Liverpool are a team who can only play football one way: Jurgen Klopp’s side is built to attack.
That might be more by luck than design in some ways.
This is a squad whose best players are found up front. Their front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and the on-fire Mohamed Salah would leave even the best defences in the world sweating at the prospect of facing them. Only Manchester City – their opponents in the Premier League this weekend – have scored more.
The sale of Philippe Coutinho clearly weakens the Reds’ attack, however. The so-called Fab Four has morphed into a Thrilling Three. Missing their now-departed string-puller Liverpool’s attacking trident are perhaps that bit more rabid and unrestrained, more geared towards their manager’s lust for animalistic pressing without having to worry about the slower, more considered play of Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta stunt double. But they’re probably that bit less effective, too.
Manchester City is a tough test for any team, but this season it’s more than that. Often a write-off rather than an opportunity for points, plenty of sides have come up against Pep Guardiola’s team this season seeking to limit the damage and get out of there without a dent in their goal difference. Such teams have often suffered even more harm as a result.
But Liverpool can’t do that. They come up against the league leaders and top scorers with the worst defensive record in the top four. Their recourse can’t be a Newcastle-style attempt to beat City with 11 men behind the ball, but with a sparkling display of counter-attacking football featuring some of the brightest attacking talent in world football – though with the added solidity of Virgil van Dijk, they might be better protected at the other end, too.
The trouble is, City don’t just have the best attack in the league, they also have the best defence, too. Only two teams have scored more than once against them in the league all season: one was West Brom, whose late consolation to make the score 3-2 at the Hawthorns was down to a defensive mix-up, and the other was Stoke City, who still managed to lose by five clear goals.
But despite that defensive record, there’s still a view – though it is much more hidden than it was a few months ago – that City’s defence isn’t as strong as it could or should be. That’s still true: it is the weakest part of their team, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is weak. We have seen, however, that sitting deep and attempting to come away with a 0-0 draw – as Manchester United did at Anfield earlier this season – isn’t a course of action which takes points from City, but that being brave and attacking them sometimes does. Those who have been bravest have come closest.
This weekend, Liverpool might find that they are the Premier League team who are actually best equipped to defeat this Manchester City side for the first time this season. If Guardiola’s side are susceptible to anything, it appears they are to a pacey counter-attack and a front three who press mercilessly. They also score a surprising amount of goals from crosses and set-pieces, which are traditionally problems for Klopp’s Liverpool, but that may well be helped – though surely not solved – by the addition of Van Dijk.
City have, this season, scored the most goals from open play, the most goals from set-pieces and the most from both inside and outside the box. They have simply scored the most goals. And yet, it is Liverpool who have scored the most from counter-attacks, scoring seven times on the break to City’s two.
Whilst that might be explained by the growing trend of teams who simply sit back against City, and thus don’t allow the league leaders a chance to counter-attack, this should also give Liverpool hope. The Reds are clearly well-equipped to give Guardiola’s team a problem at the back, and perhaps they may not need to fear the counter-attack as much as their opponents do.
It’s a risky tactic to play City at their own game, but it might just be the best way to beat them. For Klopp’s Liverpool, however, their defensive record looks like it leaves them no other choice. And that could be to their benefit.
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