England’s top two clubs in recent years go head to head, live on Sky Sports this Sunday – but where could the game be won or lost?
Liverpool host Manchester City live on Sky Sports this weekend in a clash between the title favourites, with City currently holding a seven-point advantage over Jurgen Klopp’s side with a game in hand after a 13-game win streak in all competitions.
Liverpool have fortified defensive injury woes in the winter transfer market and shown glimpses of rekindling their title-winning form in recent weeks: three points at Anfield would narrow the gap to just four points.
So, what factors could determine the key battlegrounds?
Games played: 22
PPG: 1.82 (#4)
Liverpool’s form chart began to resemble the inverted version of Manchester City a few weeks ago. Jurgen Klopp’s side stuttered after their shock 7-2 defeat against Aston Villa in October, an event later dubbed ‘Silly Sunday’.
Indeed, the unpredictable nature of this season’s campaign can provide one of the few answers to why Liverpool’s famed front three had lost their edge so abruptly before the 3-1 win over Spurs. The champions had gone five league games without a win. Things appeared to be back on track until the 1-0 defeat to Brighton on Wednesday.
Player to watch: Mohamed Salah
The Egypt international has scored a league-topping 15 goals and has continued to find the back of the net, albeit with diminished returns, during the team’s recent collapse in form.
Counterpart winger Sadio Mane has also stood out but injuries have taken their toll on results and the next-best regular performers during the campaign to date would probably be ‘keeper Alisson, Jordan Henderson and left-back Andy Robertson.
Analysing Liverpool’s strengths is a stark reminder not to rule them out. Their form had fallen off a cliff, but they did not win Europe’s elite competition and the domestic crown in the space of a year without resilience.
Ending their seven-hour run without a league goal last week – with under-fire Trent Alexander-Arnold and Roberto Firmino among the scorers – appeared to be a pivotal moment, but City’s form suggests Liverpool cannot afford more blips.
Expected goals data suggests Klopp’s side have underperformed and results could well ‘regress to the mean’. Indeed, the signs are certainly positive.
Liverpool have topped the table for a league-high 34 days this term and rank top for expected goals, goals from set-pieces, possession won in the attacking and middle thirds and crosses.
In fact, only City can rival their sheer dominance across key metrics.
The injury crisis has imposed weaknesses upon other areas. The absence of available centre-backs has pushed midfielder Fabinho and Jordan Henderson into the back four, which has weakened the press in central areas to expose the counter-attack.
Wayward crosses from full-backs and misfiring forwards have also compounded the problems in recent games, but was the poor run a blip? The question is whether their title defence will overcome the mental wobble and dip in form or be defined by injuries. A clear indication will come against the league leaders on Sunday.
Games played: 21
PPG: 2.24 (#1)
Pep Guardiola’s side were languishing in sixth spot with just five wins from 12 games in mid-December but have gone on an 13-game win streak in all competitions since beating Southampton last month. The 5-0 win at West Brom epitomised their current trajectory: maintaining defensive solidity and rekindling their customary firepower.
Player to watch: Ilkay Gundogan
Something happened to Ilkay Gundogan in mid-December. The Germany international had made six league appearances before that – albeit including two late run-outs from the bench – and had failed to score or assist.
But, since then, the 30-year-old has scored seven goals and assisted another – in just 10 games. In fact, no other player in the league has a better goal tally during this period.
One reason why City have emerged as title favourites is the sheer number of players in talismanic form, including Joao Cancelo, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, John Stones and Ruben Dias.
The strengths span almost every metric, from the defence to the attack. Arguably, City have the strongest and deepest squad in the division, weaved with youth and experience.
While City have long been the free-scoring juggernauts, their defence has outshone the attack this term. Incredibly, Guardiola’s side have shipped only 13 goals this term, nine fewer than any other club – and four of those were penalties.
For most clubs, having De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero sidelined would be enough to derail a title challenge. But City continue to improve without them. All signs suggest Guardiola’s side have found their groove at the right time.
