By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – The clash of European champions Liverpool with Premier League title holders Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday has the potential to be a goal-packed thriller.
Yet, if last season’s encounters are any guide, fans are more likely to be treated to a close, tactical encounter with City manager Pep Guardiola looking to neutralise Liverpool’s strengths.
Last term, stung by City’s woeful performance the previous season in a 3-0 Champions League loss at Anfield, Guardiola adopted a cautious approach in a goalless draw.
Given they have not won in the league at Anfield for 16 years, it was a strategy City were happy with and it would have paid off even more if Riyad Mahrez had scored an 85th-minute penalty.
Guardiola used a narrow formation, packing the midfield, in order to cut off the supply route to Liverpool’s trident attack of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah and he will likely look to frustrate Juergen Klopp’s side again.
The loss of classy Spanish holding midfielder Rodri is a blow, however, and Guardiola will have to decide whether to push Brazilian Fernandinho back into the midfield or rely on Ilkay Gundogan to protect the defence.
Fernandinho has been operating as a makeshift central defender, quite effectively, in the absence through injury of Aymeric Laporte but the return to fitness of John Stones offers the option of switching the Brazilian to his more familiar role.
The problem is – taking Fernandinho out of the defence would mean Nicolas Otamendi coming in at the back and his partnership with Stones inspires little confidence.
They were the disastrous pairing in City’s only away defeat this season – a 3-2 loss at Norwich City in September – while Otamendi also featured in the only other defeat of this campaign, at home to Wolves.
Another way to close down space in midfield would be to play three in the centre of defence, with Kyle Walker adopting a more central role and Joao Cancelo coming in at right back.
With Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy pushing forward, this could counter the attacking threat from Liverpool’s brilliant attacking fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
Klopp has shown less tactical flexibility than Guardiola and is expected to stick with his tried and trusted 4-3-3 formation but last year his fullbacks were much less adventurous than normal.
If the central midfield areas become crowded out, then the role of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson will become even more crucial, with their ability to force City’s fullbacks deep potentially opening up space elsewhere.
The risk in that approach is that Liverpool’s fullbacks leave space behind that could be exploited by former Anfield winger Raheem Sterling and Mahrez, both of whom will look to break out of midfield and stretch the hosts’ central defensive pairing who will already be occupied watching Sergio Aguero.
The tactics will be driven by the intent of the two coaches with Liverpool’s six-point advantage at the top meaning a draw is less advantageous for City.
Klopp knows a point is no tragedy for his team and has less incentive to take risks. Guardiola knows that a win cuts Liverpool’s lead to just three points but defeat leaves them trying to chase down a nine-point gap over the course of the season.
The onus is on the Spaniard to decide whether his side can win an open game or whether his team’s defensive frailties leave him playing the long game.
(Reporting by Simon Evans)