Manchester City visit Anfield on Sunday in a contest that could potentially define this season's title race. It is the first of two games at Anfield where title rivals will attempt to inflict defeat on the other or at the very least, avoid a reversal of their own. Chelsea and Manchester City are the only big Premier League sides to have avoided defeat at Rodgers' hands so it would be quite the morale booster if Liverpool could add those two to the list of the vanquished. Many have proclaimed that this game is the club's biggest league game for nearly 25 years and they are not incorrect in making such assertions for each game is the biggest game until the next game saunters along.
Interestingly, most of the players who have featured in the three games against Man City are still at the club and Liverpool have gradually improved over the past two seasons yet City are still a thorn in Rodgers' side. Of the players who are no longer around for this fixture, three have been sold to London clubs, one has retired to a happy place in the Sky, two fullbacks are injured with their durability in question, two cherished souls are on loan with a view to permanently leave at some stage, and one hard-working individual is hoping to return after a temporary absence in the North East of England. In short, this Liverpool side isn't too different if one studies the faces representing the club but the results, league table, and performances on the field indicate that much has changed.
In three matches against Manchester City, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool side has continually been able to take the lead against stubborn opponents...to no avail. Two successive draws and a defeat constitute a meagre return for energetic and enterprising performances. The games between the sides have been close but Manchester City's conversion rate has always been superior to Liverpool's while possession has been relatively even between the two sides. Liverpool's conversion rate has always hovered just under the ten per cent mark on average over the three games (11, 9, and 8) while Man City counted on 18 per cent in the two draws and 10 per cent in December's victory. Liverpool have notably struggled with defensive errors throughout the three matches and have been punished for them as one would expect against the one league's best sides packed with serious attacking talent.
This was Brendan Rodgers' first meeting with Manchester City and Roberto Mancini was in charge of the defending champions. It was a daunting early fixture for Brendan Rodgers after a perilous opening game against West Bromwich Albion. Liverpool lost Lucas Leiva to injury after four minutes and that looked to have potentially disrupted the 433 formation that Rodgers employed to dominate possession. Mancini experimented with a back three (this would increasingly a default second plan for the manager) but the performance was quite mediocre.
The game was played at a frenetic pace and Rodgers showed his predilection for starting young and fearless players over more established names; ones barely deserving of minutes. Raheem Sterling started ahead of Stewart Downing to join Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini as part of a front three. Sebastian Coates, Martin Kelly, Joe Allen, and Jonjo Shelvey provided plenty of precociousness against illustrious opposition. Rodgers was bold and it was unfortunate that this was not rewarded.
Liverpool fans would become accustomed to witnessing greater risks in possession that Rodgers demanded of his defensive players. He desired players to be comfortable with the ball at all times so that cheaply giving away the ball would be a thing of the past. Pass, pass, and pass some more was the new order of the day.
Martin Skrtel's thunderous header gave Liverpool the lead and it would be protected until the 63rd minute when Yaya Toure's scrappy equaliser followed a lack of defensive coordination. Luis Suarez only took three minutes to put Liverpool ahead once again with a precise freekick that beat Joe Hart right in the bottom left hand corner. Still no goal from open play but Joe Allen was dictating tempo wonderfully to look worth every single penny of his £15 million fee. Carroll, Downing, and Henderson looked like expensive mistakes rotting on the bench. After the game, Rodgers would speak proudly of the contributions given by Sterling (his first Premier League start) and Allen (his first league game at Anfield). The future looked bright.
Kolo Toure had struggled against Sterling in the first half, Borini's movement was excellent, and the side was sharp in possession of the ball. What was more impressive was the willingness to press Manchester City but Martin Skrtel's backpass found Carlos Tevez for his one hundredth goal in English football. 2-2 with little left on the clock. One point from two opening games was a poor start and Liverpool's travails would continue for a while yet.
Liverpool tried to play football and didn't resort to a cautious, safety-first approach to get some points on the board so that some stability could be attained. What Liverpool needed to do and did do, was continue playing the game and ask questions of its players. Looking back on the game, it was unfortunate that Rodgers didn't get the win to counter the opening day defeat but rubbing shoulders with Norwich, Reading, and QPR after two games wasn't on the predicted menu of many a Red. The football Liverpool played continually outstripped the results at full time and throughout much of the first half of the season, Liverpool would come short against the league's best sides.
