Liverpool travel to the Etihad on Sunday looking to right the wrongs of a week which has seen them lose to League One Oldham Athletic and blow a two goal lead away to Arsenal. They will face a Manchester City side unbeaten in seven but Brendan Rodgers and his men will be quietly confident that they can take three points from the fixture.
The reason for this is obvious: Luis Suárez is in the form of his life and the Premier League champions go into the game without their captain and lynchpin Vincent Kompany. The idea of Suárez running at Joleon Lescott has probably given Roberto Mancini sleepless nights of late and with good cause.
Having lost his manager’s confidence with some shaky displays at the start of the season, the former Everton defender has only played ninety minutes two times since City’s inglorious exit of the Champions League. Facing a striker of Suárez’s quality would be hard enough for Lescott when fully fit, so going into the match rusty makes the Uruguayan extremely likely to continue his scoring run.
As Manchester City’s Champions League struggles against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund showed, they are there for the taking when teams let them have the ball and invite them to attack before quickly springing in to the space behind City’s defence.
Therefore, it makes sense for Liverpool to play a counter-attacking 3-4-2-1 in this game. Manchester City’s 4-4-1-1 is narrow and their attacking tempo slow, so crowding the centre of the pitch often sees their attack neutralised and their defence left subtly exposed. Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli used this system against City to great effect in last season’s Champions League, taking four points from two group stage matches.
With City likely to recycle the ball at the edge of Liverpool’s defensive third, there will be ample chances to win the ball in good areas and counter-attack with the dynamism of Suárez, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard. With Pepe Reina returning from injury to take his place between the posts, Liverpool can count on intelligent and accurate distribution from their goalkeeper, further strengthening the case to counter.
Of course, the key to stopping Manchester City is stopping David Silva. In Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool have the players to form a diligent and energetic midfield partnership, closing the Spaniard’s passing angles in the centre and supporting Glen Johnson and José Enrique when he receives the ball in wide areas.
Additionally, City will look to use the height of Edin Džeko to exploit Liverpool’s recent weakness in the air and having an extra centre-back in the middle will allow the Reds to keep tight to the Bosnian as well as sweep up any knock-downs, providing further opportunities to transition from defence to attack.
The only worry with a 3-4-2-1 system is that there will remain space between the three centre-backs and the two central midfielders. In Carlos Tevez, Manchester City have a player adept at finding this space and making the most of it. It is important, therefore, that Daniel Agger is prepared to step forward into this space when possible and eliminate the Argentine’s threat at source.
Perhaps the great advantage of playing with a back three and a counter-attacking midfield is that the substitutions pretty much make themselves. Steven Gerrard probably does not have the legs to reprise his quasi-second-striker act for the full ninety minutes but in Jonjo Shelvey Liverpool have a like-for-like replacement ready to take his place.
If Rodgers needs to protect a lead, there is the option to slow the game down and monopolise possession with the introduction of Joe Allen for Jordan Henderson. If all else fails and the Reds need to go hell for leather, Suso and Fabio Borini can replace Jamie Carragher, their versatility allowing Rodgers to select an appropriate Plan B.
This will not be a walk in the park, by any means. Manchester City have not set the pulses racing as they did at the start of last season but they remain a formidable force and will go into the game as favourites. However, if Brendan Rodgers chooses his team logically and apes Mazzarri’s Napoli, Liverpool will give themselves every chance of upsetting the form book.
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