After the lull of the international break distracting everyone away from club football, the Premier League is back again this weekend - with a bang too. League leaders Manchester City, who are still yet to hit their full stride, host Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool side, and it'll be an intriguing watch for sure on Saturday evening.
I had the pleasure of speaking to VAVEL Liverpool editor Charlie Malam, who is the third-highest ever contributor on VAVEL UK, ahead of the mouthwatering clash below:
With the side rejuvenated by Jürgen Klopp's arrival, how will the German line-up his side tactically, to mirror that fantastic win for you at Stamford Bridge?
This should be a straightforward answer, but the fact there are a few players on the fringe of returning who could make a surprise comeback against City makes it a little more difficult. Most likely, I’d imagine Dejan Lovren will start in place of the injured Mamadou Sakho and that will be the only defensive change, meaning Alberto Moreno, Martin Skrtel and Nathaniel Clyne make up the rest of the back four in front of Simon Mignolet. Assuming that we go for a slightly more reserved 4-3-2-1, as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 which we utilised in the defeat to Crystal Palace a fortnight ago, Lucas Leiva should keep his place as the holding midfielder.
Slightly in front of him, Emre Can and James Milner are his likely midfield partners - with the game coming slightly too soon for Jordan Henderson to realistically walk back into the starting line-up. In attacking midfield, Philippe Coutinho’s starting spot is a no-brainer and he is likely to be partnered by Roberto Firmino. Despite the form of Jordon Ibe, I’m not sure we’ll go for a wide-man away at City - rather, I’d imagine Klopp will want to get Coutinho and Firmino in and around the pockets of space which Christian Benteke - leading the line - should open up. However, Ibe, Adam Lallana and potentially even Daniel Sturridge, who returned to training this week, are all in contention for those spots in the final third. It would certainly be good to see the latter, Henderson and some of the others return to the bench - if just for the morale boost it will give their teammates.
Just how good is Philippe Coutinho? Is he the main man City must stop?
It’s a peculiar situation, actually. On the surface, three goals in two games is a fantastic return - not least when you actually see the quality of the finishes - and it looks as though Coutinho is in great form. However, I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that Coutinho has actually been underwhelming so far this season. Perhaps that’s the standard us Liverpool fans set him to, as well as the constant return which neutrals and rivals demand from attacking players in order to justify any recognition of their talent (i.e. look at the universal acclaim Mesut Özil is now getting given his form) but he really hasn’t been at his best. The Chelsea game was strange because for the first 45 minutes of the game, he’d hardly put a foot right and looked shot of confidence, then he goes and jinks past Ramires and bends that shot into the bottom corner as calm as can be. I think though, between that goal and perhaps way back to his performance at Arsenal, where he nearly scored a similar goal on the opposite foot, flashes of his brilliance were few and far between. Hopefully, with Roberto Firmino starting to find some form too, it will take creative license off of him so there’s less onus on the ‘Little Magician’ - as he’s known in the squad - to solely provide those spectacular moments. In terms of his importance to Liverpool, however, I’d certainly suggest if you quell his threat - you shut down a lot of the options. We’ve still Firmino, Benteke and several other really good attacking players who all need to be kept quiet, but Coutinho is almost the conductor of the whole orchestra. When he’s on song, the rest of the players tend to be too - and he should now be high on confidence going into this game. Not to mention the fact he loves a goal against City.
Defensively, you've looked unconvincing in truth. Will it be a case of starting quickly and staying strong at the back, or something else?
A lot of confidence was drawn from the fact Liverpool bounced back from an early setback when we beat Chelsea a few weeks ago, but I think it was overlooked rather easily that they were a side fairly low on confidence. Had they had come into that game off the back of a three or four-game winning streak, and gone ahead early, perhaps it’d have been a different outcome. Applying that to City - who are in fine fettle and still have some of their best players to come back into the team - I think it’s vital we avoid any setbacks. Whilst us all Liverpool fans would love to see us come flying out of the blocks and gegenpress City into oblivion, we have to acknowledge that this is one of the toughest fixtures in the Premier League, so we’re going to be defending/out of possession for more than half of the game, you’d expect. Our defence is shaky and won’t be helped by the loss of Sakho, who has been monumental in our last few games, so it is a worry. Moreno is prone to lapses of concentration, as is Emre Can, whilst Skrtel and Lovren haven’t really proved they are capable of playing together in a centre-back partnership. Hopefully, Klopp has been spending the last week or so thinking of how best to deal with City’s threats - especially from set-pieces - because we’ve not actually conceded too many open play goals under the German yet. A lot of the goals we’ve leaked under him have been very avoidable set-pieces, such as Scott Dann’s late header for Palace and Sadio Mané’s goal for Southampton before that, so we need to ensure we’re 100% concentrated at all times, keeping fouls to an absolute minimum and keeping our shape. If we defend well and counter quickly, we can really take the game to City, but a positive result totally relies on us not giving away anything silly or gifting the home side goals.
