Hatching a Liverpool Plan to Thwart Manchester City in Premier League Clash

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterApril 11, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 06:  Steven Gerrard (C)of Liverpool celebrates with teammate Raheem Sterling (L) after scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on April 6, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Liverpool host Manchester City this weekend in what is certain to be a contender for game of the 2013-14 campaign in the Premier League.

It combines the traditional element of a late-season title tussle with the potential for a tactical cracker. Both sides are versatile, hardworking, team-focused and yet, at the same time, boast individual talent and quality in abundance.

Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini know that if they win all of their remaining games, they'll be champions, but only one team can afford a draw. With games in-hand going City's way, the Reds must kill off their opponents' title challenge at Anfield on Sunday afternoon.

It means every little decision, every small tweak to the plan, becomes heavily scrutinised in such a high-stakes game. It's the nature of the beast when you're fighting for silverware, and Rodgers can't afford to drop a rare tactical egg for the encounter.

Don't think for a second that the Reds will look to steamroll City in an offensive shape; Rodgers will craft a game plan and adjust according to the opponent, and we could well see him relinquish possession of the ball in exchange for solidity in midfield.

The first thing to consider is team shape, as Liverpool's has tended to change skins in recent weeks on a game-to-game basis.

Sterling: Off the bench or given a start?
Sterling: Off the bench or given a start?Michael Steele/Getty Images

Rodgers has found a midfield diamond—consisting of Steven Gerrard as a regista, Jordan Henderson plus one as shuttlers and Raheem Sterling at the tip—to be very effective as of late.

Particularly away from home, sacrificing "true" wide players has allowed the team to dominate possession (see Old Trafford) and create a large volume of chances either centrally or on quick breaks.

The sheer amount of teams that lack firepower in the wide areas has made that possible, and even with Manchester United boasting Antonio Valencia on the flanks, they weren't able to cut the Reds open.

Against Manchester City and Jesus Navas, however, the diamond makes no sense on paper: Leaving the full-backs that exposed—no matter how hard Henderson works to cover—is not a good idea when facing a team who thrive on a big, wide pitch full of passing lanes and half-spaces.

In a diamond, City's width could pull Hendo & Allen away from Gerrard, leaving him exposed to Yaya & Silva.
In a diamond, City's width could pull Hendo & Allen away from Gerrard, leaving him exposed to Yaya & Silva.Tighe B/R

A combination of Pablo Zabaleta and Navas could easily overwhelm one of Glen Johnson (defensively unstable) or Jon Flanagan (inexperienced).

Should Henderson and his colleague be drawn wide to deal with overloads on the flanks, massive gaps open up in and around Gerrard in central midfield.

A problem arises, too, in the form of the red-hot David Silva, who has been orchestrating attacks and creating clear-cut chances for fun over the past month. He plays as a drifting No. 10 capable of penetrating the box, and without appropriate protection, Gerrard will be on the back foot more often than not.

The answer lies in adopting the 4-3-3 again, with Henderson plus Joe Allen/Lucas Leiva just ahead of Gerrard. Philippe Coutinho won't be happy to drop to the bench after some impressive showings, but he lacks the physicality to play in this particular matchup.

NB: Clichy/Kolarov, Sterling left to help with Zabaleta, Sakho in for Agger, Allen/Lucas, Johnson & Flanagan could swap.
NB: Clichy/Kolarov, Sterling left to help with Zabaleta, Sakho in for Agger, Allen/Lucas, Johnson & Flanagan could swap.Tighe B/R

Liverpool's only home loss of the season was to Southampton in 2013, and in that fixture Victor Wanyama—a powerful, muscular midfielder—strode through the Reds' midfield lineup as if it wasn't there.

With Yaya Toure and Fernandinho coming to town, Pellegrini will be looking to test the physical build of Gerrard and co., while Rodgers will be thinking frantically of ways to close the running lanes.

With Navas out wide, two capable full-backs and two monsters in the middle—not to mention Silva as a No. 10 or the potential return of Sergio Aguero—it could well prove foolish not to create a counterattacking setup here.

Liverpool play some of their finest football on the break with the "SAS" (Luis Suarez & Daniel Sturridge) combination coming to the fore. For the first time in a while, the Reds should be happy to concede possession, sit a little deeper and see if they can pull the City defence apart in space.

It's been done this season by lesser teams, and since then City's back line has only gotten more mistake-prone. The Reds don't have to "resort" to a careful game plan, but it could well be the easiest way to take City down.

For Rodgers this is the biggest test of his career and puts his title-winning credentials in focus; he's messed up a few times this season (as anyone would), and now is not the time to record a third.

A saving grace is that Liverpool have shown an immense propensity to switch formations seamlessly midgame, and if the tide is turning against the, Rodgers will react.