Having battled to a hard-fought victory away in the Champions League mid-week, Manchester City will look to bring their European grit back to English shores as they look for their first points at Anfield for over six years. Where City’s away record to Liverpool does not make for pleasant reading, the Blues have still managed to finish above the Reds every season since 2009/10, despite not picking up a single point since Carlos Tevez provided a late equaliser in August 2012, and infamously not winning on Merseyside for 15 years.
With such a poor head-to-head record, it doesn’t take much to deduce that City have made up the difference with better strength over the course of a season, especially evident since Liverpool have only managed one trophy in the 2012 League Cup since Sheikh Mansour swooped into Manchester. However, current manager Jurgen Klopp has brought both a dynamic brand of football and substantial investment to Anfield, factors which have seen the 2017/18 Champions League finalists touted as early favourites to depose City of their Premier League crown. On paper, the affair could not closer; both teams stand level on 19 points with unbeaten records, the Blues only top courtesy of a superior goal difference. Yet with the Scousers now better equipped to handle the rigours of a full season, this match between title rivals takes on even greater significance to see see who can come out on top and gain an all-important advantage over the other.
The devil may well be in the details on this one, so let’s dive in for an in-depth look at Manchester City’s team in the run-in to Sunday…
Following a traditionally enigmatic press conference this afternoon from Guardiola, there is a lot to be gleamed regarding City’s injury list.
First and foremost, Fabian Delph and Claudio Bravo remain injured and out of contention with their respective injuries. In addition to those two, Ilkay Gündogan, who suffered a hamstring injury in the second half against Hoffenheim, in not in training and will likely be ruled out of contention for Sunday.
Larger developments concern two of City’s most dangerous players though. A real positive boost comes from Benjamin Mendy. Having been suffering from a combination of a bruised metatarsal and Guardiola’s wrath for being irresponsible with his time management, the Frenchman has now returned to first team training and is confirmed to be available for the weekend.
The real intrigue surrounds playmaker Kevin De Bruyne. The midfield remains relatively sparse in his absence and the Belgian has only just returned to training at the start of this week, suspected to still be in the rehabilitative stages of his recovery from a knee ligament injury. That being said, Guardiola provided a coded response as to if City’s midfield artist could potentially be in the squad, suggesting he would be continually monitored to increase the chances of a resurrection-like return in front of the Kop. I would be extremely surprised if De Bruyne were to start for fear of aggravating his injury and sidelining him for an even longer period approaching the winter fixture list, but it is fruitless trying to second guess Pep Guardiola. Do not be surprised if the Belgian makes in fact make some sort of appearance, but for now I would suspect Pep is enjoying the mind games.
With those absences playing a big part in how Guardiola will have hoped to have set up against Jurgen Klopp’s men, it’s highly likely the Catalan will attempt to pull a card from up his sleeve and deviate from City’s tried-and-tested 4-3-3 formation. Despite having ruled out any sort of compensatory tactic to stifle Liverpool, it is worth remembering that City’s only positive result came at the hands of a 3-5-2 formation. With the added bonus of Benjamin Mendy’s return (who was unavailable for all of City’s losses last season), the opportunity to combat Liverpool’s attacking threats by posing questions of their own may be just the trick for Guardiola and City.
Having unsuccessfully attempted to use Ilkay Gündogan as some sort of malformed right winger in the first leg of last season’s Champions League clash, Pep is evidently open to experimentation, evidently wishing to place emphasis on retaining the ball against Klopp’s notorious gegenpressing tactics. Gündogan’s hamstring injury means he’s unlikely to repeat the same tactic of a packed midfield, so it’s more likely Guardiola will aim to amplify City’s style of play with a return to a variation of three at the back.
