Enough of the false starts, the window-wangling, the angsty autumn qualifiers.
After an early season spent crunching around in the high gears, followed by a 13-day Premier League hiatus just as things were starting to get interesting, Saturday lunchtime at the Etihad Stadium really cannot come quickly enough. Time for some ignition.
The Premier League is no stranger to showdowns and face-offs, not to mention Judgment Days, Super Saturdays and all the rest. This is a sporting theatre where the needle only ever goes up to 11 and the product is never knowingly under-oversold. And yet there are still times when the storylines converge, the gears click together and the fixture list throws up a match that really does feel like a jumping-off point.
Liverpool’s trip to Manchester City on Saturday is an intriguing prospect whatever the surrounding weather. Chuck in the sense of squads and systems being whittled into shape and two teams who look well-matched not just on the pitch but in their wider trajectory under second- and third-season super-coaches and this has the feel of a pivotal moment. Chelsea’s defeat of Spurs in August may have been the first meeting of last season’s incumbent top four but this looks the more intriguing match-up, a game to break the season open.
Having provided the fanfare it would be in keeping with football’s refusenik sense of humour if the Etihad were to dish up a deathly nil-nil but reason suggests otherwise, as does the wider history of encounters between the systems-based teams of Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. On a basic level there is something nicely poised about a meeting of the Premier League’s second- and fourth-placed teams. Nobody has had more possession or made more passes than City this season. Nobody has scored more goals from counterattacks than Liverpool.
This is the way it has tended to go when these two profoundly stylised managers meet. Klopp has the better of things overall with five wins to four across Bundesliga and Premier League. More notable is the way those matches have tended to play out. Klopp’s best results have tended to come when his teams sit deep. Last season Liverpool conceded the bulk of possession but gummed City’s movements, fought for every pocket of space and won 1-0 at Anfield with a headed goal by Georginio Wijnaldum.
If that game was not exactly a thriller, it still carried some familiar detailing from meetings between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the shared Pep-Klopp era. Sitting deep and springing forward has been the best method of attack against Guardiola teams. In April 2014 Dortmund beat Bayern – who were already champions – 3-0 at the Allianz Arena playing almost entirely on the break, taking 29% possession and scoring goals from lightning, mob-handed breaks on the flanks. Guardiola’s first game in charge of Bayern was a riotously open 4-2 defeat in Dortmund, in which Klopp’s team scored twice from crosses and twice from quick turnovers.
Those were different teams, different times but it seems likely Saturday’s meeting at the Etihad will be decided in similar areas. City have spent heavily on reinforcing the flanks, with Benjamin Mendy offering pace and craft and Kyle Walker pace and more pace. Klopp has often tried to find space behind those advanced and aggressive Guardiola full-back-style-footballers. This commitment to width, the idea of full-backs as spare men and utility attackers is key to Guardiola’s footballing principles. Liverpool are as well equipped as any team in the league to expose the weakness in this and the ability of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to roam in behind when the moment is right will be key.
Similarly it seems likely Guardiola will at some point look to expose Liverpool’s most obvious outfield chink at centre-back. If City play three in defence Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus may get the chance to reprise their promising partnership, applying a point of strength to an opponent’s point of weakness. The rest of the Premier League will be watching. If City can pick Liverpool apart as they bomb on, if Liverpool can expose that spiffy, new-build semi-defensive backline, this will be significant information for everyone.
As season-indicators go this might seem a little hasty given most of the crowd will still be in short sleeves. But then, one of the side-effects of the dying out of the spring title race is a tendency for early season events to take on their own gravity. Last season it was the 3-0 defeat by Arsenal at this time of year that clarified Antonio Conte’s approach at Chelsea, spur for that steamrollering run into the new year. Two years before, Chelsea won the league by attacking in autumn and defending through the spring, romping to a title victory that seemed semi-inevitable after the imperious 2-0 Costa-Hazard defeat of Arsenal in October. Manchester City’s Premier League title the year before that was won at the very last but found its strength in the 4-1 thrashing of David Moyes’s Manchester United in September, a performance of real champion power and craft.
A chance for an early spur of momentum then; a chance to test the alluring tactical fit between two carefully constructed teams. Plus of course there is something else too. Guardiola in particular is operating under an unusual degree of pressure. Last season there were complaints about the quality and the age of the squad he inherited. Ten major signings have now arrived in the Pep era. This is a much younger team, full of craft and slick movement and options. A year down the line the tempo and texture of the Premier League has been absorbed. The money tap has gushed. Success will be expected.
Similarly Liverpool look more than ever like a Klopp team, at their best a wonderfully unified hit of energy, hand-picked to carry that blitz-defence style. The presence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gives Klopp the option of fielding his energetic new signing away from home and continuing to rest the malcontent Philippe Coutinho. For all that Oxlade-Chamberlain may want to occupy the centre, the gulf in craft between the two hints at why this might not always have been his lot in the past.
Either way this is likely to be a match won in the clinches, in the breakdown either side of the halfway line. City will keep the ball moving, trying to suck their opponents to one side, opening space but also offering chances to press and stifle and counter. The game will most likely be won by whoever manage to assert their side of the plan, to locate more effectively the other’s weakness.
And once again Guardiola will perhaps feel the tension of these exchanges a little more. What has been missing from Pep’s City to date is a defining, settling performance, an indication of exactly how this team are going to go on and win. At Barcelona it was the 6-2 defeat of Real Madrid in May 2009 that announced unequivocally the team of Messi-Xavi-Iniesta were destined for greatness. The best of Pep’s Bayern found a spark in that unforgettably dreamy 7-1 thrashing of Roma. City have had their moments. Like all Pep teams their slightly brittle, high-craft football seems to draw its strength from confidence and rhythm as much as hard-honed drills. Perhaps what they need right now is just a moment of lift-off.
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