1) Will Guardiola’s counter-attacks hurt a Van Dijk-less defence?
This should be another scintillating end-to-end game between Manchester City and Liverpool, not least because Pep Guardiola takes an entirely different approach to these matches. Usually, in his search for total control, he expects his players to recycle possession when the ball is won, reorganising their shape to arrive in the final third in a perfectly choreographed position.
It has proved to be a problem this season, leading to predictable low-tempo football that allows deeper opponents to get back behind the ball. However, City’s 4-0 victory over Liverpool last July was notable for how often Guardiola’s side played direct, vertical football on the counter-attack, hitting Kevin de Bruyne through the centre of the pitch as often as possible.
This dramatically stretched the game, with Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden sprinting forward to help expose Liverpool’s high line and the large space behind Jurgen Klopp’s full-backs. Guardiola will likely repeat this tactic, leading to rapid counter-attacks – followed by counter-counters from Liverpool, giving neutrals the chaotic game we want.
2) Will Liverpool’s long balls forward push Manchester City back?
For Klopp, the primary tactic over the last few meetings has been to push Manchester City back by launching long balls forward over the top of their high defensive line. The aim is to bypass City’s high press altogether, hitting Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in the channels as early as possible. This forces Guardiola’s defenders to frantically backpedal and risk being pulled out of shape.
Virgil van Dijk’s absence from the team could limit Liverpool’s ability to play such a direct game, although Thiago is a brand new element whose passing range could be crucial. Perhaps he will drop deeper than usual to get on the ball and, as is the plan, create an uncontrolled contest that prevents Manchester City from being able to fall into a short-passing rhythm.
Historically, Manchester City have sat off Van Dijk. Keep an eye on whom and where City’s press targets, because Guardiola will be very keen to cut off these long balls at source.
3) Can Liverpool’s width target Cancelo and Walker?
Liverpool’s other main route to goal is building down the flanks, with Jordan Henderson and the left-sided midfielder (possibly Georginio Wijnaldum) expected to position themselves wider than usual. This gives the full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson a wall-pass option that completes the triangle shape with Mane or Salah.
Manchester City are clearly vulnerable in the wide areas, an issue that is only exacerbated if it is one of Liverpool’s long forward passes that gets them into these zones. On Liverpool’s left, Kyle Walker doesn’t always get enough support from Riyad Mahrez (particularly if a long ball is played with the Algerian up field), and on their right, Joao Cancelo is an obvious weak link defensively.
What’s more, Mane’s individual battle with Ruben Dias promises to be a significant challenge for the young defender and his first major test in a Manchester City shirt. Even if Liverpool’s forwards are controlled by Manchester City, it’s hard to see how the hosts will entirely stop Alexander-Arnold and Robertson crossing from deep.
4) Can Mahrez and De Bruyne exploit Liverpool defensive flaw?
Manchester City should be just as free-scoring as Liverpool. In the 2-2 draw with Everton, Klopp’s left-sided defender (first Van Dijk, then Joe Gomez) was frequently pulled out of position towards the flank to cover for Robertson, who was caught high or pressing too hard. It is only a minor positional error in the system, but one that allowed Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin to receive slide passes into the channel between Gomez and Robertson.
This is an area Manchester City will naturally focus on, partly because De Bruyne tends to float out to the right flank this season. There will be times in this game when Robertson is forced to get tight to De Bruyne, leaving Gomez in an uncomfortable position as Riyad Mahrez occupies the right flank and Ferran Torres starts to make a move.
Normally, it is when Manchester City are particularly dominant down the right wing that their left side becomes unexpectedly dangerous. Should Gomez and Robertson struggle, pulling Liverpool towards that side, then Raheem Sterling may find himself in acres of room for a quick switch over to the other flank.
5) Does Torres have the ability to deputise for Aguero?
However, a lot rests on the ability of Torres to deputise for Sergio Aguero up front. So far the Spaniard has performed admirably, making intelligent runs and holding up the ball neatly, as well as scoring twice in three games as a centre-forward. But there is no hiding the fact he is not a clinical finisher, and will not get into the right spaces between centre-backs when De Bruyne swings crosses into the box.
Should Guardiola fear a lack of firepower in the final third, he may well spring a major surprise. His team selection for the 1-0 win over Arsenal was baffling but brilliant, and emboldened by that success Pep could do something completely unexpected here. That’s the beauty of Manchester City under Guardiola, and why even after four years together in the Premier League Klopp and Guardiola still produce fascinating contests. Striker or no striker, there will be goals at the Etihad.
Alex Keble hosts a Premier League pre-match tactics show at twitch.tv/EPLtactics
It might well be the biggest weekend of the season so far. The two biggest title contenders finally clash in a long-awaited meeting, but will Leicester or Wolves come out on top? Liverpool also play Manchester City or something apparently.
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