Article by Mizgan Masani @mizgans
The big match preview: Chance for the Reds to create a substantial gap between them and the chasing pack
Liverpool travel to the Etihad to face defending champions Manchester City with a chance of pulling away in the title race. The Reds are currently seven points ahead of their rivals. This will be the last game of the festive period and the winner will certainly have the momentum going into the next block of matches this month.
While a City win will cut down the gap to four points and divide the pressure equally among both teams, a Liverpool win will increase the gap to 10 points and the Reds can have a huge buffer to work with going into the last 17 league games.
The plots and subplots are aplenty related to this game, however, we will now focus on previewing this from the tactical aspects.
When these two met at Anfield earlier this season, there was a cautious approach opted by both managers, especially Pep Guardiola. Maybe he learnt the lesson of not playing open football against Liverpool, after getting demolished in the Champions League last season on the counter-attacks.
As a result of a rather pragmatic outlook, the game was a slow burner in Merseyside, with both teams cancelling each other out in every aspect. At the end of it all, the Reds were slightly lucky that Riyad Mahrez spooned his penalty towards Mars.
But, we may witness a more open game this time around, chiefly because City are the home side and they have to win to cut the gap. As for Jurgen Klopp’s men, they can play their natural game and hit their opposition on the counter whenever the opportunity arises. They can also press high and test a back-line that has been fragile in the past month or so.
Let us now take a look at the plausible formation and personnel with which both teams can march out on Thursday night;
The above image shows us the possible lineups of both teams. City have a problem at left-back with Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph out. Pep wouldn’t be banking on Oleksandr Zinchenko for such a high-profile game. Hence, his options are to play Danilo there or put Aymeric Laporte as a makeshift left-back.
Going with the latter has defensive advantages because the Frenchman can act as a third centre-back in possession and as a left-back without it. His positioning can also allow Kyle Walker to bomb forward from right-back, and relieve some of the defensive duties from Leroy Sane, who can concentrate on being a threat to the defenders and pushing Trent Alexander-Arnold back.
The midfield and attack pick themselves up due to niggly injuries to Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan, and Riyad Mahrez being slightly out of touch. The midfield duo is expected to be back for this game, but starting would be a long shot.
As for Liverpool, reverting to 4-3-3 could be the way to go for this game. The need of three midfielders who can protect the back-line and also press at the right time is key. Klopp can play either of Jordan Henderson/Fabinho as a deeper lying midfielder, depending on whether he wants the experienced James Milner to start. Georginio Wijnaldum was terrific against Arsenal and his ball protection in midfield will be vital.
The defence and attack pick themselves up, with special instruction to the fullbacks to pick their moments for going forward. If we remember, during the second half of the second leg between these two teams in the Champions League, Roberto Firmino switched to the left side with Mohamed Salah up top and Sadio Mane on the right.
That helped the team to be better on the counter, as the former was able to hold the ball in wide channel areas, and Salah’s runs in behind the centre-backs was always a danger. Something similar can be seen this Thursday, especially because the Egyptian is more attuned to playing the centre-forward role this season. It also helps the team be direct in the transition from defence to attack.
There is a massive possibility that this could be an entertaining affair, just like the 2016/17 season’s corresponding fixture. The chance of a pragmatic, chess-like tactical battle is not slim as well, but the demands of the situation would rather push City towards playing open attacking football. And that could work well for Liverpool if they defend well and counter in the right spaces.
One thing is guaranteed though – the game will be of the highest intensity and the winner will have a significant psychological advantage over the other for the rest of this title race.
Article by Mizgan Masani @mizgans
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