WITH Manchester City and Liverpool preparing to face off across ninety ferocious minutes at the Etihad, in what might ultimately prove a title decider, we naturally head to the stats, yet by doing this we immediately encounter a problem. So immense have both teams been in recent years – and so lacking in obvious flaws – that these stats tend to cancel each other out.
Liverpool, for example, have only failed to score once in their last 40 league games, a staggering feat. But City have kept clean sheets in 60% of their league commitments in 2021/22, again a remarkable thing.
Aptly, given that we’re talking about two sides that have cowed the rest of the Premier League into submission in recent seasons, Liverpool have also kept clean sheets in 60% of their fixtures to date. And this – to an extent – nullifies the fact that City have been in front on 23 occasions this term and won each and every time.
It is sensible therefore to turn away from the record-breaking brilliance and the shared dominance to the fine margins, that slightest of places inhabited by the possibility of a mistake or the hint of an edge.
Here we find the return from injury of Trent Alexander-Arnold, a player who – along with Andy Robertson on the other flank -is key to understanding this fixture in modern times because how Pep Guardiola has learned to deal with their joint threat goes a long way to explaining how the Blues have lost only once in their last eight meetings.
In the Amazon documentary ‘All Or Nothing’ covering City’s 2017/18 campaign that saw them crowned as Centurions, Guardiola is filmed pacing in a dressing room, fretting over his side’s forthcoming European clash with the Reds. “The forwards for Liverpool are good. They scare me,” he candidly admits. This quote was distributed far and wide and understandably so when it’s acknowledged how fundamental Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were, and are, to the Reds; when it’s acknowledged that they went on to score four goals between them in the subsequent two-legged tie.
Mohamed Salah's goal v Man City from all angles 🇪🇬⚽️ pic.twitter.com/psrJKhnuc0
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) October 4, 2021
But in their last five encounters Mane and Salah have converted six of Liverpool’s seven goals against City meaning the problem hasn’t gone away and the Catalan grandmaster has yet to find a solution to them. Maybe he can’t when it’s factored in how phenomenal the trio are? Maybe he can merely try to limit their damage as best he can?
His next sentence however was over-looked and really shouldn’t have been: “Our wing-back can’t cover their wing-back.”
Alexander-Arnold and Robertson both ran amok in those games but, barring the odd moment, have failed to do so ever since against City. These are a pairing who are absolutely vital to Liverpool’s attacking mandate and indeed presently they are racking up incredible numbers, with both players topping the Premier League chart this season for assists. Yet they were last directly involved in a goal in this fixture back in 2019, with City bossing all subsequent results.
How this has been achieved is by deploying Bernardo Silva in a deeper role and utilizing his outstanding engine to double-up with full-backs to negate Liverpool’s impact from wide positions. City’s full-backs meanwhile have recently been tethered in this fixture, or at least used in a far more conventional fashion to their usual inversions into midfield or their hogging of a touchline.
From this we can deduce that if Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo are all fit for Sunday – and they currently are – and they all stick to the memo and all avoid bad days at the office, then it’s the hosts who have an edge.
Elsewhere, the timing of any crucial goal that might decide this must-win clash is also worthy of note.
Instinct tells us that Liverpool will come out all guns blazing from the off because this is precisely what they did at the Etihad last season and more so, on this occasion victory is essential to get into the driving seat in this title race with seven games apiece to play.
Yet, Jurgen Klopp’s men have scored 40% of their league goals this term in the final third of games and it’s pertinent that no-one else in the top-flight has scored more pure match-winners than either Salah or Diogo Jota this season. City meanwhile, who of the two are considered to be the more considered, have scored 37.1% of their goal-haul in the opening third.
Might this mean that Liverpool go against their 2021/22 type and throw the kitchen sink at City from the first whistle, while City stay true to form and immediately seek to impose their controlling of the game’s narrative? If so, we could be in for a frantic and memorable first half that the second period can’t live up to.