat in an ultra-narrow 4-3-3 not dissimilar to Liverpool’s formation.
Klopp’s team can be guilty of leaving too much space on the outside of the midfield three, opening up a window of opportunity for a Mahrez-Silva one-two to overwhelm Andrew Robertson. Fabinho has a crucial role to play in following Silva across and providing additional cover.
4) Can Salah get the better of Zinchenko down Liverpool’s right?
The game’s crucial mismatch is, of course, Mohamed Salah versus third choice left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko. He made a glaring error against Southampton on Sunday that highlighted his hesitancy in possession; Zinchenko won’t be looking forward to the swarming Liverpool press, which will look to target the 22-year-old.
Salah is back to his best, and that means an unmatched ability to square up to a full-back and dribble past him – or just flick it round him with his first touch and leave him for dead. The only way this one-on-one doesn’t end in at least one Liverpool goal is if Guardiola devises a plan to give Zinchenko additional support. With Fernandinho covering the width of the pitch and David Silva directly ahead of Zinchenko, that doesn’t seem likely.
5) Can David Silva and Raheem Sterling make life difficult for Alexander-Arnold and Lovren?
This is very much a game for wingers. If Liverpool’s immaculate defence has a weakness then it’s Trent Alexander-Arnold’s positional play, particularly when he is being backed up by Dejan Lovren – a man who doesn’t always handle pressure too well.
Alexander-Arnold can be guilty of committing to challenges that leave the defence exposed, and while these small mistakes are increasingly rare, David Silva and Raheem Sterling (or Leroy Sane) will feel a slight advantage. Silva’s through balls down the left will certainly test Alexander-Arnold, and if a City winger gets behind the young England defender then Liverpool fans have every right to panic. Lovren hasn’t really been tested since coming into the side. Silva, Sterling, and Sergio Aguero will apply serious pressure.