When the reverse of this fixture was played back in August, Manchester City were adopting a 3-5-2 system led by Mario Balotelli, and Fabio Borini and Andy Carroll constituted Liverpool’s only back up to Luis Suarez. Two uncertain sides drew 2-2 that day, although Liverpool began to show glimpses of what they might achieve once the squad had adapted to new manager Brendan Rodgers’ tactics. Roberto Mancini has since seemingly abandoned his 3-5-2 experiment, and the current City side should offer a far more imposing challenge.
Matija Nastasic’s fitness
With Vincent Kompany injured and Kolo Toure at the African Cup of Nations, City are short of central defensive options and will hope that Nastasic can prove his fitness to take his place alongside Jolean Lescott at centre back. His selection is likely to have a major effect on the rest of Mancini’s team selection. Should he miss out as he did against QPR in midweek, Javi Garcia would have to continue to fill in at centre back, which in turn would leave a hole in City’s midfield.
Mancini selected James Milner alongside Gareth Barry against QPR in the absence of Yaya Toure, also at the African Cup of Nations, with Samir Nasri in Milner’s customary right midfield position. Nasri has been out of favour in recent weeks and failed to impress again on Wednesday so Mancini would surely prefer to move Milner back to right midfield in a shuttler role as he often has against other top sides. This hinges on finding a central midfield partner for Barry. A fit Nastasic would allow Javi Garcia to fill the position, but should he be required in defence Mancini will need to decide on retaining Milner, and starting Nasri, or introducing Jack Rodwell.
Javi Garcia is an adequate defensive replacement for Nastasic, but his presence in midfield and the return of Milner to the right is far more valuable to City. Liverpool are particularly strong down their left flank, with Luis Suarez playing ahead of Glen Johnson, and Milner’s defensive contribution from right midfield would be beneficial. These options hinge on Nastasic’s fitness, and it once again calls into question how a club that has spent as much as City have find their squad so easily stretched.
Liverpool’s midfield arrangement
Rodgers instructed his Liverpool midfield to press Arsenal from the first whistle in midweek, safe in the knowledge that Lucas could watch Santi Cazorla, the only opposing midfielder looking to find space between the lines. Against City this is more risky as it would leave Lucas up against both Tevez and Silva operating in central areas behind the striker. Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson are both forward thinking midfielders, but will need to be positionally aware against the movement of City’s playmakers. Rodgers may decide to replace Henderson with the more conservative Joe Allen and switch to a 4-2-1-3 system, but considering Henderson’s recent form it is more likely Liverpool’s midfielders will simply be given a more defensive brief.
Lucas is a fine holding midfield player, reading the game well and preventing players from finding space in front of the Liverpool defence, but will be greatly tested by City, especially by Silva who may be the league’s finest practitioner at finding space between the lines. With Tevez, and possibly Nasri and Sergio Aguero, all looking to drop into the space around Lucas he will need to communicate with his defensive colleagues and receive support from midfield. City and Silva will always create opportunities from this area, but Liverpool will need to keep these instances to as few as possible.
But pressing City’s midfield should not be discounted by Liverpool. Barry is used to playing the deeper role and enjoying time on the ball, but in Toure’s absence may be required to play slightly more advanced, which should invite pressure from Liverpool’s midfield. Javi Garcia is also more comfortable in a withdrawn role, so pressing both players could certainly be an option for Rodgers to contemplate. City still pose a threat in advanced midfield positions, but their deeper players are capable of being challenged.
City’s right vs Liverpool’s left
Both teams are strongest down the same side of the pitch. With Milner likely to play a winger/shuttler role on the right side of midfield and Zabaleta overlapping from full back, City’s right flank is far more direct than their left, where Silva drifts infield and Clichy gets forward more reluctantly than during his Arsenal days. As already mentioned, Liverpool may continue to field Johnson at left full back, with Suarez ahead of him. Although Johnson is a naturally right-sided player, he has become equally comfortable defending and attacking the left flank, whereas Suarez continues to be Liverpool’s main attacking threat despite moving away from a central forward position.
Johnson is a better defender than many give him credit for, but he can be prone to lapses of concentration. Against City this could be fatal, as Silva is particularly keen to move across the pitch from his left midfield position to link with Milner on the right wing, meaning that Liverpool’s left full back faces a multitude of threats. He will need help from his midfield, especially Lucas, but also Suarez, who will need to track the runs of Zabaleta from full back.
Suarez is often praised for his defensive work as a forward, and his pressing is as energetic and committed as anybody in the league. But having become accustomed to playing in a central role, tracking a full back, and particularly one as aggressive as Zabaleta, may not be something he is used to. Against Arsenal he tracked Bacary Sagna to just inside the Liverpool half before loitering in the vacated space behind the full back for counter attacking opportunities. This worked well against an opponent lacking in confidence and form, and led to several excellent attacking opportunities, but Zabaleta will be a greater challenge. City’s full back will continue to leave space behind that Suarez can exploit, but it would be at the cost of allowing the Argentine to overload Liverpool’s left back area.
As with most games the pattern will be determined by one side’s – Liverpool’s – ambition. Without Toure City’s midfield can be challenged, but at the obvious risk of leaving space for Silva and Tevez to operate. What is likely is that Rodger’s will instruct his players to press initially and hope to grab a goal, before retreating and attacking on the break. City will be hopeful that Nastasic is fit enough to play as the presence of Milner on the right flank gives City attacking width and greater midfield solidity.