First and foremost, Liverpool need to beat Wolves on Sunday. It is the Reds who have the tougher fixture of the two title contenders, taking on a side that was in European contention for much of the season.
Prior to their meeting with Burnley on Thursday, Manchester City’s opponents Aston Villa find themselves down in 14th. But Steven Gerrard’s men will need to get something at The Etihad if his old club are to win the Premier League.
City have only dropped points on home soil four times all season. Two of those were against top-four opposition in Liverpool (2-2) and Tottenham Hotspur (2-3).
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But, encouragingly for the Reds, they also slipped up against Southampton (0-0) and Crystal Palace (0-2) in the autumn. So, how did the Saints and the Eagles do it?
To begin with Southampton, Ralph Hasenhüttl felt that his 4-2-2-2 shape worked ‘fantastically’ well against City because ‘it’s tough for any team that tries to play through’ it. Pep Guardiola lamented his lack of ‘comfort’ and precision in the build-up phase, but perhaps that is merely a testament to Southampton’s set-up out of possession.
That’s not to say they frustrated their hosts by merely sitting deep in a block. No, Hasenhüttl placed an emphasis on his ‘front players’ pressing City, aware that they could pick out incisive passes if given time on the ball. The Austrian demanded bravery off the ball but also ‘worked very hard’ on ensuring his team was calm when they won it back. City’s opponents so often rush the first pass after regaining the ball, immediately surrendering it and inviting another wave of energy-sapping pressure. It’s important not to snatch at the opportunity that presents itself, however understandable that might be.
Remarkably, City weren’t able to muster a shot on target until the 90th minute of that match. They did run up 1.1 xG to Southampton’s 0.4, but by and large they stalled as a creative force. Their xG per shot was just 0.07.
And they could easily have lost. Jon Moss awarded a penalty and brandished a red card when Kyle Walker brought down Adam Armstrong, only to overturn both decisions after consulting the pitchside monitor. Moss saw that Walker had been able to get his leg in front of Armstrong and therefore ruled that no foul had been committed, but there was no touch on the ball from the right-back either. While it was an honest challenge, he was perhaps fortunate to avoid giving away a spot kick.
But City were reduced to 10 men when they faced Palace at the end of October. Aymeric Laporte was dismissed for denying a goalscoring opportunity when Wilfied Zaha got goal-side 30 yards out and he bundled him over. Patrick Vieira admitted that ‘people may think it was harsh’, but stressed that teams needed decisions to go in their favor to have any chance against City.
And Match of the Day pundit Ian Wright felt Palace ‘earned their luck in the way that they were playing’. Like Southampton, they were ‘compact’ in their shape and, as Guardiola noted, they ‘defended the gaps’ in the half-spaces and between the lines where City are most dangerous.
But again, they recognized the need to ‘get in City’s faces’ and prevent them from playing, to paraphrase Zaha, who incidentally thrived in a rarely-seen central role. Clearly, the red card made their lives considerably easier, but Wright suspects that Palace could have got a result even against 11 men based on their approach.
City dominated the ball despite their numerical disadvantage, finishing the game with 68 per cent possession, but only managed three shots on target and 1.1 xG, the same as their visitors.
Both teams would earn draws against the reigning champions at home too, though those were more conventional backs-to-the-wall, hanging-on-for-dear-life performances for large periods. Beyond courage and composure, luck is essential to beat perhaps the strongest squad in Premier League history and, in truth, they may be virtually unstoppable f they’re on form.
Hasenhüttl used RB Leipzig’s game plan against City in the Champions League as a basis for his strategy, albeit with some adjustments to counter ‘what was wrong’. Now Gerrard will surely look back on these games as he looks to engineer what could be the most poetic end to a campaign the league has ever seen.