Alex Keble looks forward to a "frantic but beautifully sculpted" clash between Liverpool and Manchester City in his latest Five-Star Tactics column.
One of the most important matches of this Premier League season should also be one of the best. Manchester City’s gung-ho attacking tactics and overly-expansive defensive shape should clash horribly with Liverpool’s gegenpressing system to create a wild, end-to-end encounter not dissimilar from the hosts’ midweek defeat in Monaco.
Liverpool sit atop the top-six mini-league because their high-pressing philosophy exposes the high lines of the country’s better teams, and no single manager has shown more naivety to this idea than Pep Guardiola.
It will be a frantic but beautifully sculpted Premier League game between two of the most aesthetically-inclined managers in world football. Here are five key tactical questions ahead of the match:
1. Can Manchester City’s clumsy back four and expansive midfield cope with the onrush of Liverpool’s gegenpress?
The biggest similarity between Monaco and Liverpool is the sheer volume of bodies that rush forward on the counter, with Klopp’s team constantly harassing their opponents high up the field to create sudden overloads in the final forty yards of the pitch. Guardiola’s uber-attacking formation is extremely vulnerable to this tactic.
His V-shaped 4-5-1 includes five out-and-out attackers, leaving just a single defensive midfielder to cover a huge gap between the forwards and the defence. Although not problematic when City are allowed to dominate possession and territory, it is naïve when facing high-pressing outfits.
Whenever Liverpool win a tackle in the City half they will find themselves charging towards an overly-wide back four and solitary midfielder; Adam Lallana, in wonderful form of late, will revel in a five-v-five counter-press situation.
It is a problem of Guardiola’s own making. Yaya Toure has proved unreliable in the DMC slot, but when Fernandinho replaces him there is no full-back capable of shifting across to provide additional support in the middle, as the Brazilian does when Toure anchors the midfield. In Fabian Delph, Guardiola has the perfect footballer (athletic, intelligent, brilliant at weaving away from the press, and defensively disciplined) to either play in the middle or be utilised as an inverted full-back, but the City boss continues to overlook the former Aston Villa man.
Even without Delph, there are other ways to tackle the game’s key tactical feature…
2. Will Guardiola learn from Monaco mistakes and field De Bruyne in a deeper role?
City’s catastrophic first half against Monaco on Wednesday could be the defining pattern of the match at Anfield this weekend, but Guardiola’s tactical tweak at half-time offers a solution to the problem of Klopp’s counter-press.
Kevin de Bruyne moved into a deeper midfield role alongside Fernandinho, leaving David Silva to patrol the number ten space on his own. The Belgian’s composure in the middle soothed those around him, providing the back four with a reliable short-passing option that could out-manoeuvre the press. His spatial intelligence provided City with a fulcrum, creating triangles in that key pressing zone, which quickly forced Monaco to abandon their high line and begin retreating.
If City are to nullify Liverpool, they must find a way to keep them caged in their own half. De Bruyne must be instructed to occupy a deep-lying role; his composure under pressure will help City evade the initial counter-press, while his sharp long-range passing will get Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling into the game. Once these two wingers are causing problems, Klopp’s side will be forced to retreat into their own third.
3. Can Liverpool’s full-backs contain Sterling’s & Sane’s out-to-in runs during City possession spells?
During those periods of the game in which City are in control, their most dangerous feature will be Sane’s and Sterling’s clever inward runs. Monaco could not contain these two when De Bruyne or Silva threaded a pass inside the full-back, and Liverpool’s back four should similarly struggle.
City’s V-shape midfield relies on Sterling and Sane lurking on the touchline, which in turn forces the opposition to take a wider starting position than they would like. Using dual playmakers in Silva and De Bruyne, City then exploit their opponents ever-widening gaps by capitalising on their wingers’ out-to-in runs. These are drilled repeatedly on the training pitch by Guardiola, who has used this tactic throughout his managerial career.
The best way to nullify these runs is to keep the back four as narrow as possible, ignoring Sane and Sterling. They are fairly harmless when left to their own devices on the touchline, while staying compact also limits space for Sergio Aguero and forces Silva and De Bruyne to play simple passes out wide.
4. Will City’s wingers track back effectively or allow Mane to dominate the match?
Stubbornly refusing to be drawn into Sane’s and Sterling’s game would be beneficial at both ends. Neither player tracks back consistently, which should play into Liverpool’s hands when they attempt a more traditional counter-attack (from a deep, defensive position).
Sadio Mane will relish isolating Gael Clichy, and City’s French defender can expect virtually no support from Sane when Liverpool break. This is a serious dilemma for Guardiola. Does he field a more pragmatic player on the left (again, Delph should be seriously considered) or stick with the idealism of his ultra-attacking philosophy?
Much will rest upon the work-rate of his front-five when Liverpool sense the opportunity to launch a counter-attack. If the Monaco game is anything to go by, the away side will create plenty of chances through Mane and Philippe Coutinho.
5. Can Aguero rediscover his goalscoring touch or will Lovren confirm the Argentine’s summer exit?
Sergio Aguero has scored just once in his last seven league games and misfired badly in Monaco earlier this week. His departure from the club this summer seems almost certain unless a dramatic change takes place between now and May. On Sunday, he must gobble up any half-chances that come his way or risk being dropped from the first 11 altogether.
Guardiola is right not to trust Aguero. He does not contribute enough outside the box to function as part of a short-passing, possession-dominant side and is holding City back, despite scoring 21 goals in 34 appearances this season. His inability to play as a false nine is partly why City are relying upon Sane and Sterling to create from out wide. Consequently, the Argentine must get on the end of their crosses to prove his worth.
Lovren’s return to the starting line-up makes his head-to-head with Aguero the most fascinating on the pitch. If the Liverpool defender comes out on top it will most likely be the final nail in the coffin for a man just 18 goals shy of becoming Man City’s all-time leading goalscorer.