Manchester City’s trip to Anfield sets up the final big match of the year, with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s tactical rivalry holding vital significance to the current title race. Liverpool currently sit one point ahead of Guardiola’s men prior to kick-off, but a Chelsea win against Stoke could shift this into a match neither side can afford to lose.
The main talking point ahead of the match is the return of Sergio Aguero from a four-game suspension. City has operated without a natural striker for majority of the Argentine’s suspension – losing once in that time span – but it’s unlikely Kevin De Bruyne or Nolito start upfront here. Aguero’s pace and ruthless finishing around the box could harm an unconvincing Reds back-line.
Nonetheless, City have coped well without Aguero, but as per usual, Guardiola’s shape isn’t certain here. Considering Liverpool often play in a 4-3-3, there’s a good chance City match the hosts in midfield and play in a 4-1-4-1 with Fernandinho at the base. Ilkay Gundogan’s injury means he could go 4-3-3 as well with a combative midfield trio of Fernandinho, Fernando and Yaya Toure, but given Liverpool’s efficient pressing, the former is probably Guardiola’s best option.
With that being said, Guardiola may still opt for additional protection ahead of the back four and shift to a 4-2-3-1 with Fernando in a deeper role opposed to David Silva alongside Fernandinho. Upfront, Raheem Sterling should retain his spot on the left in what will be a pivotal battle against the adventurous Nathaniel Clyne, whereas De Bruyne’s counter-attacking ability and exceptional crossing may force James Milner to be cautious from left-back.
Guardiola also has issues at the back where John Stones’ availability is uncertain after limping off the field at Hull a fortnight ago. Aleksandar Kolarov would join Nicolas Otamendi in midfield, while Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy are expected to operate as full-backs.
Liverpool, on the other hand, are still without Philippe Coutinho, but the Reds have fared well without their Brazilian star. Normally, Klopp would lean towards potential squad rotation, but he’s named an unchanged XI for the past few games and it’s unlikely he’ll tinker here. Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can would potentially fill in if required, but Klopp’s sole change hinges on Joel Matip’s fitness.
The front trio of Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane should start upfront, and Guardiola must fear Mane’s pace against Clichy. More so, the interchanging movement of the front three could exploit City’s shaky back-line, which further emphasizes the significance of Guardiola’s midfield decision-making.
Adam Lallana, Liverpool’s most in-form player, also poses a threat in this regard via late runs into the box. Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson will operate from deeper zones with the former pushing forward when possible, but Liverpool’s main threat comes from the right. Mane can drift inwards to encourage Clyne forward, whereas if Firmino tucks in, the Senegalese winger maintains width to isolate full-backs.
Essentially Liverpool’s cohesion and enhanced understanding of Klopp’s system could fluster a Manchester City side still attempting to reach optimum form. But the other key battle involves how City cope with Liverpool’s gegenpressing.
Everton and Stoke attempted to bypass Liverpool’s press via long direct balls into the centre-forward, a ploy that Guardiola utilized during his time at Bayern Munich, which witnessed Javi Martinez operated as an advanced midfielder behind Mario Mandzukic. Guardiola can persist with this approach by placing Fernandinho or Yaya Toure closer to Aguero to ensure City can retain possession if Aguero is unable to win aerial duels upfront.
Elsewhere, City’s high-pressing could also prove beneficial considering Guardiola’s men have looked less assured when forced to defend over extensive periods. Liverpool’s ability playing out the back can be exploited with cohesive pressing, and work-rate efficiency from both sides will be decisive.
Nevertheless, neither side have displayed defensive solidity throughout the season, and there should be goals here. Liverpool’s movement in the final third and the understanding of covering positions may overwhelm City’s defence, but Klopp must also worry about the space invaders Silva and De Bruyne between the lines activity between the lines as they represent Aguero’s main supply lines.
Liverpool’s dominant home form tips them as slight favourites here, but a returning Aguero, along with City’s form attackers suggests this could be a potential Premier League classic.