Sunday represents a crossroad in the careers of both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. A decade ago, Guardiola was considered the world's greatest manager and could do no wrong... dominating the game both domestically and abroad. What we see now is a man who is arguably past his peak... someone who has not won a Champions League since 2012 and is in danger of losing his stranglehold on the domestic front too - with the recent 5-2 loss to Leicester widely considered a watershed moment in his tenure at the Etihad.
In contrast, you have the game's most celebrated underdog... a man who nearly took cash-strapped Borussia Dortmund to the summit of Europe and has succeeded in transforming fading giants Liverpool into the modern game's greatest force (challenged only by Bayern Munich). Klopp now strangely finds himself facing a different kind of pressure. He is now part of the 'establishment', a footballing aristocrat who must seek to maintain the status quo and press home the advantage. How does a man who thrived in being the underdog retain his competitive edge and ensure that this Liverpool side become a 'Legacy' team... multiple title and UCL winners?
Pep must utilise his tactical ingenuity to maximise the performance levels and result-producing capacity of a team which is rather limited by his standards. This is not something he is reknowned for, so this is a huge test of his coaching and managerial skills. Klopp goes into this game knowing a draw is not the worst result but a loss could give this City side a boost which would make this title campaign become an ardous one. Liverpool can ill-afford a competitive title campaign if their aim is to successful on multiple fronts this season.
Man City have won their last three home league games against Liverpool by an aggregate score of 11-2. In their six Premier League games this season, Man City have scored just nine goals (1.5 per game) and have an expected goals (xG) figure of 7.9 (1.3 per game). It’s their lowest xG per game rate in the competition since this data became available (2013-14), while it’s their lowest goals-per-game rate in the league since 2007-08 (1.2)..
So why the sudden drought? City's most selected lineup this season has been Mahrez, Torres and Sterling. With due respect to the young Spaniard, who is only just beginning to find his feet... he is no Sergio Aguero and the absence of the Argentine has been critical in City being unable to convert dominance into clear cut victories thus allowing sides off the hook. Another aspect of Aguero's game which is much overlooked is his ability to exceed his XG - evidence of a player who can score goals even when the odds are against him - perfect for a side which often faces a low block and congested penalty areas.
City have the second best defensive record in the league, having conceded only 8 goals (5 of those in that calamitious display against Leicester City). They have succeeded in not having to work as hard defensively as their competitors, a characteristic Guardiola trait (City have made 68 clearances, 40 interceptions, 12 blocks v Liverpool 98 clearances, 53 interceptions, 11 blocks).
Whilst City have added two relatively competent centre backs, their standout player defensively has been Kyle Walker. He has been in exemplary form, looking as dynamic as ever and just looking a touch more assured on and off the ball. What is a more pressing concern for City and especially going into this fixture is their left back situation. It is clear as day that Benjamin Mendy is out of his depth here and whether that is because injuries have ruined him is neither here nor there. Cancelo's 70% success rate in ground duels and his mobility makes him the perfect fit to try and subdue Mo Salah.
There have been notable changes and additions. While the core philosophy and tactical set up have been the same, Pep has altered the execution. This could be in part due to lack of key players that were out with injuries or COVID 19 infection. But certain key changes suggest Pep has been trying and testing new formulas that might be used later on against the big teams in the future. This could one of them.
One of those systems include the use of two anchormen in the center midfield with one of them taking turns to move back in support of the central defenders when City are in possession. That role usually goes to Fernandinho but players coming back to full fitness, that ploy might take a back seat for now.
Ferran Torres has excelled as the center forward. His diagonal runs from the middle into space carry the perfect threat for the Citizens against their opponents. As we have seen in recent matches, if the timing is matched, City have the players that can play the accurate pass to the forward for the finish.
Nathan Ake’s positioning sense might be the game changer. And may help resolve a couple of issues that City have faced in the earlier stages. One would be the flank cover and the other would numbers at the back. Defensively sound and good on the ball, Ake might provide the solidity needed at the back to allow the midfield to play with freedom.
It is no surprise to see the Liverpool attack once again firing on all cylinders... Mane has continued his fine form from last season but more significantly Mohamed Salah seems rejuvenated, a man who ever since that horrific tussle with Sergio Ramos could be argued was a shadow of himself. Since joining the Reds in 2017, the 'Pharoah' has scored 80 Premier League goals in 115 games, at least nine more than any other player in the division in that time and he almost certainly looks set to add to those numbers this season.
However whilst two thirds of the deadly trio are on top of their game, it is the underrated focal point of the attack who is under a greater degree of scrutiny. Firmino has never been the most prolific of forwards but he could always be relied upon for 10+ goals/5+ assists a season. Last season he fell below that standard and this season he once again looks like he will struggle to put in the ncessary figures to be regarded as a genuine contributor on the business end of the pitch.
Some would argue that Firmino's influence cannot be measured through statistics, in fact his passing stats/dribbling stats do not indicate any serious decline but in last years Champions League, in the first leg... his lack of penetration meant extra defensive attention could be paid to the threats of Salah and Mane... thus negating Liverpool's ability to penetrate the well-set Atletico defence. Firmino saw plenty of the ball and was the most effective of Liverpool's players but he also had the least marking to contend with yet was unable to be the matchwinner when his colleagues were under lock and key away from home.
