Manchester City have enjoyed a great season, yet, ultimately, everything boils down to Sunday’s Premier League final. Failure to beat Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium could leave City without any silverware to show for their efforts this term; in a results-based business, many would call that a failure.
In contrast, Liverpool, currently one point behind City in the league table, are still in with a chance of winning an unprecedented quadruple. Jurgen Klopp’s side have already won the Carabao Cup and FA Cup, and have a Champions League final date with Real Madrid to look forward to at the end of the month.
It begs the question: how can it be that City are in pole position to win the Premier League, but unlike Liverpool, their hopes of winning a trophy weigh entirely on one match?
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There will never be a definitive answer to that question, other than the obvious fact that Liverpool won all of their knockout cup ties and City did not. One feasible explanation for that could lie in the much-debated issue of squad depth.
It’s no secret that since his Barcelona days, Pep Guardiola has opted to work with small, neatly trimmed squads. His squads may well be filled with some of the best talents on the planet, but in terms of depth in numbers, they rank nowhere near the top.
The Catalan prefers to work this way as it avoids having bloated squads, full of disgruntled senior players whose discontent at not playing can negatively impact squad morale and create divisions in the dressing room.
Given that Pep has led City to three Premier League titles, four Carabao Cups, one FA Cup and a first Champions League final over the course of his six seasons in Manchester, it’s hard to argue with his method. However, it does leave little margin for circumstances beyond City’s control, primarily injuries and congested fixture schedules. In recent months, City have looked leggy and tired in a number of games, and have been unlucky to pick up a number of key injuries.
It is, of course, a freak incident for three of City’s best defenders to all be injured at the same time, but it has had a knock-on effect on other areas of the team. Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko are now the only fully-fit options at full-back, while the need to play Fernandinho at center-back means that there is no one to come into midfield and allow Rodri to rest.
You could probably make the argument that City have a stronger squad than Liverpool, but when it comes to plugging gaps and rotation, the Reds have the edge. Klopp has been able to call upon 22 senior first-team players this season, while Guardiola has only had 17 (18 if you include Cole Palmer). City’s title rivals do seem to fare better than City when fielding heavily changed line-ups.
Against Southampton on Tuesday, Klopp rested both Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, started James Milner at the base of midfield (arguably his third-choice holding midfielder) and selected youngsters Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones as his number eights, leaving Thiago Alcantara, Naby Keita and Jordan Henderson on the bench. Liverpool fell behind to an early goal, but still managed to dominate large swathes of the match.
While City and Liverpool’s styles are not as different as many make them out to be, you get the impression that Klopp’s is a bit more suited to chopping and changing the line-up, even if that means pulling out key players.
Under Pep, City seems more of a finely-tuned machine, with certain players key to its operation. Kyle Walker is one such player whose absence has hurt City in recent weeks. Guardiola is a coach who lives and dies by his footballing principles and beliefs, but that does not mean he is not willing to adapt his approach and develop his ideas.
Last season City, came within three victories of winning a quadruple, but a heavily rotated team in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea ended those hopes. If Liverpool do go on and achieve the seemingly impossible, then perhaps Guardiola will see Klopp’s success as a reason to modify his position on squad size.
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