Pep Guardiola is no stranger to titanic football matches but Sunday’s game between Manchester City and Liverpool at Anfield is, without doubt, one of the biggest he has overseen during his time in England.
The back-to-back reigning champions find themselves in the unfamiliar position of second place in the Premier League table ahead of an unforgiving festive schedule and more disconcertingly for Guardiola, City are six points adrift of their title rivals.
Liverpool’s response to missing out on a maiden Premier League title by a single point last time around has been to carry on in much the same vein, with Manchester United the only team to deny them three points thus far 11 games into the season.
Jordan Henderson doesn’t think much of it but the tag ‘Mentality Monsters’ used to describe Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp has been seized upon with some justification over recent weeks with the team continuing to rack up results even when not playing particularly well.
Not only are Liverpool in good form heading into this weekend’s clash, but they have also been imperious at Anfield for some time. Crystal Palace were the last team to beat them at home in the Premier League back in April 2017 – a run which spans 45 matches.
Having failed to win in any of his four matches at Anfield, Guardiola will have to get his tactics spot on this time and the City boss may draw inspiration from the domestic rivals who have most recently foiled Klopp’s plans.
Manchester United’s successful strategy
This Manchester United team is, by common consensus, one of the worst in recent memory and yet, they have held Liverpool twice in the last three Premier League matches in which they have failed to secure a win.
In February, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side played out a forgettable 0-0 draw at Old Trafford and they were six minutes away from bettering that effort in a more compelling encounter last month before Adam Lallana salvaged a 1-1 draw.
On both occasions, despite being the home team, United surrendered possession to their visitors, having just 32 per cent of the ball in February’s fixture and 35 per cent a few weeks ago – well below this season’s average of 54 per cent.
The statistics from October’s game show that Liverpool completed 2.5 times more passes than United and had double the number of shots on target with four to two, but the home side were well-deserving of a point regardless.
Nullify the full-backs
Solskjaer’s tactical acumen has been called into question at times, but he got it spot on against Liverpool. A 5-3-2 formation looked defensive at kick-off but the inclusion of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young as wing-backs largely nullified Liverpool’s chief source of creativity – the full-backs.
Alongside Kevin De Bruyne, Trent Alexander-Arnold has been the most creative player in the Premier League this season, but he was forced into crossing from deeper positions due to the pressure applied on him by Young at left wing-back.
Typically, the one time when one of United’s wing-backs had a lapse in concentration they were punished as Andrew Robertson provided an assist for Lallana’s equaliser after being given too much time to deliver the ball into the box.
Guardiola has shown reluctance to play a back three for much of his time in English football. In 125 Premier League matches in charge of Manchester City, Guardiola has only used three at the back on ten occasions, half of which came during an experimental debut season, according to Whoscored.
In theory, he has the personnel to do it with Kyle Walker, Joao Cancelo, Angelino and Benjamin Mendy virtually playing as wing-backs anyway, while deploying three at the back including natural midfielder Fernandinho would match Liverpool up and potentially help compensate for no Aymeric Laporte.
Guardiola’s favoured three-man midfield wouldn’t be compromised either allowing Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva to play in their natural positions, while Raheem Sterling has frequently played in a central role in support of a main striker for England over the past couple of years.
Using split strikers against Liverpool was a ploy that worked well for Solskjaer as the pacey duo of Marcus Rashford and an out-of-position Daniel James, caused problems with their pace and movement on the counter-attack.
Given how much of an onus Klopp places on Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to supply attacking width and crosses from out wide, there is a big responsibility on the midfielders to shuttle across into the half-spaces to cover them.
Against United, though, Liverpool found that Rashford and James were happy to hold their positions high up the pitch and behind the wide central midfielders Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, leaving them one-on-one with the centre-backs Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip instead.
This was in evidence during United’s goal. After Scott McTominay received possession of the ball he played it into James who had darted behind Wijnaldum in midfield, resulting in him being up against Van Dijk, covering in the left-hand channel for the advanced Robertson.
Van Dijk defends the 18-yard-box as well as anyone in world football, yet he does not relish being dragged outside of the confines of the penalty area, as shown by his hesitancy to close down James despite the space he found himself in.
Having burst away from Wijnaldum’s attempted recovery run and been given the freedom of Old Trafford to lift his head and pick out Rashford, James then had the quality to whip the ball beyond Matip and into the path of his onrushing teammate to score.
If James and Rashford can cause the Liverpool backline that much trouble, there is no logical reason why Sterling and one of Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero cannot do likewise.
Speaking to Sky Sports this week, Klopp rubbished the suggestion that this is a ‘must-win game’ for either side, instead insisting that it is a ‘would like to win’ match for his team. That might be true for Liverpool but for City, this is simply a must not lose fixture.
Doing so would leave Liverpool a surely insurmountable nine points clear and give them their biggest opportunity to end their Premier League hoodoo. A CIty win would blow things wide open, of course, but a draw wouldn’t be disastrous for Guardiola with a home meeting to come in April.
City have the attacking weapons to cause any team problems but then so too do Liverpool. It would go against Guardiola’s deeply ingrained principles but perhaps by adopting a more cautious approach at Anfield, his team can ensure that the title race still has plenty of legs left to run.