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Liverpool hold the advantage…especially if Firmino plays

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Liverpool are less bruised than Manchester City and will not start so slowly again…

Despite only playing each other a few days ago, Liverpool and Manchester City seem to be in very different places now. The midweek Champions League round was an easy ride for a Liverpool side able to rest seven first-team players, but it could not have been more emotionally and physically exhausting for Man City.

That should tip the balance in Liverpool’s favour for the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, and frankly they really needed something to recalibrate the fixture. Jurgen Klopp’s side might have drawn 2-2 at the Etihad but they were dominated in the first half and, for the second time in a row against City, Liverpool ought to have been beaten. You can read 16 Conclusions here.

It forms part of a wider trend, too, with Liverpool having won just one of their last nine meetings. There is a growing sense that Pep Guardiola has worked Klopp out, luck and profligate finishing the only reason he doesn’t have a more impressive recent record against his great rival. The tactical battle in last weekend’s game, with City springing the major surprises, was only further proof he is in control of this fixture.

Saturday’s semi-final is likely to follow a similar pattern, with only minor reactive tweaks from the two managers considering they have had almost no time to prepare. Our preview, then, can more or less double as a review of what happened at the Etihad.

The most interesting thing to note was how Man City copied the Liverpool playbook by hitting lots of longer passes in behind Klopp’s high defensive line – which has looked notably more vulnerable recently. Guardiola instructed Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus to make lots of arcing runs on the last line and got his team to hit those runners as often as possible, a move that nearly worked four or five times before Joao Cancelo’s unlikely cross led to Jesus scoring the second Man City goal.

But beyond getting in behind, City’s more direct route forward was designed to target the spaces Liverpool’s narrow 4-3-3 leaves out wide. Kyle Walker, expected to form a back three so that his recovery pace would prevent against Liverpool breaks, instead overlapped aggressively on the right – regularly receiving a longer pass to expose Klopp’s narrow formation.

It worked very well, in the first half especially, and is likely to be repeated unless Klopp finds a way for Sadio Mane to track Walker more effectively – or to fight fire with fire, getting Andrew Robertson to push Walker back. The latter is more likely, especially given that Man City’s early dominance was at least partly the result of Liverpool making such a slow and hesitant start. They should feel more free to be aggressive and confrontational in the FA Cup and at a neutral venue, somewhat limiting Walker’s influence.

In the second half, Fabinho found his feet after a hapless first 45 while Thiago Alcantara began to control things as expected. It was Thiago’s incredible cross-field pass that led to Liverpool’s first equaliser and from this point on he was a key player, helping his side get a foothold in the match with line-splitting passes and some press-resistant possession in deeper midfield areas.

As written in the preview of last week’s game, Thiago is Liverpool’s most important player; his elegance on the ball pushes the opponent back and keeps his team in command of the ball, preventing the end-to-end chaos that can plague Klopp’s team. There is a good reason why, before Sunday’s 2-2 draw, Liverpool had won all 12 Premier League games this season Thiago started.

The other most notable tactical feature of last weekend’s match was Bernardo Silva starting alongside Rodri in midfield, providing Man City with a more sure-footed base than if Rodri had been left alone here. Guardiola using a 4-2-3-1 stopped Liverpool from taking advantage of attacking transitions, although this had as much to do with Klopp’s team selection: Diogo Jota is not very good at dropping into the number 10 position to link play and move Liverpool quickly through the thirds.

The Liverpool manager probably won’t make that mistake again. It is important that Roberto Firmino starts in order to apply pressure at the base of Man City’s midfield, which in turn should prevent Liverpool from once again starting slowly.

Indeed, if Liverpool can hit the ground running this time, then one of the key battlegrounds we highlighted last week should actually be utilised. Surprisingly, not much action happened down Liverpool’s right despite their obvious advantage here: Cancelo’s tendency to drift into midfield can leave his flank open, and with Trent Alexander-Arnold acting as a distraction against any cover from a City left winger, that could hand an advantage to Mohamed Salah.

Liverpool supporters might settle for a good Salah performance and a defeat. He hasn’t scored an open-play goal since mid-February and getting Salah back into his rhythm will be crucial in Liverpool’s pursuit of the Premier League and Champions League; a more direct Liverpool performance, leaning over to their right, is required at Wembley.

But of course this match is often decided by substitutions and in-game tactical changes, meaning our ability to preview is limited – as ever. One thing we can say for sure is that it will be a brilliant match and, most likely, a very open one, considering neither side will be quite as nervous as they were last weekend. Assuming it descends into something a little more urgent, a well-rested Liverpool have the upper hand against a Man City team bruised by their trip to the Wanda.

The post Liverpool hold the advantage…especially if Firmino plays appeared first on Football365.

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