All or nothing for Man City and Liverpool: The tactics that will define who is going to lift the Premier League trophy – tactical analysis
A very dramatic Premier League season is coming to an end and while many of the teams already know their faith, the most important battle – the title challenge is yet to be decided in the final round of the 2021/22 campaign.
Manchester City and Liverpool have been in a constant battle at the top of the league where the Citizens currently have a point advantage and desperately need the win this weekend to be able to secure the first place and lift the trophy.
The Merseyside, on the other hand, will put all of their efforts to grab the three points against Wolverhampton, but so will be hoping that Aston Villa have the quality to trouble their opponents and Liverpool’s legend Steven Gerard could “help” his former club by earning points against City.
Both City and Liverpool have been very consistent throughout the season, but despite being the most efficient teams in the PL, they do have some vulnerabilities that their opponents could expose and ruin their plans.
While defeating Aston Villa and Wolverhampton might seem like an easy job for Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, they need to approach their final games with tactical clarity, increased awareness and a solid plan B.
Liverpool vs Wolverhampton
Liverpool have won all of their last six Premier League matches against Wolves and will be looking to secure another three points on the weekend. Bruno Lage’s side had some strong displays throughout the season but have been inconsistent lately, failing to get a win in six consecutive games and killing their chances for European football next season.
Squad and formation
No surprises are expected from Klopp in terms of the formation and the squad. He will stick to his 4-3-3 set-up and focus on their usual approach of intense pressing and constant attacking.
He gave some rest to his regular starters in the Southampton game, and it is expected that all of his most efficient players will be back in the squad. Mohamed Salah will be motivated to score not only to support his team for the league title but also to stay on top of the Golden Boot competition, where he is tightly followed by Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son.
Joe Gomez most probably won’t be available to the manager after suffering an injury in the team’s last match, although this wouldn’t affect their game-plan as he would reply on Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right where he could take advantage of Wolves’ defensive vulnerability in that area and expose them with his constant attacking movement. Andrew Robertson is expected to be back in the squad as well.
It is unclear if Klopp would give Diogo Jota the starting spot or if he would rather rely on Luis Díaz. Both players could give the team an advantage in certain areas. Jota’s headed attempts on goal could increase the team’s chances in attack, although Wolverhampton, among with Man City, are the teams with the fewest conceded goals from headshots (1). Díaz’s dribbling and creativity, on the other hand, could be very beneficial against Wolves’ overloaded and structured defence. His ball control and positioning could help the Merseyside place between the lines and exploit spaces providing both indirect and direct threat.
Jordan Henderson’s presence in midfield might be crucial as he brings confidence and security, and his leadership qualities will be key in such an important game.
How can Liverpool expose Wolves’ weaknesses?
Wolverhampton are one of the teams with the fewest conceded goals in the league. While they employ a back-three in possession, defensively, they rely on a collective effort and aim to limit the spaces between the lines and block the oppositions’ creativity. They do also rely on quite a high number of direct duels, where they have a considerably high success rate of 60.2%. Even Liverpool’s efficient attack managed to score only two goals in the last two meetings.
Liverpool, though, can smartly use that against them. Wolves have committed a high number of individual errors that have led to penalty calls, which have resulted in conceding nine penalties so far. With Liverpool’s ability to overload the opposition half and the players’ pace and technical abilities, they could take advantage in 1vs1 situations and force the opposing players into individual mistakes. Players like Sadio Mané who often suffers fouls will most certainly be a target to the Wolves’ defenders as well and his movement and agility could easily result in being fouled in dangerous areas.
Wolverhampton could make Liverpool’s life harder if they drop into a low block and try to limit the spaces in the advanced areas. While marking the attacking players tightly and not allowing them space for movement seems like a good idea it could force the Reds into shooting from distance, which is not the best-case scenario for Lage’s side. Liverpool’s players’ strong finishing has been proven both from distance and from close range and while they have been the most efficient in the box, they have also scored 10 goals from outside the penalty area.
What would make it even more difficult for Wolves to avoid this is that they can expect a long shot from many of the Reds’ players and not only the attackers. That makes employing their marking strategy successfully even more difficult.
The Wolves often have difficulties in covering the flanks and in the players avoiding going out of position. This is extremely dangerous especially against Liverpool, having in mind the full-backs involvement upfront. Overcommitting players to the wide areas often leaves spaces for through balls. This means Salah’s pace and 1vs1 abilities could easily result in Liverpool scoring.
What should they consider in order to secure the win?
