England’s two stellar teams go face to face this weekend in what could potentially prove to be the game that decides this year’s winner. With Liverpool currently six points ahead of last year’s champions, the onus is on Manchester city to narrow the gap in an attempt to win what would be the club’s third title in as many years.
With both teams’ relentlessness and ability to grind out results against the odds, along with their flashes of individual brilliance and sublime build-up play, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that we are witnessing the two greatest teams in the history of the English game. However, despite their similar formations and equally mesmerising attacking play, the styles of their respective managers differ more than one might expect. In this article we’ll take a deeper look into how these two great teams set up and how their weaknesses can be exploited.
Liverpool: Turning defence into attack
It would be fair to say that Liverpool have undergone several tactical overhauls during Klopp’s reign at the club, demonstrating the diversity and adaptability within the German’s own footballing philosophy. When Coutinho was at the club, Liverpool looked to utilise the Brazilian’s strengths by playing more expansively through the midfield. However, following his departure in 2018 have lacked the creativity in midfield that they once enjoyed. The acquisition of key players Van Dijk, Robertson and Alisson Becker-not to mention the remarkable rise of Alexander-Arnold from the youth ranks- took the team’s defence from a key weakness to their main strength, and with these two factors came a key tactical transition. The team now largely bypass their midfield when in possession: Henderson and Fabinho, though capable of spraying and retaining the ball, are most effective at winning the ball back in the opposition’s half and looking to quickly offload it. They also play very narrow, relying on the full-backs Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to provide the team’s width. Jamie Carragher’s claim that Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool’s version of Kevin De Bruyne, with his ability to deliver high-quality balls into the opposition area, perfectly highlights how Liverpool’s creativity comes from these full-back positions rather than their midfield. It would be fair to say that Trent and Robertson’s high-octane, robust and creative styles have come to define the modern-day full-back position.
Firmino: Liverpool’s 9 (and a half)
It’s no secret that Roberto Firmino, arguably Liverpool’s most crucial player, is key to Liverpool’s pressing style. Playing in a false 9 role, his willingness to drop back and win the ball from the opposition’s defensive midfielder allows the team to form attacks from deep within the opposition half. He can also act as a number 10 with the ball in possession, allowing the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah to come inside and occupy more central positions in order to put the ball in the back of the net. Acting as both midfielder and forward, he replaces the team’s need for a creative midfield player much of the time and acts as the pivot around which his fellow teammates can successfully operate.
For all of Liverpool’s strengths, they are a team that still has weaknesses. Perhaps surprisingly, their defence has been one of the weakest aspects of their overall game: due to their reliance on Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to provide balls when in attack, a number of teams have been able to exploit the gaps they have left in defence when they can recover the ball and force the Liverpool centre-backs into wide positions by playing the ball quickly and directly to the flanks. Despite their ability to scrape wins in recent weeks, they’re overall build-up play has been quite predictable. Their lack of creative quality has been evident as they’ve struggled to break teams down and have resorted to hitting crosses into the area. Teams playing against them have come to expect such crosses and have become accustomed to dealing with them as a result- at least in open play. It’s really from penalties and set-pieces that Liverpool have managed to grind out many of their close results in the Premier League, notably against Chelsea, Aston Villa, Spurs and Leicester.
Manchester City: England’s team to beat
Manchester City’s tactical style has seldom changed since Guardiola took over the club in 2016: his use of highly technical players to move the ball past the opposition and his insistence on width as a means of creating space have become a signature of his philosophy. His tactical nous is unparalleled in the English game, with his side scoring more goals from open play than any other team last season (72). The beauty and effectiveness with which his sides operate is quite staggering and the wealth of players that he has at his disposal, combined with his intense management style, have made City the team to beat in the Premier League.
Playing from the back and the 2-3-5 formation
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Manchester City’s play is their ability to move the ball from the defensive third into key attacking areas in a relatively short space of time. Ederson’s ability to take the ball out of the area and then form a diamond with his two centre-backs and Rodri before laying the ball off to the ex-Atletico Madrid man has proven very effective in this sense. Aymeric Laporte’s composure on the ball and passing ability has also been useful when City are looking to move the ball quickly and confidently to attacking players. However, even when teams choose to take take the game to City and initiate a pressing style, Guardiola has the quality within the team that enables them to pass the ball around the press. Once City are in possession of the ball in the opposition’s half, they typically take up a 2-3-5 position that enables them to play wide, stretch the opponent and then play the ball around opposition players through the triangles they’ve created. The full-backs occupy a central role with the holding midfielder, while the two wingers hug the touchline. Once an opposition player becomes attracted to the ball and moves out of position, City are perfectly set up to exploit the gaps they’ve left behind.
Manchester City Weaknesses
However, City are not without serious problems this season: all of the players mentioned above- crucial members of their defence and playing style- will be missing Sunday’s game through injury. Laporte’s injury appears to be the most serious, with the defender expected to spend several more months on the sidelines. The introduction of Otamendi into the defence against Norwich and Wolves proved disastrous, with City missing out on six points out of a possible six from these two games. Fernandinho, although still learning his new trade in the centre-back position, looks a little shaky and there’s no doubt that this city side are not the impenetrable force of the past two seasons. Their issues are not so dissimilar from those of Liverpool when it comes to transitioning from attack into defence. With the full backs taking up high and central positions when city have the ball, teams can exploit the wide positions that they leave if they have play directly and utilise any pace that they have. This point was proven perfectly by Wolves’ Traore a couple weeks ago, who was able to punish City with his pace down the right flank just moments after City had lost possession.
There’s no doubt that this weekend’s fixture will be a fascinating game between two unbelievable- albeit quite different-football teams that have everything to play for. If Liverpool are able to pull off a victory against the reigning champions it would put them 9 points ahead of their rivals going into a difficult December and January period. City will feel this is a must-win game seeing as they already have considerable ground to recover. What’s for certain is that the two managers have turned their respective teams into serial winners who always seem to find a way to win and Sunday’s fixture will give fans a better idea of who will be victorious come May.
This article is written by Edward Pracy. Follow him on Twitter @EdwardPracy
Editor of Vital Charlton and a passionate Charlton fan. Kieran has been involved in the Charlton press conferences and local newspaper News Shopper and has met with the Charlton manager Lee Bowyer on numerous occasions. He is a regular in the press box on matchdays and also reports on U-23 games.