Another 2-2 draw between the two sides left Liverpool with an outside hope of finishing in the top four. Liverpool stood on 36 points after 25 games and the Champions League prognosis was not optimistic. The Merseyside club languished five points behind Arsenal, six behind Everton, and nine behind Tottenham. The draw was no good for Roberto Mancini's side either as Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were comfortably nine points in front with only thirteen games remaining for both teams. Manchester City would need a late surge similar to the one in 2011-2012 to overhaul their local rivals and regain their lost league title.
It was the story of four goals shared, a point apiece, a late equaliser from a brilliant Argentinian striker, and another failure from Liverpool to both add to and protect a second half lead despite an encouraging performance. By February, Liverpool had made only a couple of moves in the January transfer window to bring in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge for a combined £20.5 million. Jose Enrique came in for Andre Wisdom; the youngster had to be content with a place on the bench alongside Shelvey, Sterling, Allen, and Borini. Jamie Carragher, Jordan Henderson, and Stewart Downing had regained their places in the side but 433 in the first meeting between these sides had morphed to an approximate 4231 formation that could also be loosely described as 4411.
Edin Dzeko's opener on 23 minutes was cancelled out by Daniel Sturridge's powerful 25 yard equaliser six minutes later. The 23 year-old refused to celebrate against his former club but it was a strike that provided further evidence of overlooked quality at his previous clubs. Gerrard produced another beauty of a long-range strike on the 73 minute mark but Aguero's classy finish five minutes later secured another 2-2 draw for Roberto Mancini. Manchester City's second goal was preventable and Liverpool's defence remained prone to inexplicable errors. Both sides hardly held onto leads for very long and the last twelve minutes did not produce a winning third goal for either side.
While Liverpool could now score goals from open play, a damning statistic trotted out after the game identified that Liverpool had failed to beat any sides in the top half of the table. However, a closer look at stats would uncover developments linked to Liverpool's impressive pressing of opponents. Manchester City recorded their lowest pass completion (at the time) in a home Premier League game against Liverpool and it stood at just 78 per cent. Two away draws against Arsenal and Manchester City in a row in games that would enthral neutrals. Liverpool were slowly taking shape and displayed variety in tactical approaches away to rival clubs even if victories still eluded Rodgers' charges.
Jordan Henderson's position on the left of midfield protected Enrique from facing overloads on Manchester City's right with James Milner and the raiding Pablo Zabaleta and Suarez was restored to his central position behind Daniel Sturridge. Against Arsenal, Henderson was central with Suarez on the left. Henderson's energy and goalscoring was crucial against Wenger's side but Rodgers continually displays the ability to mix things up tactically to take advantage of his teams strengths while exploiting weaknesses in opposing sides. Such tactical switches aren't always successful as shown by December's four centre back concoction against Southampton and general ineptitude against Hull but his tactical bravery is usually rewarded.
That Mancini reverted to the 352 he cautiously used to start away to Liverpool in the previous meeting was further evidence of Rodgers' astute tactical game plan and Liverpool's impressive performance. This was a side going for the title, albeit in stuttering fashion, and Rodgers was outfoxing them. Liverpool's pressing against Manchester City was more pronounced than the first game between the sides and Suarez playing with Sturridge brought a more direct approach to constructing attacks. Liverpool could still hold the ball as seen earlier in the season but there was greater efficiency in Liverpool's attacks in the final third.
This was the game where Liverpool showed what a good side Rodgers had built over the last 18 months up to that point. In the previous clashes between the two sides, Liverpool revealed a firm commitment to pressing and carried it out effectively to disrupt their opponent's rhythm. From the first game to the second, Liverpool looked more capable at doing the things Rodgers set his side to do even though Carragher's inclusion set the defensive line back far too much, Stewart Downing lacked the courage and skill in attack to offer true support to SAS, and Reina's and Skrtel's error-strewn performances spread nervousness through the back line. Only Skrtel remains at the club but his improved performances this season may be aided by having a regular defensive partner next season.
Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard were not available for the Reds through injury while Jose Enrique was expected to return in the next couple of months. In retrospect, Liverpool probably fielded their first-choice defensive line up with the exception of Aly Cissokho. Philippe Coutinho made his first appearance for Liverpool against Manchester City on the left of a front three and he was joined by Sterling on the right and Suarez in the middle. Henderson, Allen, and Lucas had impressed in recent games for Liverpool to look every bit the future midfield that offered pressing, defensive protection, and support for the attacking players. In short, Liverpool had a midfield.