Do you think City really miss James Milner in midfield?
I’m not really sure they do, to be honest. Since an excellent pre-season campaign, Milner has actually been one of the most disappointing performers for us this season. He is one of the worst for giving away clumsy, needless fouls and his set-piece delivery has been particularly dreadful - but then you could see how much we missed the things he doesn’t get quite enough credit for against Palace. He runs himself into the ground, hence why he’s covered more ground than virtually any other Liverpool player this season and his determination and commitment is undeniable. It’s fair to say, more generally, that we’ve all been a bit underwhelmed though and he could find himself under threat when Henderson returns. In terms of City’s midfield - I don’t think he’d find himself in anything more than the bit-part role he had, and was unhappy with, over the past few seasons. Yaya Touré, for some of his faults, is unplayable at his peak and Fernandinho, in my eyes at least, is one of the most underrated players in the league. Further forward, if City were playing a 4-2-3-1, perhaps he could play out on the right because of Jesús Navas’ frustratingly inconsistent end product, but then that’s not where he wants to play. The Liverpool move, on paper, made sense and it still does. He’s got a lot yet to bring to the side, and I think we’ll see more of his best as the season progresses - but I’m not particularly sure City should be devastated they lost him, even as good an option he is as back-up.
Thoughts on City's summer signings, and how they differ to that of Liverpool?
Let’s start with the obvious one, Raheem Sterling. Many eyebrows were raised when the price tag emerged at £49million, but he’s one of the brightest young homegrown talents to come through the ranks for a while. You can’t judge him off the basis of that price tag for another few years, when he’s closer to his peak, but he’s made a good early impression and has continued to demonstrate why he’s so highly-rated at such a young age. You don’t win the Golden Boy award for nothing, as the list of previous winners shows (more often than not). Kevin de Bruyne is a firm Fantasy Premier League favourite with myself and I’m sure many hundreds and thousands of others. He’s started so, so well and though he plays for a ‘rival’ team - he’s such a fantastic player to watch in full swing. Again, another big price tag, but you pay for what you get - and just the thought of the quartet of de Bruyne, Silva, Sterling and Agüero is honestly frightening, so I can’t imagine anyone has any doubts over his quality now, if they had them when he first signed.
The other of the five who has come in and gone straight into the starting team, Nicolas Otámendi, I believe is one of the best defenders in the league. That might be a hasty judgement, but given how excellent he was at Valencia and how impressive he’s been already - I don’t see him failing to live up to his price tag. Him and Vincent Kompany, who has looked much more like his excellent self this season, are one of the best potential partnerships in Europe, not just England. Fabian Delph, I guess it’s difficult to judge. He’s barely played through injury thus far, so you can’t really say he’s been either a failure or a success - though I will say his inclusion in the England squad recently was a bit of a farce and highlights the incompetence of squad selection at national level. I also can’t imagine Delph was bought for being much more than a squad rotation player, rather than a regular starter, so in that respect I do think he’ll be a good option for a relatively cheap (considering English players) price. Patrick Roberts I can’t speak much for. He’s a great young talent, but I’ve not seen any of the three first-team appearances he’s made and I’ve not seen any of him for City’s younger sides either. I’m sure his worth will be proven further down the line, though.
It’s difficult to compare that to Liverpool’s business, because of the immense difference between the wealth available to both sides - but our summer signings have actually been most of our best performers. Nathaniel Clyne is still relatively young and a very consistent right-back, whilst Benteke has really come into his own off of the bench in recent games and should fire somewhere near 15-20 goals if he’s kept fit and given the service. Roberto Firmino has been criticised by some, but is starting to show the form which triggered such excitement when we all first heard the news we might be signing him. It’s a real shame for Danny Ings and Joe Gomez, both young homegrown players who had done really well before picking up serious knee injuries, but I’m optimistic they can come back strong and continue to impress. Adam Bogdan has actually surprised, particularly in the cup win over Bournemouth, and looks like he could be a decent back-up goalkeeper. Like I said earlier, Milner is the only real disappointment thus far - but a player of his quality and consistent should improve sooner rather than later.
Is Raheem Sterling a distant memory now, or do you regret selling him?
He got a lot of stick for his move and I can’t imagine him getting the best of receptions from the away end on Saturday evening, but taking a more neutral perspective - Sterling's move made sense. I can’t see my viewpoint being one that resonates with other Liverpool fans, but he’s playing regularly for the team at the top of the league table, also in the knockout rounds of the Champions League and the last eight of the Capital One Cup. Who can really bemoan him for that? Whether the situation (keeping him at Liverpool) could have panned out any differently is a debate which will rage on throughout his entire career but what has happened now, has happened. In my mind, I think Sterling will go on to be one of the best players of his generation for both club and country - but at the end of it, we got a good price for a player who didn’t want to be at the club and isn’t necessarily guaranteed to go on and realise his potential. There’ll be plenty baying for blood when we go up against him, but I’m more concerned about just ensuring he doesn’t make any impact, because Liverpool certainly have history with letting former players dictate the result.