Indeed, this tactic looked to be working relatively successfully in the second leg of the Champions League, wherein the Blues could have been 2-0 up at half-time if not for some questionable refereeing. The substantial attacking demands of that fixture saw both Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling occupy converted wing back positions, yet with no 3-0 result to overturn, the wider areas will likely be occupied by more traditional wing backs in an attacking 3-5-2, reverting to a 5-3-2 out of possession. Further confidence can be taken from the fact that City deployed this system in their 5-0 victory at the Etihad last September, albeit with the added dynamism of a fully fit Benjamin Mendy. As seen with Liverpool’s loss to Napoli mid-week, Klopp’s men are just as capable to suffering a knockout blow when their attacking right flank of Salah and Alexander Arnold are left uncertain of how to combat a substantial threat coming into their own half.
Unlucky to be caught out so early against Hoffenheim and otherwise unchallenged for his starting place, Ederson remains a certainty between the sticks. Though Liverpool’s front three have not quite returned to their electric pace of last season, the Brazilian will certainly be tested at every opportunity. With Alisson, the man keeping him out of his national side, marshalling the opposing goal, Ederson have even further motivation to impress.
Such is the devastating potential of that attacking trident of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino, it is essential Pep Guardiola sends out the best defensive line he can, injuries allowing. In our five man backline, the wingback positions provide both the most likely and uncertain choices in the team. The former sees Kyle Walker almost a constant for City’s defence so far this season; charged with patrolling the right flank here, the Yorkshireman has all the tools to get up and down the wing for a full 90 minutes, his tremendous physicality allowing him to trouble both Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mane whenever he needs to. However, it is vital he is mentally at his sharpest if he is properly balance his wide role with more traditional defensive support, tracking Mane right to the corner flag or even stepping into a more inverted position if need be.
Simultaneously, assumptions before this afternoon’s press conference would have presumed Danilo had the biggest chance of a left back appearance, despite only having 90 minutes of action for City so far this season, stifling the likes of Oxford United as he made his return from a long-standing ankle injury. His inclusion would leave City with a very obvious deficiency compared to their other positions, though the Brazilian has performed the left back role before on occasion, notoriously with a thunderous long range goal against Burnley last season. All this can be forgotten though if Benjamin Mendy is fit to start. Despite not donning the sky blue since the Newcastle game September 1st, the jovial Frenchman is still joint-first for league assists. With such an unbelievable outlet, City have a weapon in their locker, and should not be afraid to use it.
The central defensive pairing of Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi was emphatically undone in little over 44 seconds on Tuesday night, and will not fill Guardiola with confidence if he was hoping to execute a similar tact come the weekend. The Catalan may previously have been tempted to opt for Otamendi given the three clean sheets he has started in the league, but as we’ve highlighted, confident ball retention will be critical against Liverpool’s famous gegenpressing. It doesn’t help that the second goal for Liverpool’s second leg Champions League victory essentially came from Otamendi becoming flustered under the high press.
For that reason, it is time for the blossoming partnership of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte to return, with the added solidity of Vincent Kompany at the heart of things. The trio were last call to action when City romped to a 6-1 victory over Huddersfield, and whilst a similar scoreline would be the stuff of miracles, it boosts their collective credentials that they have been trusted prior. There have been a number of small concerns over Kompany’s ability to keep pace in his advancing years, but these will be allayed with the Belgian tasked with sitting deep to provide a physical anchor to City’s defence. The defence really comes into it’s own through the use of Stones and Laporte. The duo have looked imperious when starting together, and with Kompany providing further cover to leave them man for man against Liverpool’s attacking trio, the English and French double act will have more license to deploy their ball playing skills. Laporte will be considerably more comfortable in a more central berth after having to fill in at left back on Tuesday, whilst Stones brought an instant stability when coming on as a sub that night. Together, their ability to keep calm and select the right forward pass on the ball will be a key asset to City if they are to emerge unscathed; as David Luiz demonstrated in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with the Reds last weekend, the ability to retain possession from back to front is as much an offensive weapon as it is a defensive benefit.
