Tactical preview: Liverpool’s last chance to halt Pep Guardiola’s marching Manchester City

They’re running away with this. Manchester City are on an absolute roll, with 13 wins in a row in all competitions (their longest-ever streak excluding penalty shootouts) and no defeats in 20.

They have three points and a game in hand over their nearest rivals, while Liverpool are another three points below them.


Going by their lofty recent standards, the Reds have been terrible lately. They have won just three of their last 10 matches in all competitions, losing three in the league and seeing their over three-year-long unbeaten run at Anfield fall apart against Burnley.

Now, there is a serious chance of Liverpool losing two consecutive home games in the Premier League – something that was near-unspeakable just a couple of weeks ago.

City are an unstoppable force and an immovable object all rolled into one, so it will take a Herculean effort from the defending champions to stop them.

Let’s take a look at what we can expect from this match from a tactical point of view.

Line-ups

Liverpool

Considering that their 4-3-3 with Xherdan Shaqiri on the left failed quite miserably against Brighton and Hove Albion, Liverpool might be tempted to go back to the diamond midfield that worked so well against West Ham. Both Alisson and Fabinho are doubts for this match, but they will undoubtedly be chosen over Caoimhín Kelleher and Nathaniel Phillips respectively even if they are only at 75%.

It is hard to imagine either of the new centre-backs (Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies) thrust into such a big match for their debuts, so Phillips should come in if Fabinhoo fails to make the cut. Alternatively, if all is well, Jürgen Klopp might be tempted to push Jordan Henderson back into midfield by using Phillips alongside Fabinho.

James Milner would most likely lose his spot in that case, but Georginio Wijnaldum could also be replaced. Sacrificing Thiago Alcântara would be a bold decision, but given the circumstances, it might be the best.

Xherdan Shaqiri could spearhead the midfield diamond (as is depicted above) or play on the left wing in a 4-3-3. This is a discussion because Sadio Mané is a major doubt for this match, but should he return to a starting spot, a 4-3-3 is guaranteed.

Manchester City

Selection headaches are one of Pep Guardiola’s favourite problems, but considering how well Manchester City have been performing in the last couple of months, a case of selection migraine seems inevitable for the Spanish tactician.

Ederson, João Cancelo, John Stones and Rúben Dias have to be guaranteed starters, but the first main question is at left-back. Aymeric Laporte was solid against Burnley and he should be better at dealing with Salah defensively, but Oleksandr Zinchenko was superb in the inverted full-back role against Sheffield United too. However, it is impossible to argue against Cancelo’s inclusion, so there will be no inverted left-back role in this match (more on this later).

Bernardo Silva and İlkay Gündoğan must start in midfield, but the number 6 role poses another problem for Guardiola. Both Fernadinho and Rodri have been utterly outstanding recently, but only one of them can make the cut since there is no way City will revert to the 4-2-3-1 they used in the initial stages of the season.

The reason for that is because they have learned that width is the key to unlocking opposing defences, which is exactly why Phil Foden is guaranteed a spot on the left as he is only the left-footed left winger in City’s ranks. Raheem Sterling should pip Ferran Torres to the spot on the right, while Gabriel Jesus will probably be used up front being the only fit senior striker. However, if Guardiola really wants to throw a curveball (which he loves to do), he might use Riyad Mahrez as a false nine.

Given the injuries and changes in system that both sides have undergone since their last meeting in November, there is no point in looking towards it for any clues about how the next edition of this modern rivalry might play out.

But, there is a lot more that we can take a look at:

Liverpool’s press (or lack thereof)

Of the famous front three, Sadio Mané is undoubtedly the most important player out of possession. His intensity and work-rate while pressing are second to none, and he is the pressing trigger for the Reds. His importance is proven by the fact that Liverpool have an average PPDA (Passes allowed Per Defensive Action) of 9.08 this season, but in the last two matches without him, it was 12.29 and 10.71 respectively.

This marked increase is certainly not good news (lower PPDA generally means better and higher pressing), and even if Mané starts against City, it is hard to imagine him pressing with the same intensity given his very recent injury troubles.

Liverpool signed ‘pressing monster’ Diogo Jota for these precise situations, but guess who is certainly not going to be fit enough for this game despite finally returning to training.

You can see Liverpool’s reluctance to press in this instance against Brighton. While their front three are unquestionably high up the pitch, they aren’t applying any pressure on the ball as they usually would, which gives the man in possession a lot of time to pick his pass – short or long.