However, winning the Champions League remains their elusive goal and could take precedence over domestic duties, while progress in the FA Cup and a Carabao Cup final in April means the quadruple is on – but also poses potential for serious fixture congestion.
TAA returns to form?
Trent Alexander-Arnold is widely regarded as one of the best right-backs in the world. At just 22 years old, he has set an unprecedented standard and, along with fellow full-back Robertson, the pair have embodied Liverpool’s relentless forward thrust down the flanks.
But the England international failed to carry last season’s form into this campaign and had a slow start by his own standards. Criticism came after the Burnley defeat, in which he attempted 22 crosses and only found a team-mate on one occasion.
However, his deliveries depend on optimal movement in the box. As the graphic below shows, unsurprisingly, his top performance this season came against Spurs – when his goal and assist secured a 3-1 victory.
Gundogan’s key role?
As previously mentioned, no player in the Premier League has scored more goals than Gundogan since mid-December and his talismanic qualities have reached a new level at an apt time – when De Bruyne has been sidelined for a month with a hamstring injury.
But it is not just his scoring exploits that have solidified City’s title tilt. The Germany midfielder has increasingly linked defence with attack, typically operating in the left-of-centre area just inside the attacking half and frequently switching play to the right flank to stretch opposition defences.
Attacking the flanks
A notable similarity between the two teams is how they utilise the full width of the pitch with quick passes and cross-field balls to create spaces by spreading opposition defences.
According to data analysing the effectiveness of attacks down the flanks, Liverpool achieve almost perfect symmetry for imposing danger down both channels.
City almost mirror Liverpool’s proportion of attacks down the wide thirds but achieve slightly more success down the right, despite having a higher volume down the left – an area often marshalled by Riyad Mahrez.
A difference between the challengers is how Liverpool favour firing crosses into the box, while City will more often attack down the flanks but attempt slide-rule passes to runners or redistribute in and around the box with quick-fire, probing passes.
How do they score?
The graphic below reveals how the majority of Liverpool’s assists come from crosses and long passes – while no club has surpassed their 12 goals from set-pieces this term.
In contrast, the graphic below highlights City’s favoured finesse from wide areas, while the longer passes typically come from more central areas and are usually delivered by De Bruyne.
Salah has scored more than twice as many league goals than any other player at the two clubs, with Sterling, Mane and Gundogan all level as the next top scorers on seven.
Meanwhile, the graphic below shows the true depth and quality of City’s squad to maintain their current performance levels without De Bruyne, who tops the charts for chances created and assists among the teams.
How do they concede?
Liverpool have conceded 25 goals this season, which is a sure sign the long-term injuries to first-choice centre-back pairing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have affected their customary watertight ways.
Five clubs have shipped fewer than Klopp’s side and City have leaked almost half as many goals with a league-low 13 to date. The locations of those conceded goals are fairly evenly distributed, suggesting there is no glaring weak spot.
However, the majority of goals are conceded in and around the penalty spot, while a higher proportion of shots fired from their right side are conceded, compared with the left.
The map for City’s conceded goals is staggering. Four spot-kicks overlay the penalty spot and just seven goals from open play have been shipped from shots fired inside their box.
Who runs more?
In possession, the mantra of making the ball do the hard work certainly applies to these clubs. Both teams pushed the boundaries for distance covered during their early evolutions but have eased off in recent campaigns. This season, Liverpool marginally outrun City per game – but only four teams average with a greater distance than the Reds.
A growing tendency is to assert physical exertions on bursts of speed, for breakaway attacks and runners to lose markers into the opposition box. Liverpool also edge City in this metric and only three other teams average more sprints per game than Klopp’s side.
In terms of the players, Liverpool duo Firmino and Roberston lead the way for distance covered, followed by City’s Rodri – who narrowly edges fellow holding midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.
