Despite the 13-point gap that currently separates Manchester City and Liverpool following their different starts to the season, there is no mistaking the seismic implications that their clash could have when they meet at Anfield this Sunday.
Pep Guardiola’s side could open up a sixteen-point lead with a win over the side that chased them all the way to the final day last season, while they could end the weekend top should Arsenal drop points at Elland Road.
A win for Liverpool, however, would do plenty to alleviate the feelings of rot and weariness that surround the Merseyside outfit at present. The cobwebs were somewhat blown away by a midweek rout of Rangers, but they have shown themselves to be lacking both in energy and quality when it comes to the top flight this season.
It will not be easy for either side, however, with Liverpool unbeaten in their last four against Manchester City but out of form, while the Cityzens now have Erling Haaland to help change that record.
Here’s where we think the game will be won and lost.
Keeping Haaland quiet
In case you hadn’t noticed, Haaland is quite good at football. The Norwegian striker already has 15 Premier League goals this season, seven more than anyone else and more than 13 of the 20 sides in the English top flight.
The Reds were offered hope that they may not have to face him when, after the Champions League, Guardiola admitted that Haaland had “some muscle disorders and we didn’t want to take any chances”.
However, the striker has since taken to social media to demonstrate him back in training, adding that his ‘complete focus’ is on the Premier League.
So, how can Liverpool stop him? As alluded to in our recent in-depth look, the most important thing is to stop the supply to the striker, rather than ask defenders to keep one step ahead of him, where he punishes every minute mistake with devastating regularity.
The main creators have been Kevin de Bruyne and Joao Cancelo, but Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva are all also more than capable of finding the key pass when asked to, meaning that it will take an effort on behalf of all 11 players to stop the striker from adding to his tally.
So, how do they do that?
Midfield the key battleground
In the Manchester Derby, Erik ten Hag set out in a 4-2-3-1 system that placed Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen in the double pivot. And, while the final 6-3 scoreline suggests an element of closeness, it was a slaughter. Manchester City’s attacking five (The two midfielders ahead of Ilkay Gundogan pushing on to join attacks) pulled Manchester United’s defensive unit apart, and there was neither the numerical superiority nor qualitative superiority to stop it.
Liverpool have recently opted for a 4-2-3-1 too, with Thiago and Jordan Henderson paired together at the Emirates Stadium, but could revert back to a 4-3-3 against the Champions with the return of Fabinho.
While it may reduce their attacking emphasis somewhat, it would likely prevent the overrun in the middle of the pitch that Arsenal managed both in the first and 45th minute of the first half.
All four of Liverpool’s attackers are caught the wrong side of the ball in the opening minute as they look to make a fast start. This, plus Thiago’s vain attempt to press high up the pitch, leaves the Reds 5 vs 6 at the back, an advantage Arsenal make the most of.
Adding a third body in midfield way reduce the effectiveness of Jurgen Klopp’s high press, unless the energy of Harvey Elliot is preferred to the experience of Jordan Henderson, but it would stop the Reds being played through quite as easily as they have been to date.
Can Liverpool exploit Manchester City’s woes?
Liverpool are not the only side in trouble, though theirs is significantly more obvious than Pep Guardiola’s sides. City are missing defensive pair Kyle Walker and John Stones, while Sergio Gomez’s full debut ended in the Spaniard seeing red in midweek, handing the visitors a significant headache before the weekend’s showdown.
Does Pep dare trust Gomez once more, knowing that a win over Liverpool would all but end their participation in the Premier League title race, something Jurgen Klopp has already claimed his side bowed out of last weekend?
Alternatively, Nathan Ake could be asked to play at left-back, allowing two of Ruben Dias, Manuel Akanji and Aymeric Laporte to start, but it is far from a perfect solution and whoever is chosen to play there will find themselves up against a rejuvenated Mo Salah, fresh off the back of a six-minute Champions League hat-trick.
It seems that this is the best area for the Reds to target should they want anything from the game, with whoever is stationed there likely to offer Salah plenty of opportunities to punish Guardiola’s side.