Manchester City travel to Anfield on Sunday aiming to make it 31 games without defeat in the Premier League. Liverpool will be looking for revenge following on from their 5-0 defeat at the hands of Citizens earlier on in the campaign.
Pep Guardiola’s side have dropped just four points this term after Everton held them to a 1-1 draw at the Etihad and Crystal Palace managed to keep a clean sheet against the champions elect.
They’re the only two black marks in what is otherwise a perfect season.
Since Jürgen Klopp arrived at Anfield, the Reds have more than held their own against their top four rivals and last season this would have been a match fans of the Merseyside club would have relished.
After all, they took four points off Guardiola’s City side during the 2016/17 season, conceding just the one goal.
However, this season, they’ve struggled in the big games. City hit them for six, Tottenham Hotspur stuck four past them and even Arsenal got in on the act, managing to find the back of the net on three occasions in the recent draw.
Despite their leaky defence letting them down in the high pressure matches so far this season, Liverpool are by far the best equipped team to hand City their first loss of the Premier League campaign.
Liverpool aren’t that far behind Man City
City’s utter dominance is skewing perception. Liverpool are currently averaging two points and 2.27 goals per per game. They’re on course to repeat their points tally from last season (76) and score close to 90 goals. For context, no team in the Premier League scored over 86 goals last season, and 76 points would have been enough for a runners-up position during Leicester City’s title win in 2015/16.
This season may not be the title challenge fans had hoped for but Liverpool, especially under the circumstances, aren’t underperforming by any stretch of the imagination.
For example, they failed to bring in Klopp’s two top summer targets. Virgil van Dijk has now arrived and will have a huge impact on the second half of the season, but you can’t help but feel The Reds would’ve been closer to City had he been at Anfield in August.
Likewise, Naby Keïta may sign this month, but how different would it have been for the Liverpool midfield had he been plying his trade on Merseyside all season?
Despite all of this, understat.com, a site that looks at expected goals, expected assists and expected goals against, has Liverpool just the seven points behind City had results gone as expected.
Liverpool’s underlying numbers are impressive and they’re the only ‘real’ challengers to Guardiola’s dominant City side.
How Liverpool can beat Man City
The Premier League leaders don’t concede may chances. They dominate the ball with no team in Europe having more of the possession (66.4 per cent). Unlike other teams, however, they aren’t just content with sterile possession in the middle of the park – they dominate the space, too. With Guardiola asking his wide forwards to stay high and wide.
The centre-midfielders, usually Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, often push on to fill the positions usually associated with inside-forwards, and it gives the City players in possession of the ball a lot of passing options, often in areas the opposition don’t want them to be in.
Guardiola instructs his full-backs to tuck inside to support Fernandinho in midfield, while the two centre-backs push on up to the halfway line as City look to squeeze the life out of the opposition. It’s a risky approach but when you’re as dominant and controlling as City are it’s a calculated gamble. They swarm the opposition as soon as there’s a turn over in possession and more often than not stop potential counter-attacks before they’ve even started.
When it works, and it often does, it’s brilliant. But over recent weeks there have been signs that City are going to get picked off on the counter one of these days. Bristol City had a lot of joy in the Carabao Cup when deploying a medium press, something Liverpool have adopted this season.
They allowed City possession in their own half and only pressed when they reached the halfway line. They’d they quickly look to play the ball to their forwards and with Guardiola’s defenders having to control a lot of space it resulted in chances for the away side.
It wasn’t an identical situation against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League but the Ukrainian side managed to exploit the high City line to score a second goal. Ederson rushes from his goal, just as he did against Mané, but isn’t able to get there and the ball is passed into an unguarded goal.
It was a simple ball clipped over the top and into space. It’s what happens when Guardiola’s midfielders aren’t in a position to press the man on the ball and the opposition, in this instance, have pace in attack.
Burnley aren’t blessed with pace but they managed to benefit from the high line. The away side win the aerial ball and the attempted clearance is sliced. Ashley Barnes chases the loose ball, drives into the space and fires home. Liverpool don’t offer the same aerial threat as Sean Dyche’s side but that’s beside the point. All it takes is one player to switch off and there’s an awful lot of space to attack in behind the City defence.
Liverpool have the pace to really cause Guardiola and his backline a lot of trouble. Klopp can call upon Mané, Mohamed Salah and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, all of whom must be relishing the prospect of attack so much spacat Anfield on Sunday.
This will be City’s biggest test of the season. It won’t lose them the title if they do suffer their first defeat, but all it takes is their confidence to be shaken for the chasing pack to make it an interesting final few months of the campaign.