There is a very easy way to make good players look like world-beaters: give them time and space. Liverpool and Manchester City are piled high with quality that can rip apart any opposition if allowed to play on their own terms, so it will be incredibly important for both sides to execute a perfect pressing game when they meet at Anfield on Sunday.
The match could be won by the work done off the ball. City showed how to do this against Chelsea and Liverpool will be very careful not to fall into similar traps. City had 62% possession but their pressing efficiency was much greater than Chelsea’s. City disrupted their opponents’ plan to play out from the back thanks to the relentless nature of their attackers – something they will look to repeat at Liverpool.
This is a tough week for City, who play three of their most intense games of the season in the space of nine days, the match at Liverpool coming after fixtures at Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain. They have injury issues and given the intensity of their play, they could risk wilting in the later stages on Sunday. It takes a lot of physical energy and mental concentration to be repeatedly in the right place to press effectively.
City have conceded a solitary goal in six league games, receiving credit for the defence, but those defenders will be thanking the forwards for their hard work to make this possible. The pressing at the front makes things easier for the defenders because they know where the next pass is going from the opposition, allowing them to protect the area in front of them and quickly nullify the threat.
It is draining spending 90 minutes pressing. It takes a long time to drop from that high because it is such an adrenaline rush. If you have an 8pm game, you will not be coming down until three or four in the morning. Recovery starts the following day but then you are preparing for the next game, so training is really short – and managing your mind and body effectively in these intense periods is imperative.
We will see throughout City’s season that they will go for the press in peaks and troughs because no one can sustain it over a long period. They are so good in possession against weaker teams that they do not need to press them excessively, meaning City can save the relentless press for the top sides.
Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, like Alex Ferguson in the past, will have had a strategy to attack this most crucial of weeks, with plans laid out for each fixture. They will have had perfect scenarios in their minds, though neither side have come through unscathed, with City losing in Paris and Liverpool dropping points at Brentford, leaving both managers plenty to ponder.
This may divert the managers from the original plan but they have fantastic players at their disposal and their flexibility is crucial at times like this. Neither will be afraid to adjust at the last minute if they think it will aid their team in the short-term.
Overloading attacks on the left has been a useful tool for City this season as they try to get Jack Grealish into the game as much as possible. Chelsea struggled to cope with the combination of Grealish and João Cancelo and with the news that Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold is out it would not be a surprise if City looked to repeat their trick, as the duo start to synchronise on the left flank.
Brentford showed how to get at Liverpool last week, scoring three goals against a defence that had conceded once in their previous five league matches. They saw things were not working because Liverpool’s press was incredibly effective, so they got round it by going more direct. Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo caused Virgil van Dijk and Joël Matip a number of problems thanks to their link-up play when receiving the ball from the back.
City’s philosophy is to play out from defence and through teams to create chances but Guardiola will not be afraid to mix things up for the sake of victory. We have seen for a number of seasons how Ederson can send a booming long pass to the highest attacking point of the pitch to quickly change the direction of the game and catch out a defence. I would not be surprised if Ferran Torres or Raheem Sterling started down the middle to give City the opportunity to stretch the Liverpool backline, just as Brentford did.
Liverpool will be aware of how City like to dominate the midfield areas against their rivals at the top. Chelsea were unable to cope with things in the middle of the park because Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho lacked the physical capabilities to resist City.
Klopp will be sure to counteract this by using his fittest and most physical players in that department. Despite the injury problems Liverpool have in central midfield, they have shown for some time now that they have the requisite quality and stamina to form a three to go toe-to-toe with City.
Due to the pace of the game – and the need to break the press – it could resemble a basketball match on Sunday. Whichever team innovates most effectively to counteract the press will give themselves the best chance of winning, as Klopp and Guardiola try to best one another at their own game.