Liverpool and Manchester City are the two best teams in the history of English football. It is a remarkable coincidence that Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola should be at the height of their powers at precisely the same time - and extraordinary bad luck for Liverpool supporters.
Both have been almost completely flawless over the last 18 months, which is why this Sunday’s six-pointer at the top of the table feels more decisive than any Premier League title clash before it.
The margins could scarcely be tighter. When John Stones cleared the ball off the line at the Etihad in January, denying Liverpool an opening goal by just 11 millimetres, he both denied them the league title and an ‘Invincibles’ season that would have eclipsed Arsenal’s by eight points. Then again, had Riyad Mahrez not missed a penalty in the 0-0 draw at Anfield in October we would have had none of the drama of last season’s title run-in.
This game is worthy of the hype, in terms of significance if not entertainment. Here’s an in-depth tactical breakdown of the two clubs.
The first meeting was a dull 0-0 draw. Both managers showed caution throughout, neither aware quite how close the title battle would eventually become and both wary of Chelsea’s threat. In other words, taking a point felt like a safe decision for both clubs.
Most notably, Guardiola instructed his full-backs to stay deep to provide additional support against Klopp’s front three and guard against the sudden blitzes that defined Liverpool’s 3-0 win in April the previous year. Bernardo Silva was also deeper than usual, essentially alongside Fernandinho in a 4-2-3-1, while Guardiola set up in a midblock that didn’t press or drop too deep.
He was squeezing midfield first and foremost, cutting off easy passing lines into the forwards, but by keeping wingers Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez high he pinned back Liverpool’s full-backs.
Klopp was equally conservative, partially let down by poor touches from his front three but also prioritising risk-averse football with a midblock. That Trent Alexander-Arnold was left on the bench for the more defensive Joe Gomez says it all. Nobody wanted to make the first move, and nobody really did.
By January, Liverpool’s full-backs had more obviously come to the fore, helping to open up a match that ranks among the best ever in the Premier League. The most important difference was City’s directness, with long diagonal passes played over the top of the Liverpool defence, bypassing the high press and getting their quick wingers in behind.
Liverpool again struggled to get past a City midblock, with Bernardo again alongside Fernandinho. It was notable at the time that Klopp’s team should have played longer passes to stretch the pitch, and indeed they scored from one of the very few examples; a raking pass from Fabinho into Andrew Robertson. In 2019/20, this kind of pre-assist is a common way for Liverpool to score.
Once Leroy Sane gave City the lead Liverpool moved into a wide and attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, leading to a chaotically stretched final 20 minutes in which neither side coped particularly well in the transitions.
Klopp and Guardiola have been greatly influenced by one other.
Guardiola’s short-passing football at Barcelona kick-started a global revolution towards pure possession, peaking with Spain’s 2010 World Cup win, before Jurgen Klopp’s rock-and-roll gegenpressing at Dortmund shifted the culture back towards verticality.
They are the two most influential coaches in modern football, symbiotically intertwined; Klopp’s Dortmund was a response to Guardiola’s Barcelona, his counter-press a way to catch out defenders locked in sideways passing.
In their 2019 incarnations both are broadly similar, borrowing heavily from each other’s more dogmatic ideologies from earlier in their careers. Both press high and look to counter-attack in numbers; both dominate possession out of sheer necessity; both are willing to alter the length of their passes to stretch the pitch; and both coach extraordinarily detailed attacking patterns to etch flowing moves into muscle memory.
The similarities end there. Guardiola remains a manager who generally builds carefully into the final third, maximising use of the half-spaces (where David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne operate) to get wingers in behind with late runs.
Their playmakers are assisted by inverted full-backs who sit on the corner of the penalty area, creating a link between the wingers and attacking midfielders and helping pen the opposition deep in their own half.
Guardiola’s football is metronomic, with triangles appearing all over the pitch; City want to pass the ball into an empty net, one-touch football grinding the opponent down. However, this season they have notably swung more crosses into the box, with De Bruyne playing wider to the right.
Liverpool are more vertical and play with a far narrower shape than Guardiola’s team. Klopp’s 4-3-3 prioritises hard-pressing central midfielders who lack the creative guile of their opposite numbers at City, with greater focus on overlapping full-backs.
The narrowness of the system opens up gaps on the outside for Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson, Liverpool’s most creative players, while Roberto Firmino drifts across the width to link with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
These differences are the reason why, in theory, Liverpool v Man City matches are end-to-end; City dominate through the centre and Liverpool exploit the flanks, while their respective 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 systems layer on top of each other with significant gaps.
First, City’s inverted full-backs often vacate space for Liverpool’s flying full-backs, and second, Liverpool’s ultra-narrow front three overload City’s wobbly centre-backs - but also leave too much defensive work in the half-space pockets where De Bruyne and Silva are so dangerous.
However, the tactical battle is unlikely to be so dramatic. The stakes are just too high for Guardiola to open up as he did in January, when City were chasing down a seven-point gap; the safety-first, defensive football of the 0-0 draw in October is more likely.
Once again, City will hold their full-backs deep, Liverpool will pack the midfield, and the two best teams in the world will play out a tense, claustrophobic affair where avoiding mistakes is prioritised over creativity.
It should be engrossing and high quality, but short on goalmouth action.