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Friday 11 April 2014

Talking Tactics: Soaring Sterling can bring down City

Adrian Clarke previews Sunday's crunch clash between Liverpool and Manchester City

Raheem Sterling has been lethal for Liverpool both in the hole and on the wing this season

The two finest attacks in English football collide at Anfield on Sunday afternoon in what is quite rightly being regarded as the Barclays Premier League match of the season so far.

What type of game will it be? Who is most likely to gain the tactical upper hand?  Our expert Adrian Clarke looks ahead to what should be an absorbing contest…

Wrestling for control

The early stages will be fascinating for many reasons, not least to see which side is able to push the other back in terms of territorial advantage.

Manchester City, as witnessed recently at Old Trafford and Emirates Stadium, like to start matches on the front foot. They press in an organised fashion, keep the ball tidily, and enjoy pinning their opponents back.

Scoring the second-highest number of goals in the first 45 minutes of Barclays Premier League matches this season, Manuel Pellegrini’s side’s proactive attitude from the kick-off has proven to be highly effective. It is also a ploy that has eased the burden on their defence – City have shipped just four goals all season in the first half away from the Etihad Stadium.

Liverpool at Anfield also come out of the blocks flying. Just ask Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Averaging two goals in the opening half of home fixtures this term, Brendan Rodgers’ team have got into a terrific groove in which they play crisp, attacking football at an exceptionally high-tempo, right from the off. Without the ball they hassle opponents aggressively, before breaking quickly.

Goals breakdown by halves
2013/14 record Liverpool (For/Against) Man City (F/A)
First half 54/19 37/10
Second half 36/21 47/19
  Liverpool - home (F/A) Man City - away (F/A)
First half
32/4 13/4
Second half 16/9 19/15

The side who cope best with the intensity of the other team's pressing are likely to get an early stranglehold. Those who keep the coolest heads in possession will gain the initial advantage.

Understandably, Liverpool's famed "SAS" partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge has been drawing most of the attention this season, but it should not be overlooked that 19-year-old Raheem Sterling has also been a fabulous weapon for the Barclays Premier League leaders. Quick, direct and unexpectedly ruthless inside the box (67.9% of his shots hit the target), the teenager has scored six times, provided three assists, and won a trio of vital penalties, too.

Perceived as an out-and-out right winger last season, this year we have seen Sterling play equally as often on the left, or more recently in a floating role at the top of a diamond. This versatility has provided Rodgers with several tactical variations, and the player himself has looked comfortable wherever he has been deployed.

Sterling deployment

Against City, a side who like to create 2v1 overloads on the flanks, I expect Sterling to be utilised in an orthodox winger role. Tracking back when necessary he will be asked to spring rapid counter-attacks once the ball is regained.

If Pellegrini’s men were to deploy one sitting midfielder in the holding role (akin to Steven Gerrard) it may prove useful to have Sterling in and around him wreaking havoc, but on this occasion to lose his presence out wide may prove too risky.

These are the two options Rodgers will consider ahead of kick-off, but my guess is that he will start with the 4-3-3.

Liverpool formations

  • Rodgers will go with one of these two formations against Manchester City

Creating a chance every 23 minutes this season, David Silva is the City player Liverpool need to shackle closest. On paper you might imagine that Gerrard would be charged with the task of man-marking the brilliant Spaniard, who will float behind Edin Dzeko, but I do not think Silva will go near him too often.

As shown below, City's creator-in-chief prefers to drift into areas wide of centre, in pockets of space between players. This will leave the Liverpool skipper with a quandary: does he leave his post in front of the centre-backs to get close to Silva, or does he pass him on to a team-mate? With other players coming into his zone, in most cases it will probably have to be the latter.

Stopping Silva

  • Will Steven Gerrard leave his post to get close to David Silva or pass him on?

This is something that Jordan Henderson or Joe Allen (should he play) will be comfortable with but, even so, it will take excellent communication between the entire midfield unit, the full-backs and the two centre-halves to delegate who gets tight to the Spaniard and when.

With Samir Nasri likely to sneak inside and Yaya Toure making powerful runs from deep, this area of the pitch will be a constant concern for the home side. How well they manage this, could hold the key to the entire contest.

Which attack is best?

Liverpool's strikeforce is unique in the Barclays Premier League. Containing two mobile forwards who will interchange positions, run with the ball, and provide a threat going short and in behind, there is never a safe place when Suarez and Sturridge are lurking with intent inside the final third.

Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis are two defenders who like to get tight to their markers, but because the Liverpool pair's movement is so varied and unpredictable this will not always be possible. Should either of the City centre-backs be left isolated and faced with a 1v1, it is likely to be good news for the Reds.

When Sergio Aguero is absent, City's approach going forward is based less on individual brilliance, and more on cohesive teamwork. Their five most prolific "key pass makers" are all strung across a creative five-man midfield, while, out wide, Jesus Navas, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov have supplied 265 crosses this term from open play alone.

They will be hoping the aerial prowess of Dzeko will benefit from these deliveries at Anfield, while on the deck the Merseysiders must keep a close eye on runners looking to receive clever slide-rule passes from Silva, Toure and Nasri.

Goals breakdown 2013/14
Liverpool Manchester City
90 goals 84 goals
2.7 goals per match 2.7 goals per match
17.2 shots per match 17.7 shots per match
47 open-play goals 52 open-play goals
21 set-piece goals 18 set-piece goals
10 penalties 6 penalties
4 own goals 4 own goals
8 counter-attack goals 4 counter-attack goals

Final thought

Liverpool's attack is the most fearsome in the country. If City try to be too expansive at Anfield they, like others before them, could easily get ripped apart on the break.

The 2011/12 Barclays Premier League champions boast greater experience, however. Should they manage to seize control of the match and peg the Reds back for long periods, it is hard to imagine them not creating chances against a team who have conceded 11 more goals than themselves.

Who will prevail, the thrust of Liverpool or the craft of City? It is too close to call. All I can say is that it will be a fascinating match to watch.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke takes a look at Sunday's top-of-the-table clash between Liverpool and Manchester City
  • Liverpool will need to consider how to contain David Silva
  • The role of Raheem Sterling has grown in importance throughout the season