Where do you think City will finish this term, do you believe Liverpool can snatch a top four spot after a period mixed with inconsistency and frustration?
At the start of the season, I said Chelsea would go on and retain their title. In hindsight, that wasn’t the best of predictions and I’m hesitant to say something again now, because I’ll end up changing my mind in a few weeks. Nevertheless, if City can keep all of their forwards fit and firing then I can’t look past them for the title. Arsenal are looking good at the moment, whilst you probably can’t yet count out Manchester United, but City’s firepower blows them both out of the water - on paper and they’ve not really yet hit top gear, so there’s more to come in that regard. Liverpool’s finish, I’m really not sure. Tottenham are looking more polished than many people expected, so they’re certainly in with a shout - whilst I think the likes of West Ham and Leicester will eventually drop off and more likely look to compete for a Europa League spot, but then there’s still United, Arsenal, Everton and even Chelsea - who can’t be dismissed this early. Fourth is obviously the target, and it’s open for us with Chelsea’s struggles of late, but I think we could just fall short. I said 5th at the start of the season, and I’ll stick with that now. Go forth and prove me wrong, Reds.
Who will Liverpool be most wary of?
Sergio Agüero is the biggest one, particularly because he’s just coming back from injury. There’s the suggestion that because he’s not match fit, he won’t be as dangerous, but look how a half-fit Daniel Sturridge made the difference for us versus Aston Villa earlier this season. Having a player of that calibre will be a huge, huge boost to City - so he’s certainly one, should he play. There are plenty of others, de Bruyne, David Silva (if he plays), Jesús Navas, Yaya Touré - but the other two I’ll pinpoint are Raheem Sterling, and I’ll throw in a bit of a curveball with Fernandinho. The former needs little introduction and I’m sure he’d love to stick one over his former club, even though Brendan Rodgers isn’t here anymore, so we have to mark him out of the game and ensure he doesn’t write the headlines.
Fernandinho, meanwhile, is so integral to City and I think the midfield battle will be huge on Saturday. In recent years, at Anfield at least, we’ve had the better - with Joe Allen and Henderson proving so important in the 2-1 win earlier this year - whilst at City it’s been the opposite way round. Lucas Leiva is obviously the man most similar to Fernandinho for us and his presence is often just as naively undermined. I might be cheating a bit, because you asked who Liverpool will be wary of, but if we can get the better of Fernandinho defensively (providing that Fernando doesn’t play) then I think we could surprise a few people. How we go out and do that is another matter altogether. I probably could have named any one of City’s team though, because the threat of Otámendi and Kompany in the air is something I really don’t want to think about - and Bacary Sagna and Aleksandar Kolarov (or Pablo Zabaleta) provide threat by getting forward from full-back positions. It’s one of the best teams City have had for a while and I suspect that will show domestically and in Europe, as long as they avoid Barcelona.
Will a win for the Reds prove how far they've come in such a short space of time in the presence of a world-class manager, or is it too early to tell?
I think it’ll be hard to judge Klopp’s success, like he said, until a lot further down the line. Even in a year’s time, he’ll still only have had a few months to work with a side that will have more of the look of what he wants to build at Anfield. That said, I think it cannot be dismissed that he’s had a positive impact already. The players are playing to a higher standard, though arguably not quite the best of their abilities just yet, and there’s a more positive vibe surrounding the club. The Chelsea win was absolutely massive, but the loss to Crystal Palace probably drummed home that there’s still so much more to do yet. The two-week international break will have done Klopp the world of good, because it was his first real time to sit back and review what’s happened thus far. For that reason, I expect we should improve even more against City - particularly because a fair few important first-team players stayed at Melwood and have had extra time to train under Klopp’s methods and ideas. The hype will be unbelievable should we go to the Etihad and get something, but I think we need to remember that it’s going to be a patient process under Klopp. If we keep our expectations to an acceptable limit, at least until he begins to build a side to his liking, then he’ll be all the more thankful for it - and so will we in the long-term.
Predictions ahead of the game?
I have to be honest, the Etihad isn’t my favourite ground to visit. The last few years, even when we’ve performed well, we’ve not got the result (see: December 2013). I am more confident with Klopp, but with the absences we’ve got, I think we’d do very well to get a draw. I’ll go 2-1 to City, but I don’t think we’ll be massively outplayed.
A massive thank you is in store for Charlie, who took the time to answer my questions, in detail and with excellent quality too - I'm sure you'll agree. Liverpool have quality in all areas of the pitch, their main weakness is defensively, so you'd naturally expect the sky Blues to exploit that to devastating effect.
I, on behalf of the VAVEL City team, wish Liverpool good luck ahead of a tricky fixture: let the best side win (if either manage to!).