Published On: Sat, Jan 13th, 2018

Manchester City's unbeaten run at serious risk in Liverpool

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MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09: Liverpool player Mohamed Salah in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Manchester, England.

Stu Forster / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Manchester City humbled Liverpool with a 5-0 stuffing in September, but in some ways it was a lucky victory for Pep Guardiola’s side.

Mohamed Salah was causing chaos down the right-hand side, streaking through acres of unmanned space behind wing-back Benjamin Mendy, and continually cavorting around Nicolas Otamendi. The Argentine centre-back was dizzied by the Egyptian’s pace and walking a tightrope after an early yellow card, and Salah should’ve scored before Sergio Aguero rounded Simon Mignolet midway through the first half.

Then Liverpool unravelled. Sadio Mane wrapped the 11 studs of his right Mercurial Vapor around Ederson‘s face, leaving the goalkeeper motionless on the turf and resulting in a 37th-minute dismissal for the forward. A half-time swap of Salah for debutant Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wasn’t able to plug the gaps, and City took advantage.

It would have been fascinating to see how the match had panned out had Liverpool had a full complement of players throughout the 90 minutes. With a back three, City’s counter-attacks lacked the potency they do today; the midfield was often too far away from the defence, so the outlet picked to instigate swift attacks – Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are usually elected for this duty – sometimes couldn’t be found. Most critically, the three-man backline was vulnerable while Otamendi’s shortcomings were exposed by Mendy’s eagerness to charge up the park.

City was there for the taking.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Both teams look very different going into Sunday’s clash at Anfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain has pulled through his difficult start and is now proving a useful piece of Jurgen Klopp’s squad. The wizardry of Philippe Coutinho is now in Barcelona, but Virgil van Dijk is finally a Liverpool player. City operates with a defensive quartet and has returned to fielding a single striker, and the three-point cushion it enjoyed over Liverpool before that September fixture has extended to 18 points. The title is practically wrapped up.

But Liverpool could be the team to break City’s 22-match unbeaten record this season, and to do so Klopp should ensure his side has plenty of width. When Guardiola tries to nullify opposition counter-attacks, he often gets Kyle Walker or Fabian Delph, or sometimes both, to move inside when City is in possession. If there’s a quick turnover, the middle of the pitch is too busy to launch a dash through the centre or to arc attacks into that area.

What teams haven’t tried to do enough against City is to have players immediately running out to wide positions when possession is won to take advantage of the spots vacated by Walker or Delph. In Salah, Liverpool has a player who is not just a danger with the ball but also without it, something Thierry Henry appreciates from the £36.9-million man.

“What I like about him is that he is not bothered about coming to get the ball,” the Arsenal legend told Sky Sports. “He is constantly running behind you, and as right-back or a centre-back, you do not want to run that way the whole game. And that is all he does.”

Although Henry gets his sides mixed up – left-back Delph will be the player who sees most of Salah – he’s right to highlight the latter’s off-the-ball work, and this could be pivotal on Merseyside. Mane should be given the same instructions, and it’s this width that can leave Otamendi and John Stones desperately scampering to cover for their full-backs.

The Premier League’s summit is probably already in the bag for City, but there are areas of the squad that are thin or sometimes culpable to making errors. Liverpool, even without Coutinho, has the attacking talent to expose those weaknesses.

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