The emergence of Diogo Jota offers Liverpool a promising path of evolution for the attack. If he continues to put in performances like the one against Atalanta, the pressure for Salah and Mane to get on the scoresheet will lessen which paradoxically might increase their goal and assist contributions due to opposition defences being stretched trying to deal with three players who are looking to put it in the back of the net. Will he be given the nod against City? do not bet against it but Klopp is a man famed for his loyalty and he will be loathe to binning Firmino just yet.
Liverpool have conceded 15 goals in their seven Premier League games this season, as many as they shipped in their first 26 league games last term. Indeed, it’s the most the Reds have conceded seven games into a league campaign since 1964-65 (also 15). Much will be attributed to the absence of Virgil Van Dijk but lest we forget, with him in the backline they conceded 7 goals against Aston Villa - so not all was well on that front even with the big Dutchman at the heart of the defence
One of the key factors behind their recent struggles defensively has been the absence of Fabinho in front of the centre backs. Henderson has been utilised as a makeshift CDM and as hard working as he is, he simply lacks the stature and positional nous of the Brazillian and that is inviting more attacks through the centre, leaving the central defensive areas exposed. The guys up front are also putting in less of a defensive shift collectively, Firmino last season averaged 1.2 tackles, 0.4 tackles, 0.3 Interceptions, 0.1 Blocks - this season he has not registered a single interception or block thus far. Only Mane seems to be putting in the hard yards, improving his per game defensive output.
Klopp’s system now is purely based on “you score goals we score goals” Only “we score more goals”. Virgil Van Dijk’s injury has left a huge gap. Not only was he a wonderful defender, he also had incredible leadership skills and a great understanding of the game which made him the perfect leader on the pitch. Klopp’s side look very weak at the back.
Despite that, the team has shown impeccable resilience against strong opposition. In the past few weeks, Liverpool have beaten the likes of Ajax, and high flying Atalanta. Their latter win has raised eye brows. It was an all-round show against a very strong side from Serie A. with players coming back to form and fitness, they will get even better but the defense will still need to be addressed.
Man City: Ederson; Walker, Dias, Laporte, Cancelo; De Bruyne, Rodri, Gundogan; Mahrez, Torres, Sterling
Liverpool: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Gomez, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Keita, Salah, Firmino, Mane
A lot is riding on this game for both teams. Pep needs to win this in order for people to take them seriously as title challengers and reinvigorate a squad that has lost its purpose albeit has recently began to pick up form. Klopp merely needs a draw and will be loathe to take the game to City knowing if he loses here, he risks building up their confidence to the point the title race will not be a formality. The big question for the German is does he drop Firmino and risk upsetting the harmony of his famous front three... it would be a watershed moment in the history of his tenure.
I think Klopp will choose to stay with his tried and tested, making it a game of the midfield - with both teams enjoying plenty of possession but with penetration not at the forefront of the game, especially in the first half. City will be hampered by the absence of Aguero and if Jesus does start - he is not match fit, so I cannot see him scoring more than 1 and that will mean a tight affair in general. I believe in order to protect his defence, Klopp will instruct his full backs to not be as aggressive as usual and that will mean Walker and Cancelo should make a decent fist of marking Mane and Salah for the most part. If Pep starts Mendy, that is asking for trouble and I would then expect Salah to be the MVP of the match.
For me this game will be decided in the second half. City have more options, with Jesus and Foden able to change the narrative of the game. Liverpool will be reliant on Jota to change the game if it is not going to plan and in the form he is in, that is very much possible. As always with a game of this magnitude, I think the fear of losing it can lead to a cagey affair and I reckon it will either be a draw or a Manchester City victory (Pep simply cannot afford to lose). A key weakness which City can exploit is the absence of Fabinho at CDM which will mean plentiful pockets of space for De Bruyne to exploit if he manages to escape the attention of Wijnaldum and drift more centrally. He needs to have a great game for City to win.
It will be a cagey affair. Both coaches know each other very well. And the trend of their recent matches have shown that goals have gradually dried down and that both coaches have given approached the games fairly cautiously. So it is only fair to say that both teams will be feeling and testing each other in the first 30 minutes.
Liverpool will score first as Pep’s teams take time to settle. But we can expect the Citizens to control the game there after. Possession statistics will favor the Manchester side as Klopp’s team likes to play on the counter. Pep will focus more on pressing the back line that would hurt Liverpool the most.
Both teams will play around the flanks but the execution will be different. Pep will push to create 2v1 situations on the flanks especially on the right with Mahrez. The substitutes will be crucial in this fixture and we can expect significant outcomes from Gabriel Jesus and Diogo Jota. The absence of Thiago might mean Klopp will not have a player that can challenge De Bruyne for midfield supremacy and that might be the deciding point of the match.
Pythag Prediction: 1-1
Dr Amer Prediction: 2-1 (Man City win)