Liverpool should be aware of the opposition’s ability to threaten the goal from a long distance. Klopp’s side haven’t shown many weaknesses throughout the season, but they do have some vulnerable areas that Wolves could use to expose them. Luckily, Wolverhampton are not a team that overcommit to exposing their opponents through crossing attempts, meaning Alexander-Arnold’s defensive vulnerability is less likely to be exposed.
Instead, they might try to shoot from distance, which has proven to be somewhat of an issue for the Reds. Eight of their 25 conceded goals have been shots from outside the penalty area. Liverpool need to be careful with second balls after defending set-pieces and also with cleared balls as they might end up in the opposition who could take advantage of the opportunity. This is also connected to Liverpool’s frequent ball losses, which could easily be exposed by the opposing players.
Manchester City vs Aston Villa
Manchester City failed yet again in their effort to lift the Champions League trophy. They are, though, on the verge of winning their fourth PL title since Guardiola’s arrival in 2016. They are one win away from that achievement.
The Citizens will be going out against Aston Villa who are now safe from the relegation zone but are still determined to show a quality performance and end the season positively. Their manager Steven Gerard had a positive impact since his arrival in November, but the team are yet to achieve consistency.
Squad and formation
City might get a huge boost as Kyle Walker and John Stones both participated in the mid-week first-team training. If they are back in the squad, the manager would most probably rely on Walker and João Cancelo for the full-back positions, providing more opportunities for the team both defensively and in possession.
Rúben Dias is also expected to be absent from the group for the game due to injury, meaning Guardiola would need to rely on Fernandinho in central defence again, although both he and Aymeric Laporte have some injury complaints. The manager has a decent replacement in Nathan Aké too, although his work under pressure might bring some vulnerability in defence.
For Aston Villa, the big question is whether Gerrard would rely on Emiliano Buendía or Philippe Coutinho behind the attack. Whoever gets the starting spot, City need to focus on supporting the defensive line and minimising the spaces as both players are proficient in exploiting spaces and supporting their teammates’ movement.
City need to stick to what they do best
City’s intensity both in and out of possession would be difficult for Aston Villa to cope with. While Gerrard’s side have some weapons in attack, their defensive fragilities make them look like an easy opponent for the Citizens.
The easiest way for the Sky Blues to break through the Villans’ defence is by taking advantage of their set-piece opportunities. Aston Villa’s players have difficulties in splitting their responsibilities and marking the opposing players during set-plays which has resulted in conceding 13 times from such situations so far this season.
City, on the other hand, are the most efficient team in the league when it comes to converting their set-play opportunities into goals. The Villa players need to have increased awareness and avoid allowing their opponents many corner kicks as City can easily score from such situations. Contributing to their success in attacking set-plays is the players’ strong positioning and headed attempts which often result in goals.
Guardiola wants his team to constantly move around and change positions which might often drag the opposing players out of position and leave gaps. This might force hastiness in Aston Villa’s actions and result in committing fouls. Gerrard’s side do have the habit of committing fouls quite frequently, which increases the pressure and provides their opponents with more chances.
How can Aston Villa trouble them?
Aston Villa have been inconsistent throughout the season but they do have their ways to expose the opposition. Gerrard needs to be very flexible and consider his steps carefully even if this means making last-minute changes depending on the opposition’s team news. The Villans have the opportunity to pressurise the shaken up by injuries defence using their creativity and individual skill.
While Gerrard’s side do tend to play with width and attempts crosses often, they are rather efficient in attacking through the middle and using through balls to break through defences. With City’s advanced positioning and aim to control the game in the opposition half, one ball recovery from their opponents could cost them a lot, especially if they are not in their usual set-up, having players injured. This could become a thing as Aston Villa often aim to recover the ball in the advanced areas which could eventually catch City off-guard.
A map of Aston Villa’s recoveries against Burnley. It illustrates the team’s tendency to recover possession in the advanced areas.
While Manchester City have been rock solid in defending set-pieces they shouldn’t underestimate Aston Villa’s ability to take advantage of theirs. The team have scored 11 goals from their attacking set-plays this season and they certainly know how to exploit spaces and escape their markers successfully. They actually managed to score from a corner exactly against City in their first game of the season, so the Citizens need to increase their awareness when defending corners as their opponents can take away the trophy our of their hands in the blink of an eye.
As our analysis shows, both Liverpool and Manchester City are expected to win their games but with opponents like Wolverhampton and Aston Villa anything could go wrong. The title challengers have their vulnerabilities too and if Guardiola’s team fail to stay focused on the prize, they could be left empty-handed with yet another disappointment this season. It is all or nothing for the Spaniard, while an eventual failure could not only give Liverpool the chance to win the Premier League but also keep their hopes for a quadruple alive.