Manchester City vs Liverpool. This is the big one. The game for all the marbles. The two best teams in the Premier League square off for a second time to see if Liverpool’s march to a first title in almost three decades will be assured or if who will win the Premier League is still an open question.
With over half of the season now gone, we’ve gotten answers to many of the big pre-season questions. One of mine was how Liverpool would fare as a more possession-based team. The addition of Alisson in particular suggested that Liverpool were going to play as more of a possession-oriented side. Given the Reds often struggled when they couldn’t rely on their press and were forced to break down an opponent last season, it made sense to focus in that area.
Though Liverpool’s results against lower sides have improved, it can’t really be said they’re playing more of a possession game, as their possession percentage this season is slightly lower than last (58% to 57% per Whoscored). As expected, Alisson has turned the ball over about 2.5 fewer times per 90 compared to the Karius/Mignolet duo, but the percentage of possessions ending in a turnover hasn’t decreased.
I think this is largely because so much of Liverpool’s attack now runs through their fullbacks. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson both rank in the top four of both Twelve’s attack score for Liverpool and in my Usage Rate calculation. Robertson in particular has seen a large increase in Usage Rate this year and both fullbacks consistently occupy high positions in the attack.
However, in Liverpool’s previous match-up with City, the fullbacks were not nearly as advanced and the squad were quite prepared to primarily attack on the counter. Joe Gomez started at right-back, ahead of the more adventurous Alexander-Arnold, and Liverpool were content not to press the issue. Since City were also relatively cautious and made it hard for Liverpool to counter, it led to a game of very few chances.
While Liverpool might start off the same way, that dynamic is now out the window for City since they essentially need a win to keep the title race alive. A gap of ten points, especially without the opportunity to take further points directly from Liverpool, would probably put the matter to bed. Even if xG and shot metrics still favor City slightly over the first half of the season, that doesn’t help erase Liverpool’s lead.
As a result, I’d expect City to be on the front foot from the off. This hasn’t really been a problem recently either, as City have scored first in their last four games despite going on to lose two of them. If they continue that form and force Liverpool to come out of their shell as well, this is going to be a very open game indeed.
That’s a prospect which is a mixed-bag from a City perspective. Though it obviously will be key to breach Liverpool’s excellent defense, an open game against a team with the pace of Liverpool is very dangerous. This is especially true since, with Benjamin Mendy injured and Fabian Delph suspended, City’s left-back position will be filled by one of Danilo or Oleksander Zinchenko.
Neither is a particularly inspiring choice when facing off against the always dangerous Mohammed Salah. Though Zinchenko is an excellent young attacker who lit up the Eredivisie in limited time on loan at PSV (and leads City in Twelve’s attack score on a points per minute basis), he’s decidedly not a good defender. Danilo is just… not good at this point in his career, and right-footed to boot.
— Twelve (@twelve_football) January 1, 2019
Contrary to the narrative surrounding City, I don’t think they’ve really played worse recently. If performances have declined, that’s largely because the schedule has been getting tougher. Moreover, they’ve played teams who’ve been able to deny easy opportunities on the wings and force them to break them down through the middle, taking advantage of Kevin De Bruyne’s absence (and inconsistent play so far in his return).
That said, the team really doesn’t have any more time and needs a win here. Home-field advantage counts for something, but City’s record versus Liverpool, a very unfavorable match-up at a key position, and what promises to be an open game mean this is going to be a tough one. My heart says a City win, my head says a draw, and my stomach says I need some antacids. Buckle up everyone.