Facing Manchester City is never an easy task, and when you have the added pressure of having to beat them in order to better secure your position in a title race, that makes the task all the more ulcer-inducing. Trying to find a way to break through their defense while simultaneously not allowing their vicious attack to get too much space is a tough job, but it's the one that Liverpool are faced with in their English Premier League matchup this Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers has so far this season proven to be an astute and flexible tactician, and seems to have learned from many of the hard lessons of last season. We've seen him use a whole stable of different tactics and personnel sets to respond to various opponents and injury situations, and over the last few months has made the right calls a lot more often than not. Against Arsenal in February, he went completely against what had been working for the squad for the last few matches and pulled out a dominating victory against what was then the top side in the league. Now Liverpool are in first place, and in order to cement that Rodgers needs to pull another rabbit out of his hat.
The first order of business is figuring out how to get past Vincent Kompany* and his band of merry men at the back of City's defense. Manuel Pellegrini has frequently had issues keeping a viable partner next to Kompany this season, but thanks to the Belgian's fine form when he's been healthy this season, that's rarely been an issue. With Kompany playing excellently of late, Liverpool's attack will be hard pressed to get things going.
What could ultimately help them, though, is that City have rarely faced such a potent two-headed attack this season. With both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in the lineup, Liverpool can afford to have one of them keep Kompany occupied, while the other attacks Kompany's partner as directly as possible. With Matija Nastasic still out injured, Pellegrini will have to use one of Joleon Lescott, Martin Demichelis, or Javi Garcia next to the Belgian, and none of the three have been particularly impressive of late. They will likely have help from Fernandinho in midfield and either Aleksandar Kolarov or Gael Clichy at left back, but with Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, and likely Philippe Coutinho to deal with as well, that help can't be over-committed without being exposed elsewhere.
The other thing to do will be to keep Sterling, Henderson, and whoever the other non-Gerrard midfielder is moving around the pitch as much as possible. City have rarely dealt well with the kind of fluidity in attack that Liverpool are capable of, and the ability to create mismatches, botched assignments, and overloads will be key to breaking down their defense, as was demonstrated with aplomb by Barcelona in their Champions League tie several weeks ago.
*Of course, if Kompany is ultimately unavailable after his training injury, then things will be a lot easier going forward because his backups suck a big one.
The true test of this match, however, will be in preventing City from having a field day in attack. Sergio Aguero is supposedly fit and ready to rock, and any combination of him, Edin Dzeko, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, and Samir Nasri will be difficult to contain, especially with Yaya Toure charging up the pitch behind them in support. The back line and Steven Gerrard will have their hands full all day long, and not giving up goals, especially early, will be vitally important while the attack tries to find a way to break through.
Depending on exactly how City line up, though, there could be ways to get it done. If Aguero does play as believed, he will likely be a little rusty after a few weeks out injured, and using one of Martin Skrtel or Mamadou Sakho to keep him out of the match early will be key. As to the rest of City's attack, one thing that consistently seems to come up is that while their attackers are wonderfully talented and any of them can create something from nothing, they don't always play with one another very well. By that I mean that instead of coordinated movements designed towards a specific goal, everyone mostly just looks to move into available spaces and see what can be done from there. With a playmaker like Silva around, that can work, but when a defense plans for that type of instinctual movement, the attack can be blunted.
By allowing "false", pre-planned pockets of space, City's attackers can be funneled away from goal to some extent and in to less dangerous areas. By keeping a midfielder tucked on to Silva's hip when City has the ball, a task likely assigned to Henderson or Lucas Leiva if he's given a start, the Spaniard's influence can be lessened and make it harder on their other players to get the job done once they've been shuttled off to those areas of the pitch.
The key, though, will be to avoid losing containment on Aguero and/or Dzeko and/or Negredo, as all three of them are poachers extraordinare and can turn any loose ball in the box in to a punishing goal. Both Skrtel and Sakho (or Daniel Agger if he's deemed fit and ready to start, but that feels unlikely at this juncture) will have to be on top of their games for all 90 minutes to avoid mental breakdowns like the one that saw Aguero score a wondergoal when Pepe Reina came off his line and got in Skrtel's way last season.
It's going to be a monumentally difficult confrontation to bear on Sunday, but with the proper planning and focus, it can be done. Having the Anfield faithful at Liverpool's backs will be a huge boon, as we've seen what the impact the Kop can have when they're at full voice as they no doubt will be for this match.
We know by now that Rodgers has the ability to prepare his side well for even the toughest matchup, but this will be his greatest challenge yet. Liverpool's season could be made or broken this weekend, but at least we can rest assured that no matter what, the entire club will have given it their all in order to get the best result possible.