Mind games, fortress Anfield and the midfield
Liverpool will face their biggest test of the Premier League season to date on Sunday, but will the midfield selection have a bearing on the result and can history repeat itself?
A date long pencilled in the diary is now upon us. The Reds’ meeting with the greatest threat to their Premier League ambitions arrives at Anfield six points adrift.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City outfit have laid down the marker to which Liverpool have strived to reach in recent years, and now the two sides meet once more looking to boost their own chances of success while simultaneously hoping to derail the others.
A chance to lay down a statement of intent and land a body blow now awaits Liverpool, but there are number of questions to consider around the fixture.
Who will slot into midfield?
For a number of years now Klopp has had to reconsider and re-evaluate his starting midfield, a subject which has also proven to be a point of contention across the fanbase.
Three of the four have been rotated heavily through the middle of the park as the manager often looks to the quartet in the biggest of moments, which included both Champions League finals.
The caveat to that is Liverpool have been without an attacking midfielder to call upon with any regularity as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita have both had to contend with injuries, while the latter has also taken time to adjust to his new surroundings.
Now, however, the Reds’ No. 15 is well and truly in the motions of returning to the peak of his powers while Keita is similarly accruing more minutes on the park after an early-season setback.
The Brazilian failed to start in either league matchup with City last season but this time around he is the key man acting as the tempo-setter, enforcer and creative weapon.
Invariably it leaves six players vying for two positions, if you were to also consider Adam Lallana, but it’s a safe bet to suggest Wijnaldum will occupy one of the places having been heavily relied upon by the German throughout his stay at Anfield.
With Milner, Keita and Lallana likely to be named as substitutes for the clash, with the former acting as a reliable experienced head if needed late in the piece, it leaves Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson.
The skipper has struggled to get going in recent weeks and would represent a conservative approach, whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain would be the bold, “brave” move Klopp hinted at in his pre-match press conference.
With City’s injury woes stacking up, primarily in their defensive third, handing the No. 15 the reigns would add valuable forward impetus and allow the Reds to engage the press higher up the field and take advantage of the half-spaces in and around the position Ilkay Gundogan is likely to take up.
As is often the case, the game is likely to be won in the middle of the park and with the Anfield faithful behind them a more adventurous combination could prove too much for City.
Will Guardiola take a defensive approach again?
In the respective fixture last season, Guardiola set out his team to be as compact as possible in both the attacking and defensive phases of play.
The visitors sat ten men behind the ball and waited patiently to pounce on an error or squeeze Liverpool into an area whereby the potential risk of a press was minimised.
In possession, instead of unleashing both full-backs higher up the field Guardiola opted for his right-back, in this case, Kyle Walker to hold back and create a back three, while a double pivot was also present in midfield.
At the time, after seven matchdays, the two teams were level on 19 points with City edging the goal differential to sit atop of the table.
The conservative and purposeful change in approach was one which Klopp felt was the “biggest show of respect” he, or one of his teams, had ever received.
Guardiola’s decision almost paid dividends with all three points, only for Riyad Mahrez to sky his late penalty effort over the crossbar, but this time around City need to make up ground having found themselves six points adrift.
A mirrored performance this time around could be a clear indication of his view on the title race: leave with a point at Anfield and the belief that the Reds will inevitably drop points elsewhere, where a chance to replicate a win at the Etihad in April will see them edge the head to head.
But whether Guardiola opts to apply the handbrake or not, Liverpool will be more acutely aware of the potential plans up his sleeve and can plan accordingly.
Is it mind games or will Ederson in fact be absent?
The Spaniard is not one to shy away from pre-match mind games having readily engaged in a war of words or making assertations over the availability of particular players.
City were long set to be without Aymeric Laporte, Rodri, Oleksandr Zinchenko, David Silva and Leroy Sane for the trip to Anfield, with Ederson throwing Guardiola another potential headache after being withdrawn at half-time in the 1-1 draw with Atalanta in midweek.
Guardiola was coy on the details of the Brazilian’s injury and the potential timeframe of his absence on Friday having backed Claudio Bravo, who was shown a red card at Atalanta to see Kyle Walker finish the game in goal, to take the mantle without a hitch.
Ederson is an integral member of City’s team, with his distribution a key asset in initiating attacks and they will no doubt miss his presence should he, as Guardiola suggests, fail to recover in time.
But, as aforementioned, mind games are certainly not out of the realm of possibility with Guardiola and the Reds will need to plan for the possibility of Ederson starting.
Fortress Anfield to continue causing City headaches?
You can feel it now, the nerves, the anticipation but most of all the fire in the belly to see Liverpool keep their foot on City’s throat and hand them a decisive blow to their title hopes.
The visitors will be left with no doubt that the crowd will be out for blood once they step over the white line at Anfield, a feral atmosphere which would make any side sit up, take notice and even crumble – as they have done so before.
While in no mood to see similar scenes of the bus welcome in 2018, Klopp had no hesitation in encouraging everyone in “the stadium to be in absolutely top shape” even “the guys who sell the hot dogs.”
A call to arms that will no doubt be answered as the Reds continue in their quest to end the wait without a league title.
While recent results in the form of the Community Shield and the meeting at the Etihad in January did not go Liverpool’s way, visits to Anfield have failed to go City’s as they have not left the red half of Merseyside with three points in the league since 2003.
It’s safe to say it has not been a happy hunting ground for City, and with the Reds having stretched their unbeaten streak in the league on their home turf to 45 coupled with the fierce atmosphere lying in wait, it will take an almighty effort to overturn such a record.
How many points are enough?
Liverpool took just one of an available six against City last term and ended the season one point adrift of the title winners.
Crossing one’s fingers and praying for other teams to do the job you could not, as we did so often towards the back end of the season, is not a position we need get reacquainted with.
With only two opportunities to directly have a hand in the fate of our closest rival, four points across the two meetings is non-negotiable.
While a draw at Anfield would ensure such a task remained possible while maintaining our current six-point buffer, the inability to take advantage of City’s current position and injury woes could later come back to bite us.
The next opportunity to inflict damage is five months down the track with the games remaining then in the single digits.
A victory on Sunday would not only take us closer to that goal but it could have lasting repercussions for how Guardiola approaches the rest of the season should the Reds remain on their current trajectory.