Manchester City vs Liverpool: Tactical Preview

It doesn’t get bigger than this. Liverpool vs Manchester City. First vs second. Challengers versus champions. Klopp vs Pep, one last time.

In tight title races gone by, this tie has been decisive. City narrowly won 2-1 when chasing down the Reds in 2018/19. The Citizens eventually won the league with 98 points to Liverpool’s 97. The following year, Liverpool’s 3-1 win at Anfield paved the way for a 99-point finish and a Premier League title. And in 2021/22, when Liverpool were one point behind City, they travelled to the Etihad and drew 2-2. City eventually won the league…by one point.

Now, Liverpool carry a one-point advantage heading into the clash at Anfield. History suggests a win could carry them to the title. This is a winner-takes-all. How can they do it?

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PREDICTING THE LINEUPS

The visitors’ only real injury concern is winger Jack Grealish, whose season is probably over after a recurrence of his groin injury. Julian Alvarez will likely take his place. Bernardo Silva is a must in these games and Phil Foden is in the form of his life. His tally of 16 goals, including a brace in the derby last weekend, is already a career-best. With John Stones likely to push into midfield and create a solid 3-2 base, expect lots of rotation among the four attackers supporting the monster boy Erling Haaland.

Manchester City will have four defenders, three midfielders, and three attackers – but the shape will be very flexible. 

The hosts do have a number of key players still absent. Goalkeeper Alisson and vice-captain Trent Alexander-Arnold will be among them. However, the returning Dominik Szoboszlai and Mohamed Salah will both go into the starting lineup and provide a huge boost.

The right-back position is up for grabs. The dynamism and attacking quality of Conor Bradley make him a brilliant option, but I expect Joe Gomez to get the nod there for his experience and composure. The ability of Alexis Mac Allister to start as a number eight and drop deeper means both full-backs can support the attack.

Liverpool’s 4-3-3 will have the threat of Darwin Nunez leading the line.

Suffering Without The Ball

Pep Guardiola has rearranged his City side many times over the years, but one principle has always been consistent: he wants his side to dominate the ball.

“We suffer without the ball” is a repeated phrase in Barcelona’s club DNA. Guardiola has carried that into his Manchester City team. They want to dominate possession and have lots of passing options at all times – both to play short passes around the opposition and to stay compact. That way, if a pass is misplaced, there are lots of City players nearby to counter-press and get the ball back.

This means City have an incredible compact structure, regardless of where they are on the field. Whether building out from the back or sieging the opponent’s goal, the gap between the deepest defender and the leading attacker is always kept to a minimum.

Thierry Henry analyses City’s compact structure on UK TV.

Throw in the counter-attacking threat of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland, and the box defending of strong defenders like Ruben Dias and Nathan Aké, and it’s hard to think of a more complete team than Man City.

However, Liverpool are not a team content to suffer in silence. Yes, they will likely have less of the ball than usual in this game. But that suits the Reds just fine. No team in the Premier League has generated more “direct attacks” per game than Liverpool this season (5.38). Liverpool’s goal in the reverse fixture came from one of these attacks. Manchester City isn’t immune to Liverpool’s threat on the break.

Shapes & Timing

I could talk at length here about in-possession structures, box midfield, and the like. But these teams are so chock-full of talent, and these two coaches know each other so well, that there’s bound to be tactical twists and turns in this one.

Instead, we can look at the principles of these two teams. No matter how they achieve it, City are going to try getting numbers in midfield. They’ll know that Liverpool’s press is back to its fearsome best, and going 1-v-1 physically in midfield is a recipe for disaster. Whether they invert a fullback, push John Stones out of defense, or get a winger to drop in, City will want to flood the center with passing options and pressing players.

City has lots of players who are comfortable playing in tight midfield spaces.

Liverpool meanwhile will likely look like a 4-4-2 out of possession. Even though they’ll have a midfield three and a front three, the wingers will likely drop off to help defend in the midfield. One of the central midfielders then will push forward and lead the press alongside the striker. That way, City will have to quickly play out wide – where the wingers can jump on them – or through the middle, where Liverpool will have bodies to challenge for the ball. 

Liverpool’s 4-3-3 will probably switch to a 4-4-2 when they don’t have the ball.

The timing of how each team passes and how each team presses will be critical. A perfectly timed pass or a slightly misjudged run can open up that yard of space that elite players can exploit ruthlessly.

Time is also a key theme to watch out for. In nine of their 27 league games this season, City have conceded from the very first shot on target they’ve faced. Even if Liverpool can’t start quickly, they may be able to take the lead if they get half a chance. The Reds also have scored more goals after the 85th minute than anyone else in the league this season. So if there’s no early goal, all hope is not lost.

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How Will This Game Go?

You know how cup finals are often a bit dull to watch because the stakes are so high? We might get that kind of game here. Both teams are so, so good, and neither manager will want to gift openings to the other with the title on the line. Individual brilliance, or an individual error, will likely be telling in this game. However, if one side gets their noses in front, it could open up into a feast of transitional football.

Another draw to go with the 1-1 at the Etihad wouldn’t be a surprise. But given how clutch Liverpool has been at times this season (beating Newcastle with 10, beating Fulham with four goals, beating Chelsea at Wembley with the kids, beating Forest at the death) I’m going to predict a narrow, famous win for the hosts.

Writer’s prediction: Liverpool 2-1 Manchester City

Liverpool vs Manchester City takes place Sunday, March 10th. Kick-off is at 11:45 AM CET, 6:45 AM Pacific, and 4:45 PM GMT. Don’t forget to listen to the American Scouser pre-match talk and the post-match analysis on YouTube, Discord, or Facebook.

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