25 November 2011

Liverpool v Manchester City 11.27.11

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.11
0-3 City (a) 08.23.10
0-0 (a) 02.21.10
2-2 (h) 11.21.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Chelsea (a); 0-0 Swansea (h); 2-0 West Brom (a)
City: 1-2 Napoli (a); 3-1 Newcastle (h); 3-2 QPR (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Carroll 2; Bellamy, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Maxi, Skrtel 1
City: Agüero, Dzeko 10; Balotelli 6; Silva 4; Johnson 3; Milner 2; Barry, Kolarov, Kompany, Nasri, Richards, Savic, Y Toure 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Lucas Adam
Kuyt Henderson Maxi

Still basking in the afterglow of last Sunday's victory, it's ever so tempting to suggest Liverpool should play the exact same line-up as against Chelsea. But City don't play a high-line defense, and while unable to keep a clean sheet in the last five league matches, aren't especially lacking in confidence or prone to mistakes. Not to mention City are in far better form than Liverpool's last opponents.

We can't really look at previous league matches for a template against the leaders, who are unbeaten through this season's 12 games. Averaging 3.5 goals per league game, City have scored at least twice in every Premiership fixture so far. But City's two losses in Europe, as well as their lone draw in the Premier League against Fulham, could provide some sort of road map.

Both Bayern and Napoli soaked up early City pressure and demolished their opponents on the counter. Munich's 4-2-3-1 survived two early penalty claims before Gomez's quick strikes before halftime: the first on a fast break, set up by Ribery and Müller, the second scavenging on a set play. Napoli, in a 3-4-3 formation, did similar on Tuesday: Suarez's international strike partner Cavani opened the scoring on a set play, then canceled out Balotelli's equalizer on a counter-attack soon after the restart, converting Dossena's clever cross after Napoli sped down City's right. As many pointed out after the match, City had more than 70% of the possession – on the road, in Europe. Not that it mattered. With Napoli ahead and a three-man defense becoming a five-man defense, the visitors had little clue what to do with that possession.

Fulham's point was slightly more fortunate, although it's churlish to call it a fluke. But City went to sleep after going two up, arguably drained by their first Champions League encounter the week before, and Zamora's bullying muscle and a fortunate deflection brought the Cottagers back into the game. Like happens to many sides, some of City's shakiest moments have come after Europe: that draw at Fulham and the fright QPR gave them at the beginning of the month. But the 6-1 win at United, as well as a 4-0 win at Blackburn, followed Champions League fixtures.

So, how can Liverpool replicate any of these successes?

I thought Dalglish would shift to his usual 'big game' strategy last week, especially with the match at Stamford Bridge. But Liverpool stuck with the 4-4-2, albeit a different type of 4-4-2. Liverpool still looked for the counter, but instead of soaking up pressure, they pressed from the front in the first half, reverting to type in the second when a goal to the good. Once bitten, twice shy, but I still think a three-man midfield is likely on Sunday, and like in the last match preview, would point to Henderson's box to box runs as crucial. Of course, to counter my own "logic," Henderson's been more influential off the bench in recent matches against United and Chelsea.

A three-man defense, like Napoli's was, isn't completely out of the question after Liverpool's wins over Stoke and Chelsea last season, but it seems a remote possibility; the last time we saw the tactic was in March, in the 1-3 loss at West Ham. Liverpool played some sort of 4-4-2 in both matches against City last season, first under Hodgson, then under Dalglish. One was a success, one wasn't. No prizes for guessing which was which. Incidentally, City played 4-3-3 in their home win and 4-2-3-1 at Anfield, with Liverpool aided by Tevez's early injury in the latter. Hazarding a guess, I'd wager Tevez isn't going to feature this weekend. The away side are obviously spoilt for riches; Nasri, Agüero, and Barry – left out against Napoli – seem likely to feature, while it'd be surprising to see both Balotelli and Milner start three matches in eight days.

Liverpool fans' focus will be on the inclusion of last Sunday's surprise starters: Maxi and Bellamy. Based on two Carling Cup appearances and last week at Chelsea, Maxi's simply in better form than Downing, always threatening to seamlessly combine with Suarez. At the same time, it's hard to leave Bellamy out, undoubtedly champing at the bit to punish his previous club. The other personnel question is one presented last week: will Carragher come back in at the expense of Skrtel or Agger?

If Liverpool stick with two strikers, Bellamy will probably play at the expense of the star man in last season's fixture at Anfield. Divining the entrails of Dalglish's press conferences is always dangerous, but it's not hard to sense a veiled shot at Carroll in this quote:
"You take into account what is happening now," Dalglish said. "Just because he scored twice last season doesn't mean he's going to score this time. We will all start afresh, Andy included."
Of course, knowing Dalglish's precedents, it could all be dissemination and "mind games." That's part of the fun of these guessing games. Early pressing, as against Chelsea last week, combined with crosses for Carroll, then sitting back and soaking up pressure in the second half, was what led to Liverpool's win against these lot last season. The similarity to those aforementioned Bayern and Napoli victories over City seems unavoidable.

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