Sunday afternoon’s big game sees Liverpool host league leaders Manchester City in a top six clash to get the mouth watering.
Despite the fact that Pep Guardiola’s league leaders are no longer really rivals for any of the rest of the top six – due to being so far ahead they’re almost irrelevant to the battle raging beneath them – this is still a clash with some excitement attached.
This is a battle between the two top scoring teams in the Premier League, and a game which puts together the two most exciting attacks in the division, to boot. It is a game where you’d love attacks to be on top and defences to be found out. Indeed, the last fixture between these two produced five goals.
And yet, that’s where the extra excitement comes in: of those five goals, all scored by City, four came after the sending-off of Sadio Mane, a dismissal which may well have changed the game. Liverpool weren’t on top when their Senegalese attacker was shown red.
They were 1-0 down at the time, and City’s attack was, as we now know, on the form of its life. But there were signs that Liverpool’s own front line was going to cause problems for Guardiola’s defence, who looked like they might have had a soft underbelly if pushed a little more.
This game might be different, however. City’s defence is the best in the league, and so is their attack. They have a goal difference of +51, double that of Liverpool. And their partnership of John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi will likely be back in full swing.
That means if Liverpool are to become the first team in the Premier League to beat City this season, they’ll have to be able to take their chances on the break, and especially since Jurgen Klopp’s attack will be missing Philippe Coutinho.
On the other hand, as good as Liverpool’s attack can be, the focus really has to be on the other end of the pitch. City are comfortably the best team in the division, if not in Europe as a whole, but if Klopp’s side can stop them from scoring – or perhaps just scoring more than once – they may be able to achieve a result.
The addition of Virgil van Dijk will surely help. And although there’s always a bedding-in period for a new signing, and indeed to create a partnership with his defensive partners. On top of that, there’s only so much one man can do to protect a defence which lacks an effective holding midfielder and even a top goalkeeper.
That said, as big a blow as losing a player like Coutinho will be, replacing him with a defender – to all intents and purposes – will help the balance of the team. There is still a lot of attacking talent in the squad, but now there’s more defensive solidity, too.
This has been a Premier League season of reacting to what others are doing.
Last year, when Antonio Conte led his Chelsea side to the title using a back-three formation which took the league by storm, that led to copycat attempts by plenty of other teams this season: pretty much every top six club has tried it at times this year, and when one team uses it, you’ll often see the opponents use the same system to attempt to match it up symmetrically.
This fixture, though, is between two of the most tactically rigid teams in the league when it comes to team structure – strangely, for the two top scorers who are unpredictable in attack.
Both sides will likely line up with 4-3-3 formations, both will rely on pacey and prolific attackers, and both will be hoping that their back fours can withstand the pressure.
This one is obvious. Liverpool’s attack will worry City’s defence, and has already done so this season.
Losing Coutinho is obviously a blow to their potency for this fixture, but the reality is that against City, the pace of the other main three would have been more important, anyway. The Brazilian brings an ability to create chances and make things happen against deep defences, but against City, counter-attacking pace will be more important.
Mohamed Salah has been on fire over the last few months, and if Liverpool are to spring a surprise and actually beat the league leaders, they’ll have to rely on his goals once again.
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