Liverpool and Manchester City know each other well. They have, after all, fought each other at the top of the English game for the last few seasons with their current contest arguably the most compelling so far. Just one week after the two rivals met each other in a season-defining Premier League fixture, they will clash once more this Saturday in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool players are chasing their second trophy of the season after winning the Carabao Cup in February while City, top of the Premier League and into the final four of the Champions League, have a Treble within their sights. That all three major honours in England and the European Cup could be shared between City and Liverpool underlines their dominance of the sport at this moment in time.
A league of their own
Sunday’s match demonstrated the quality of the two teams. While the encounter at the Etihad Stadium was ragged at times, this was only because City and Liverpool did their best to expose each other’s weaknesses in a way only they could. No other team in the Premier League, or Europe, is operating at their level.
It was evident in the way Manchester City controlled periods of Sunday’s match against their closest rivals, but also in the way Liverpool still managed to retain a threat in quick transition. Most teams ultimately run out of oxygen against a City team intent on suffocating opponents, but Klopp’s side managed to breathe.
On Sunday, Guardiola’s approach was tailored to give Liverpool a taste of their own medicine. Indeed, City, a team that usually defends the big spaces and attacks the small ones, made a point of playing the ball into space rather than into players. This meant Liverpool’s full backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, were frequently turned towards their own goal. It unsettled the Reds’ backline.
Klopp’s alterations for the start of the second allowed Liverpool to stem the flow of key passes coming their way and it’s reasonable to assume the German coach will learn from this before Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final. Naby Keita might be a better option than Jordan Henderson to lead the press from midfield and deny Manchester City space on the ball.
Liverpool should also look to find Mohamed Salah more often. The Egyptian contributed an excellent assist in Sunday’s 2-2 draw, but was restricted as a goal threat in his own right. This was partially due to the way Manchester City managed to cut the supply line that runs from Virgil van Dijk to Salah on the right wing.
City might wish to revert to their usual style of intricate attacking patterns to eliminate the threat of Liverpool counter-attacks as much as possible. Raheem Sterling was deployed through the middle, with the idea the England international would play on the shoulder of the last defender, but Phil Foden could be used as a ‘false nine’ instead to ensure Liverpool have no way to get out.
The positioning of Kevin de Bruyne will be an indicator of how City approach Sunday’s FA Cup clash. In the Premier League fixture, the Belgian was pushed ahead of Rodri and Bernardo Silva as the midfield basis to drive the ball forward, leading to the opportunity from which he scored the opener. This disrupted Liverpool’s central shape, so will Guardiola ask de Bruyne to do the same thing again or drop him deeper to make better use of his passing ability against a low defensive block?
A tactical masterclass
Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger set the precedent for rivalries between managers, and teams, in the Premier League era, but matches between Arsenal and Manchester United were never the tactical case studies that matches between City and Liverpool are. Their contests are just as captivating on the chalkboard as they are on the pitch.
Many parallels can be drawn between City and Liverpool. Both teams line up in a 4-3-3 shape, even if Guardiola and Klopp use that shape to achieve different things in different areas of the pitch. Both managers demand technical excellence from their players, but also physical resilience. City and Liverpool play at an intensity and tempo that is beyond both teams.
Both clubs have a clear idea of what a City or Liverpool player looks like and it’s this vision that shapes their activity in the transfer market. This allows new signings to settle quickly – see Luis Diaz and the start the Colombian has enjoyed as a Liverpool player following his January transfer from Porto.
It’s no wonder there is genuine mutual respect between Guardiola and Klopp. They are two sides of the same coin even if they find themselves on different sides of English and European football’s defining rivalry. The pitch is where the true edge of the contest between City and Liverpool is and more evidence of this competition will be provided at Wembley this weekend.