After Gundogan’s injury on Tuesday night diminished the options available in the middle of the park even further, City’s midfield has very much become a case of whatever is available. Luckily for Guardiola, Manchester City are perhaps the only club in the Premier League that can boast such a wealth of potential options. In fact, I’d be confident in saying that a triple threat of Fernandinho, Bernardo Silva and David Silva would make their way into pretty much any team in England, with perhaps the exception of Chelsea. Those three are certain to be in the starting line-up come Sunday, and it may even be a blessing in disguise. When the two Silva’s have started together, they have looked mercurial, with Bernardo in particular blossoming in a more central role granted to him by the absence of Kevin De Bruyne. Indeed, it was marked just how much the arrivals of Bernardo and John Stones helped to solidify a team that had previously looked vulnerable out of possession against Hoffenheim. With Liverpool hopeful to execute a similar game plan with lightning-fast counter attacks, players of Bernardo and David Silva’s work rate will be sorely needed, whereby their all-round game intensity will hopefully allow Fernandinho to exert himself more comfortably.
With an extra man in defence to cover insufficiencies at left back, sacrifices will have to be made to City’s own formidable forward line, with one of their prolific group having to await their turn to impact the game from the bench. The most sure to start is Sergio Agüero; failing any developments in a minor foot niggle, the Argentine will hope his rejuvenated form after knee surgery will translate into that elusive first goal at Anfield. It was certainly a fitness boost to see him play out the full ninety minutes against Hoffenheim, demonstrating his eye for goal remains unfazed by levelling for City within 10 minutes of going behind. Agüero has looked absolutely demonic right from the beginning of the season, and for Liverpool to dismiss his attacking potency due to his poor form on Merseyside and their superior head-to-head record would be suicide.
Accompanying Kun looks likely to be Raheem Sterling. Sterling has enjoyed some scintillating form so far, and with more practice in a secondary striker role than Leroy Sané, has the tip of the hat here. The obvious concerns will be raised about how the young Englishman will handle the aggression of some still still-tender Scousers, but consistently in these early league matches, Raheem has looked like one of the most mature members of the squad. The opportunity for him to breath in the infamous Anfield atmosphere and use it to his benefit is is too enticing to reject. Don’t get me started on if he scores.
The bench thus becomes a tantalising prospect in more ways than one. Beyond the likely candidate of Aro Muric deputising for Ederson, the first name on the sidelines has to be Leroy Sané. Having suffered from some sobering criticism in the early part of this season, the nimble young German has looked to be returning to his fluid best, having a stormer of a game mid-week against the taunts of his fellow German countrymen. In all honesty, Sané has just as much claim to start as Sterling; if the Hoffenheim match was practice for the hostility of Anfield, then we may be in for a treat, as those unbelievable dribbles have begun to reappear. The sheer unpredictability of the German’s movement makes him the perfect impact substitution if City find themselves needing to ask further questions of Liverpool’s improved defence.
Next up will be Danilo. With Delph sidelined and Zinchenko inexperienced, the Brazilian will be key to covering for Benjamin Mendy should any injury concerns reoccur. Nicolas Otamendi and Riyad Mahrez both fulfil a crucial role, able to provide top class alternatives in their separate halves of the pitch which could be integral to City securing points if they take to the field. Gabriel Jesus falls under the next bracket of substitutions. The young striker has yet to return to the kind of form that saw him threaten to displace Agüero as City’s starting striker, but if he is called upon, he best have brought his shooting boots.
Last but not least, who else would you rather have round off a Manchester City team sheet than Phil Foden? In such a high profile game as this Anfield clash, Foden’s name unfortunately might not have been included if other names were available given his tender years and still slender frame, but I don’t feel De Bruyne will ultimately be risked. Foden is no longer inexperienced though. It’s worth bearing in mind his other appearance against another top six side this season, Chelsea in the Community Shield, saw him find an assist and largely hold his own. If the same were to happen here, someone ring Southgate immediately. I would but I’m not sure I’d stop screaming.