The work-rates of Robertson and Firmino are underlined further with both players topping the chart for sprints, with Raheem Sterling dividing the pair, while wingers Salah and Mane are next up on the list.
Kyle Walker is by far the fastest player among the teams with a top speed of 36.6km/h this term, frequently utilised for his lung-busting recovery runs. Meanwhile, Firmino’s work for the team is underlined with a chart-topping 909 runs off the ball.
A sustained off-ball movement by a player whose team is in possession, made with intensity, in order to receive a pass or create space.
Will City edge possession?
Both clubs dominate the league for possession. City edge Liverpool in their average share to date with 65.4 per cent, compared with 64.2 per cent. Both teams like to pen opposition into their own half by playing a high line, which – as has proved in the past – can result in a free-flowing, end-to-end contest.
Combined, Liverpool and City have racked up 13 games with possession in excess of 70 per cent this term – while both have set club-season-records against West Brom at 78 per cent and 77 per cent, respectively.
City edged Liverpool for possession 55/45 when the two sides ran out a 1-1 draw in November.
Where both sides maintain possession is strikingly similar. The graphic below shows typical concentrations of activity down both flanks just inside the opposition half, although City also operate more in attacking central areas and Liverpool hold more possession in central defensive areas.
Liverpool’s focus down the channels is underlined again by Robertson completing a chart-topping 1,654 passes among players from both teams this season, while City’s centralised and patient style is reflected with Rodri and Dias leading the way.
In terms of firing passes into the opposition box, it will come as no surprise Liverpool’s full-back are streets ahead, while Klopp will be relieved City are missing their key playmaker De Bruyne. But, beyond the Belgian, one of City’s strengths is the sheer diversity of players contributing to attacks.
Who wins the press?
Once again, the teams top the division for defending from the front. Liverpool have reclaimed possession 186 times in the attacking third, with City only nine shy from that figure.
But, Liverpool are superior at recovering loose balls across the pitch – suggesting City could struggle if Liverpool manage to push City into their defensive half. The truth is, City are rarely in their own half.
A coordinated action by two or more defending players applying pressure at the same time, to one or more pressed players.
In fact, only Fulham midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa has won more high turnovers than Rodri in the Premier League this season, while Firmino, De Bruyne and Wijnaldum drive the press – as does Alexander-Arnold to reveal his, perhaps unsung, contribution to defensive duties.
A defensive action in which a player whose team is out of possession moves to close down an opposing player. Pressures may be applied to players in possession, or potential receivers.
Which high line dominates? Could one creak?
As has been the case across numerous metrics, both teams lead the way for having the highest defensive line, measured below by the average starting distance of passing sequences from their own goals.
City actually push one metre higher than Liverpool, while only Manchester United, Brighton, Chelsea and Southampton come anywhere close to the two teams’ advanced approach.
One of the reasons Liverpool and City apply so much pressure in attacking areas is because of their high line. In possession, a high defensive line compresses the pitch and allows faster passages of play – if a team can play through the opposition press.
Out of possession, the opposition has less space to play out and will often lose the ball under the press or counter-press. Even when the opposition threads a pass through, or over, the high line, a well-drilled line often catches the runner offside – or pacy defenders are tasked with winning a last-man race.
A team that can pass under pressure, win high turnovers and frequently burst from the blocks is well-suited to playing a high line. So, it may come as no surprise Liverpool and Manchester City excel here.
However, when losing the press or facing a long ball, Klopp’s side are the masters at deploying the line with defensive efficiency, having topped the division for catching opponents offside last season and leading the way again this term, by some margin.
The high line is not restrained to outfield players: Only Burnley stopper Nick Pope has attempted more ‘keeper sweepings’ than Alisson and Ederson this season, charging out as defenders rush back to help snuff out any danger that breaks through.
So the Premier League challengers go head to head this Sunday with a myriad of battlegrounds to win or lose, to determine the latest chapter of this season’s wild title race.