Sergio Aguero has returned to fitness in time to spearhead Manchester City’s attack against their closest Premier League title rivals at Anfield on Sunday. Yet, while an undoubtedly brilliant player, his availability poses manager Manuel Pellegrini a significant problem.
Although not as rampant as they were earlier in the campaign, there is an argument to be made that City have been more convincing than at any time this season in the past month, when Aguero has been absent. The Argentine’s unavailability meant Pellegrini dispensing with his previously much-trusted two-striker system. That approach had made City a frightening force going forward, but it also left them incredibly vulnerable. Bayern Munich outclassed them at the Etihad, while Arsenal scored three against them despite being outplayed. The nadir was reached when Chelsea laid bare the openness to City’s play in a 1-0 win.
In contrast, in the last five games City have conceded just twice. Among their most impressive performances of the season was a 2-0 win at Hull when they were down to 10 men for 80 minutes. Meanwhile, they were utterly dominant in a 3-0 win at Old Trafford when blitzing Manchester United early on before producing a measured display to see the game out with ease. Playing Aguero as a lone striker would be a gamble, with the 25-year-old short on match fitness, and the right solution could be to start with him on the bench.
With just one striker, Manchester City have a greater sense of authority and control. Crucially, the formation has also gotten the best out of David Silva. Since City went to just a single man up front, Silva has been outstanding, scoring twice and adding two assists in those last five matches. The fact that he can dovetail with Samir Nasri between the left flank and the No. 10 role gives City a far better shape and enables the Spaniard the space to shine. That position between the lines could be incredibly fruitful against a Liverpool side who have lacked a natural defensive midfielder. While Steven Gerrard has excelled in his deeper-lying role, he still struggles when forced to turn toward his own goal rather than having the play in front of him.
And that may well lead Brendan Rodgers to bring Lucas Leiva back into the fold for his first start since returning from injury nearly a month ago. Liverpool have superseded Manchester City as the Premier League’s entertainers, with Gerrard performing the quarterback role while the five players ahead of him storm the opposition backline.
But Rodgers is far from a slave to any one formula. Unlike Pellegrini, who appears to have almost stumbled upon his best formation, Rodgers has tinkered with his system and personnel throughout this season. There is an obvious desire to have his two star strikers Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in the penalty box as often as possible, but the visit of City could well be a day for having one move wide in a 4-3-3.
City are particularly vulnerable down their left side, where neither Silva and Nasri are not natural wide men and Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov have struggled defensively. Suarez was surprisingly deployed on the right against Arsenal in February and exposed the similarly defensively suspect Nacho Monreal time and again, particularly in the opening 20 minutes.
There is certainly reason to think that Liverpool can hurt City hitting them quickly in transition. But there is also a good chance that the power and dynamism could give City control of the midfield.
While both teams may mediate their all-out attacking potential, there is still plenty of reason to believe that this will be a rare occasion when a high-profile matchup lives up to its billing. With Manchester City four points behind but with two games in hand, it is a match where Liverpool have more incentive to push for all three points. Yet, it could well be that that the spoils are shared and one of the most intriguing title races in recent memory remains set to head right to the wire.
Prediction: Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City