As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly clear that the 2021/22 Premier League season will bring us one of the best title fights we’ve ever seen.
“If we had a striker, we would win the game!” – xG Battle # 2 – Liverpool versus Man City
It was a hugely important win for City, a game of tactical organization and pressure to drive away the doubters after a somewhat difficult start to the season. They are now level with Chelsea and one point behind Liverpool in the lead, which sets things up well for an Anfield six that could have a big impact at the end of the season.
It will be a fascinating game, but probably not a high score. The 4-1 win for Man City last season flattered them a little and came at a time when Liverpool were particularly low; their defense will be significantly better than the last time the teams met.
Nevertheless, this game is a good starting point for our preview, because – as always in the ongoing tactical chess between Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp – lessons are drawn from their latest tricks.
Changes in the game will decide the game
Man City’s move from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 in the second half was the key moment in the 4-1 win. Liverpool had sat surprisingly low throughout the game to limit City’s attacking play, but after the move was made City essentially had to use two false nines (Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden) to act between the lines.
Liverpool defenders were confused and struggling with no one to be seen when the midfield fight was suddenly overwhelmed by Ilkay Gündogan and Rodri (who picked up the ball from below) and the two false nines.
It is very unlikely that this will happen again simply because the Man City-Liverpool games never repeat themselves. It is thanks to both managers that the game continues to evolve year after year.
However, we can expect some degree of caution from both teams as City and Liverpool are much more concerned with avoiding loss than they are with scoring three points. Expect some relatively deep lines and push in short bursts, compressing the space by the midfield, resulting in a high intensity but restrictive 90 minute soccer ball.
Their last meeting also reminded us that changes in the game will likely determine the outcome, which unfortunately we cannot tactically predict in a preview. Regardless of starting lineups and early patterns, things will change by half time as both Klopp and Guardiola make adjustments to change the flow of the game.
Nevertheless, we can at least work out the first part and draw attention to tactical imbalances in the headliner game on Sunday.
Grealish weapon can help narrow Man City
City can seem a bit too tight in the game setup. So Chelsea started with a 3-5-2 last weekend, with Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner sometimes only five meters apart when City had the ball to cut the pass at Rodri.
Chelsea’s disconnection between the lines ultimately meant City could contain and crush them, but Thomas Tuchel’s approach was methodical – and he wasn’t the first coach to close the center pillar.
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In this way, Southampton and Tottenham have deducted points from Guardiola’s team, which can look slow and directionless when forced to fit around a compact opponent shape in a U shape.
Liverpool’s tight 4-3-3 will be similarly deep, but their problem is that a lack of defensive support for the full-backs (Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah won’t be back) could expose them to Jack Grealish. He’s the out-ball when City is pushed out, and so far the 27-year-old looks very sharp.
Grealish just makes things happen by riding on the right or cutting inward to open up the defense; he tops the Premier League charts for key passes this season. With Trent Alexander-Arnold likely to miss the game, Grealish will appreciate his odds against James Milner, and certainly their fight on this side is one to watch out for.
Rodri may have a harder time with Jota around
Rodri was brilliant against Chelsea at helping City hold the ball and attack quickly, but Chelsea had no one to connect Lukaku and Werner to central midfield – which made the Spaniard’s job pretty easy.
Liverpool should be able to put more pressure on him and, like Spurs and Southampton this season, reveal the softness in the City midfield against strong and cohesive counterattacks.
Diogo Jota is very adept at dropping deep to collect the ball and his links game on Sunday could be too much for Rodri. These two will fight for those loose balls throughout the game and Jota will be the linchpin of all Liverpool counterattacks.
Should he outmaneuver the City midfielder, Liverpool can dodge the first wave of press and ditch their full-backs and gallop into the gaps that appear behind Guardiola’s team.
But this is just a preview of the opening games of a tense tactical game. It is the reaction of the two coaches to the course of events that will ultimately decide the game, and should it still be to the point of an hour we can expect both coaches to make changes to keep what they are doing instead of aiming for a winner.
It will be a long and fierce battle for the title. Better to keep the conversation going than risk a devastating defeat.
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