Roberto Firmino returned to training for Liverpool this week after missing the victory over Burnley with a thigh problem and is back in contention for Sunday. Dejan Lovren played for the Under-23s on Monday night as he continued his return from injury, but Jordan Henderson is likely to miss out again with the foot issue that has dogged him since the end of February. Aside from the long-term absences of Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City are at full strength.
It had all seemed to be going very well for City until Wednesday. After the 4-0 defeat at Everton, they’d gone 11 games unbeaten in all competitions and, while they seemed to struggle to combine the sort of defensive solidity they showed against Stoke with the attacking flair of the first leg of the Monaco Champions League tie, there was a sense that they’d clicked, that the principles of Pep Guardiola’s juego de posicion had been absorbed.
The first half of that game represented an extraordinary failure, partly tactical but more to do with attitude. City were strangely insipid, blown away by a Monaco side that looked quicker and stronger. They came back in the second half, but by then it was too late. Guardiola afterwards was clearly furious with his players far more so publicly than he ever has been in the past.
Lapses like that must be eliminated. Liverpool are showing signs of a recovery after a bad wobble through January. They’ve won their last three home games – which included games against Arsenal and Tottenham – but they lost limply at Leicester last time they played away from Anfield. Before those four games they’d had a run of 10 matches in which their only win was away to Plymouth in an FA Cup third-round replay.
Liverpool’s last game before that 10-match run was the home game against City on New Year’s Eve, when they won 1-0 and looked as though they might have the wherewithal to mount a serious title challenge.
That was a more controlled Liverpool than we’re perhaps used to, and a very effective one. Liverpool have actually won their last four in a row against City but more significant is probably the head-to-head between the two managers. Of nine meetings, both have won four with the other game finishing in a draw, although Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund then won on penalties. Before New Year’s Eve, though, there had been a definite sense of the momentum shifting in Guardiola’s favour.
LIVERPOOL’S FORWARD LINE
Perhaps the simplest explanation for what has gone wrong for Liverpool in the second half of the season lies in a look at their forward line. If Firmino is out, then Divock Origi comes in; that’s not too big a problem. But Philippe Coutinho has been out of sorts of late and was substituted after an hour against Burnley for Ben Woodburn.
Realistically, bringing in a 17-year-old, whatever his promise, for a game like this would be an enormous risk. And that means Coutinho has to play, the only other option being to move Adam Lallana into the forward line at significant cost to the midfield.
IMPORTANCE OF CITY’S INSIDE FORWARDS
Perhaps the key tactical question of the Premier League this season is how teams deal with two central creators operating as Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva do in what are effective inside-forward positions.
They are outside the single midfielder holder, presumably Emre Can, but not really in the zone of either full-back, who have wingers to deal with, or the central defenders. It’s a particular issue for Liverpool because they have only Can there: they cannot realistically drop to a back three or to a 4-2-3-1 that might help deal with the problem. That means either Lallana or Wijnaldum dropping deeper than they usually would or Klopp hoping his press is good enough – as Monaco’s was – to deny City the ball.
The wings are also a game of bluff. Guardiola habitually deploys his wide men high up the pitch. That could pin Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner back, or it could liberate them if they feel they can maraud unchecked. City’s full-backs tend to be a little less adventurous (Aleksandar Kolarov excepted), and their deficiency in that area was very apparent in the defeat to Monaco.
Even after the defeat to Monaco, City still seem the side in better form. It’s four months since Liverpool won an away game against Premier League opposition, their forward line is misfiring and Emre Can still doesn’t entirely convince at the back of midfield. That City are available to win at around evens seems very generous.