Super Sunday pits Liverpool and Manchester City against each other in the biggest game of the Premier League season so far. Will Pep Guardiola find a way to stop his old adversary Jurgen Klopp?
Pep Guardiola's rivalry with Jurgen Klopp dates back to Bayern Munich's 4-2 defeat by Borussia Dortmund in the German Super Cup in July 2013. It was Guardiola's first game in charge of Bayern, and having only conceded four goals on one occasion in his four years in charge of Barcelona, it was hardly surprising that the experience marked him.
"I learned a lot in Germany the first time I played his team," Guardiola said in 2016. "I was new and it was 'wow', what a good lesson." Bayern were treble-winners at the time, but at Dortmund's vast Westfalenstadion, the intensity and ruthlessness of Klopp's side stunned Guardiola. In Pep Confidential, author Marti Perarnau called it a "brutal welcome".
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The pair have become familiar foes in the five years since, but it is fair to say Guardiola is still figuring out the best way of stopping Klopp's teams. The Catalan has lost seven of their head-to-head meetings compared to Klopp's five. His three consecutive defeats last season were a reminder that no manager causes Pep problems quite like the man he once described as "the best in the world" at creating attacking teams.
For City and Guardiola, each of last season's defeats was more painful than the last. First there was the 4-3 reverse at Anfield which ended their unbeaten start to the season in January. Then there were the crushing Champions League losses at both Anfield and the Etihad Stadium in April.
Guardiola's side conceded nine goals across the three games, time and again falling into Liverpool's traps and being punished on the counter-attack. At the time, Guardiola described Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino as "almost unstoppable". "The way Liverpool plays is so complicated for us," he added.
Guardiola will have those defeats in mind as he prepares his side for their next meeting, but he will also recall City's 5-0 win over Klopp's side last September. Sadio Mane's red card was seen as the turning point that day at the Etihad, but City were already a goal up. The final result might have been tighter had Mane stayed on, but Guardiola's tactics were working and the result vindicated his approach.
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So what was that approach and why has it not been repeated?
Guardiola's tactics that day centred on a change of formation. City's usual 4-3-3 shape was discarded in favour of a 3-5-2, with Danilo deployed alongside John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi in the back three for the first and only time in the Premier League all season, and Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy operating as wing-backs.
The extra body in central defence ensured City were well protected against Liverpool's trademark counter-attacks, but just as importantly, by pushing their full-backs further forward, they were able to cause Liverpool serious problems at the other end.
"To control the counter-attacks, I thought we could defend better with three at the back than four," said Guardiola. "The full-backs gave us a lot of energy. Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker, Danilo… they have a lot of legs! They can run and put in a lot of crosses. That helped us to hurt the opposition. It is a big step for us. We had patience and read the situation well."
Mendy and Walker both contributed assists that day, with the former proving particularly effective. His powerful runs were a constant source of danger on City's left flank. By the end of the game, he had attempted more than twice as many open play crosses as anyone else on the pitch. Liverpool were simply unable to contain him.
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Unfortunately for Guardiola, Mendy's cruciate knee ligament injury ruled him out of the other games against Liverpool and his absence was costly. Without another player capable of reproducing his speed and directness from the same area, Guardiola was sent back to the drawing board.
His approaches were different in each of the subsequent meetings between the two sides but none of them worked. In the 4-3 loss at Anfield, Guardiola's 4-3-3 set-up was ripped to shreds as Fernandinho was outnumbered in defensive midfield and the back four were overrun by Liverpool's pressing.
Guardiola sought to bolster his midfield for the first leg of their Champions League meeting in April, deploying Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne in deep positions with David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan further forward. De Bruyne's position meant he was unable to influence City's attacking play effectively, however, and the lack of width in midfield left Kyle Walker and makeshift left-back Aymeric Laporte exposed against Mane and Salah.
Guardiola's tinkering was punished yet again at the Etihad Stadium a week later. City reverted to a back three that night, but the deficit forced Guardiola to squeeze Silva, Raheem Sterling, De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva into his team as they chased an historic comeback. City therefore carried little threat on the overlap, and the attacking line-up meant they once again lacked cover in defensive midfield.
The question now is how Guardiola will approach Sunday's game, and the answer could depend heavily on Mendy.
The France international has not played in a month due to a combination of disciplinary issues and apparent injury problems, leaving Oleksandr Zinchenko, Fabian Delph and Laporte to fill in at left-back. Results have been positive, for the most part, but Mendy's talents are unique and so too is the tactical flexibility he offers Guardiola.
A return to the side might be problematic - indeed, it might not be possible at all depending on those injury issues - but recent history suggests it could be Guardiola's best hope of getting a result. It promises to be another intriguing installment of a fascinating rivalry regardless.
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