12 April 2014

Liverpool v Manchester City 04.13.14

8:37am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 City (a) 12.26.13
2-2 (a) 02.03.13
2-2 (h) 08.26.12
2-2 (h; League Cup) 01.25.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Ham (a); 4-0 Tottenham (h); 2-1 Sunderland (h)
Manchester City: 4-1 Southampton (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a); 3-0 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 29; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 13; Skrtel, Sterling 6; Coutinho, Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Manchester City: Y Toure 18; Agüero 15; Dzeko 11; Negredo 9; Silva 6; Nasri 5; Fernandinho, Navas 4; Kompany 3; Jovetic 2; Demichelis, Kolarov, Milner 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Lucas Henderson
Sturridge Suarez

There seem to be more questions about Liverpool's starting XI and formation than usual this week.

First, there's the most frequent: diamond or 4-3-3? Liverpool have started with the 4-3-3 in the last two matches, but switched to the diamond in the second half. And controlled the game better in the diamond formation, although Liverpool could have controlled the second half against Tottenham in any formation. I suspect Rodgers will deploy it from the start tomorrow. Manchester City can cause pain on the flanks, but aside from Navas, it's mostly through the fullbacks. It's more important that Liverpool "win the midfield", especially against the likes of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.

A diamond formation raises two personnel questions. Sterling or Coutinho, Allen or Lucas? Who plays at the apex and who plays on the side opposite Henderson?

Sterling seemingly has more value as a substitute, able to stretch the game when legs are tiring, and is more versatile, increasingly comfortable in the middle in addition to his performances on either flank. Coutinho, a more orthodox midfielder, better able to link play between midfield and attack and more capable of playing the defense-killing throughball, seems a more appropriate starter.

It was surprising to see Lucas come on at halftime for Coutinho a week ago, and even more surprising to see where he played: Liverpool shifting to the diamond, and Lucas playing ahead of Gerrard. And Lucas' introduction made Liverpool much more defensively secure, both through the middle and when Lucas chipped in to support the fullback. Most amazingly, he also got forward, playing the crucial pass to win the crucial penalty. Allen is no slouch defensively – he was outstanding against United in this formation – but the more combative, physical Lucas seems a better pick against Toure and Fernandinho.

Finally, regardless of formation, Agger or Sakho? The former's fit again after missing last week through injury, but the latter did quite well in Agger's absence, especially considering how much time he'd missed prior to starting against West Ham. City don't pose the aerial threat that West Ham did, but they're more than capable in the air, especially if Dzeko starts. Rodgers often sticks with the devil he knows, preferring consistency, especially in defense, which would suggest another start for Sakho, but I honestly have no idea who he'll choose.

Worth noting: Liverpool have kept ten clean sheets in the league this season. Agger has started in all but two. Yes, he's also played when Liverpool have conceded three against Everton, Swansea, and Cardiff, but the previous stat hardly seems coincidence. More than half of Agger's league starts (15) have ended with Liverpool's opponent scoreless.

Agüero is fit again after a month on the sidelines, injured in the first leg at Barcelona four weeks ago. City have coped with his absence surprisingly well, winning four and drawing one of the five league matches, but there seems little doubt he'll come straight back into the starting XI, by far a better option than Dzeko or Negredo.

City's likely XI is Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Toure, Fernandinho; Navas, Silva, Nasri; Agüero. Dzeko may well start; there have been matches where he's played in the hole, behind Agüero in a sort of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid, flanked by two from Nasri, Navas, and Silva. Knowing that a draw will still put City in control of its destiny, Pellegrini could also use the more defensive Milner instead of Navas or Nasri, as he did at Barcelona, but Milner's only started two league matches since January 1.

11 of the 40 league goals that Liverpool have conceded this season have come from headers; seven of those 11 have come on set plays. Facing Agüero rather than Dzeko might better suit Liverpool, especially an Agüero in his first game back after a month's absence. But let's not downplay how good Sergio Agüero is. Three players have more goals than Agüero this season – Suarez, Sturridge, and Yaya Toure – but Agüero's done it in far fewer appearances, with a goals per 90 average of 1.13, compared to Suarez's 1.04 and Sturridge's 0.90. This piece, from Ben Pugsley six weeks ago, aptly demonstrates how important Agüero is to this City side.

Let's face it. Manchester City are loaded, from top to bottom. They can beat you in any number of ways. That's what spending ungodly amounts of oil money can and should buy you. But they also often appear a collection of incredibly talented individuals rather than a team.

I hate falling into the "THIS IS LIVERPOOL'S MOST IMPORTANT GAME SINCE BLAH BLAH BLAH" trap. Liverpool could win on Sunday but still fail to win the title if they mess up in one or more of the next four matches. Liverpool could lose or draw tomorrow but still win the the title if City (or Chelsea) mess up in one or more of their final matches. Tomorrow could decide a lot, but won't decide everything.

That said, this is Liverpool's most important league match in a very, very long time. A draw or loss means that City's back in the catbird seat. It's fitting that Liverpool will need to beat both their closest competitors in the last five weeks to win the championship. There will be no backing into this title. And both of those matches will be at Anfield. A very, very loud Anfield.

Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them.


Anonymous said...

It all depends on who scores the first goal. Love the Game of Thrones reference. Hope Kompany and Aguero are feeling their knocks

Anonymous said...

How willing the referee is in awarding penalty may well influence the result too