Unlike the previous two clashes, Liverpool were not looking up at Manchester City but looking down. Liverpool were top of the league at Christmas and successive away fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea would test the validity of such standing. Liverpool had a chance to return to the top of the table after Arsenal's win at Upton Park earlier in the day put the North London outfit in first spot.
Manuel Pellegrini was the opposing manager in the dugout having replaced Roberto Mancini in the summer for an altogether more "holistic" approach to matters on the field. Simply, Manchester City were slaughtering opposition sides but Liverpool weren't doing too badly either after recovering against a galling away setback against Hull to open their December account. Tottenham were one of a number of victims in the matches preceding this game and Liverpool were cautious yet confident travellers to Manchester.
Once again, Liverpool took the lead only to experience disappointment but zero points replaced one as consolation. Liverpool's Brazilian number ten provided Liverpool with a single-goal advantage midway through the second half but Manchester City's two responses in the same half proved decisive. Vincent Kompany missed the last league game between the two outfits earlier in the year as did Yaya Toure who was on African Nations Cup duty. Joe Hart put in an impressive performance after being recently recalled to the side by a surprisingly tough Engineer and probably ensured that Liverpool didn't get the draw that would have served as Boxing Day justice. Lee Mason allowed a generally clean game to flow but the offside decision against Raheem Sterling was erroneous to put it kindly. The linesman and referee had no real obstructions to make the correct decision, a fact which makes the decision all the more perplexing.
Liverpool remain the only side in the league that actually attempted to match Manchester City at the Etihad. Sure, Jose Mourinho's deft understanding of controlling the space and counter attacking undid Pellegrini to inflict the only home defeat in the league for the 2011-2012 champions but Liverpool faced Manchester City with an attacking approach. The defeat would be followed by another but Liverpool lost as equals to two sides full of hefty financial support from benevolent benefactors.
Once again, it was Liverpool's defending for Manchester City's goals that caused concern but a draw would have been secured if chances had been taken. The six goals conceded, spread evenly over three matches, have been a story of poor defending for the most part as opposed to a display of City's attacking force. It was a narrow win for Man City, a fact that Pellegrini's side was unaccustomed to at this point and for much of the ensuing games. Liverpool were adept at creating chances through precise through balls and that is why Coutinho should start on Sunday from a midfield position and looking back at the game, Liverpool constructed a large number of attacks from the left hand side where Coutinho was operating from.
Liverpool will probably use a similar approach in the game that Rodgers has now perfected against the best sides in the league. Against Manchester City, Liverpool conceded possession in their own half to create space where Liverpool could spring through balls for the forwards on the counter attack but when Liverpool attacked, Man City were effective in creating counter attacks of their own. Liverpool's defence will only have one change from the one that lost to Man City in late December: Flangan in for Cissokho. Hopefully, Rodgers and his players will show some improvement in defending against such a strong side especially with the mooted return of a certain Sergio Aguero. Liverpool's improvement in defending set pieces is heartening and Liverpool didn't concede any legitimate goals to West Ham in the previous fixture so the defence is looking good at the moment.
Man City will have to contend with a returning Gerrard and Sturridge who have found roles in a somewhat balanced 433 formation. If Rodgers uses a 433 formation with Coutinho and Sterling starting, he will not have a reliable attacking substitution to call upon in the second half if required but he could be thinking of going for a fast start with his attacking talents available on the pitch. If Liverpool can sneak an early lead or even go two up then conceding possession in their own half to invite Pellegrini's title favourites further upfield to create space in behind for Sturrridge, Suarez, and Sterling to exploit. Henderson's growing confidence with slide rule passes, Gerrard's storied long range passing ability, and Coutinho's vision ensures that each midfield player has the ability to spring one of the front three in behind Man City's defence.
Of course, Liverpool will need to press Yaya Toure furiously and exploit his lack of mobility when it comes to his defensive duties along with keeping a careful eye on David Silva and Samir Nasri with their dangerous understanding of space in between the lines combined with their vision, technical brilliance, and composure in close quarters.
Rodgers' fourth meeting with Manchester City will need to be victorious for Liverpool to retain any hope of winning the league title. Liverpool will need to win for the tenth time in a row. Like Dudley Moore, Brendan Rodgers will need to find a perfect ten but further defensive errors will thwart the hopes of Liverpool's men.