Giving City time on the ball, even in their defensive third, will probably not end well.

Manchester City’s build-up

With around 62.2% of the ball, City have the highest average possession for any side in Europe’s top five leagues this season. Naturally, a lot of this is in their own half while building up, so here is how they do it.

As is very well-documented, City switch to a back-three in possession, as Cancelo drifts into a position in defensive midfield to form a double pivot with the holding midfielder.

Because Ederson’s ball-playing ability is as good as that of any outfielder, he too can comfortably be used in the build-up. Therefore, no matter how many men the opponents try to throw forward, City always have numerical superiority in the build-up phase.

The defensive midfielder (Rodri especially) often drops into the defensive line to allow one of the centre-backs (usually the one in the middle – Dias) to carry the ball forward.

Usually, though, Cancelo pushes forward as City reach the halfway line, with the defensive midfielder providing a passing option in multiple triangles to break the opposition’s first line. Above, you can see that Rodri is at the centre of six passing triangles for City while in between the opposition lines. This should explain why no other Premier League player has attempted more passes than the Spanish midfielder this season.

It may seem a bit counterintuitive to talk about Rodri’s strengths after suggesting that Fernandinho might start over him, it must be noted that the Brazilian veteran has only featured in half as many Premier League matches as Rodri, partly due to injury and partly because Guardiola has one eye on the future.

But, per 90, Fernandinho only attempts 5.3 fewer passes than his Spanish counterpart, so he will be almost as good in the build-up, while also providing a much better defensive screen against Liverpool’s devastating counterattacks (he makes 0.9 more tackles and interceptions per 90).

Liverpool’s high line

Liverpool’s high line has been discussed many times, but recently, it has started to be exposed once again. In theory, pushing defenders up helps compress the pitch vertically, helping win the ball back easily with a higher press. However, for this to work, you need quick centre-backs – and an actual press.

Fabinho and Henderson (or Phillips if he is used) do not strike anyone as particularly quick, and as previously discussed, Liverpool’s press is not the same without Mané. So, their high defensive line could easily get exposed, just as it did against Manchester United in the FA Cup.

City certainly have a long ball in their locker – here is Dias sending a ball over the top of the Sheffield United defence to provide a pre-assist to Ferran Torres in the build-up to their first and only goal of the match. If they can do it against the Blades’ back-five, they surely can do it against Liverpool’s makeshift defence.

This is where Laporte’s selection could prove crucial – in the 2018/19 season (the last time he was fit for a year straight), he created the fourth-most chances through long balls for any centre-back in the league (with a minimum of 15 appearances).

João Cancelo

Ever since that 0-0 Manchester derby stalemate in the Premier League, Guardiola has shifted City to a 3-3-4/3-1-3-3 (depending on the presence of a false nine) in possession. This system has proven unstoppable, failing to blank in a single match. This is what Liverpool should expect:

You can see a 3-1-3-3 in possession above (note that Kyle Walker was the right-back in this match, so Zinchenko was used as an inverted left-back). The wingers hold their width, while the main midfield line is looking to operate in the half-spaces. Naturally, the midfielders are looking to receive the ball in between the opposition lines.

Depending on which side the inverted full-back is on, City can create numerical overloads using the winger, midfielder and potentially even the striker/false nine. In this instance, the right winger (Sterling) and false nine (Mahrez) have pulled the West Brom defence out of shape, allowing Silva to make a run from deep to meet Cancelo’s chipped ball. Defending a full-back in such a position is next to impossible.

Worse yet, Cancelo even turns up with late runs at the edge of the box after City push their attackers inside the box, providing an extra presence (which is once again very hard to defend). That is precisely how he scored his first goal against West Brom.

This is where Fabinho’s fitness will prove crucial. He is the closest thing Liverpool have to a senior centre-back, and City are inevitably going to try and pummel Liverpool on their left, so the Brazilian international’s presence might make or break his side’s defensive effort.

Conclusion

Current form clearly points towards a Manchester City victory – Liverpool have underperformed their xG in six of their last eight matches (not that the xG itself is particularly high), while City have not conceded a league goal in the last six consecutive Premier League matches.

The importance of this match does not need to be reiterated to either side – it could well be Liverpool’s last chance to stay in the title race, while a City victory would give them a six-point cushion and yet more confidence to boost their title hopes even further.

But, after all of this predicting, absolutely anything can happen in 90 minutes of football, so you never know.

Stats courtesy SkySports, Understat.comFbref.com and WhoScored.com