Five questions: Man City vs. Liverpool
It's only the second week of the 2014-15 Premier League season but we've already got our first blockbuster game as last season's champions, Man City, host last season's runners-up, Liverpool, at the Etihad Stadium. ESPN FC has five questions ahead of Monday's marquee match.
Will Liverpool try the blitz approach again?
The remarkable thing about Liverpool's title near-miss last season wasn't quite so much that they almost won the thing, but that they did so by paying scant attention to caution and attacking the biggest and best teams in the land. In an era when defence and solidity have been king, their approach was both refreshing and pretty exhilarating, partly because it was exciting to watch but also because it defied conventional sense -- half the fun was marvelling at the boldness of their approach as well as watching Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge et al blitz their opponents.
Liverpool attacked with astonishing aggression and speed from the very first minute; it worked spectacularly in the 5-1 win over Arsenal, and also against City in their 3-2 victory in April when it looked like they really were going to pull off this astonishing feat of winning the title.
On that day they took an early lead through Sterling and Martin Skrtel and eventually won despite City's initial comeback, but while their cavalier approach brought them great success, it also cost them, quite spectacularly, against Crystal Palace. After such a chastening experience, one would forgive Brendan Rodgers for abandoning such a strategy and exercising more caution, particularly as his team adapts to life after Luis Suarez. However, he should recall just how exciting Liverpool were when they took this approach last term, not just for the neutral but for their own fans, and that those were the games in which Liverpool had the most success, not when they played more conservatively.
Despite the departure of Suarez, Liverpool still have the players to both excite and win while doing so, therefore Rodgers should not abandon the strategy that brought him success last term.
What will Liverpool do about Manchester City's forwards?
Liverpool's win last season was undeniably impressive, but it's probably handy to remember that it came after Yaya Toure limped off after 20 minutes and with Sergio Aguero as a half-fit substitute. Toure is back at full fitness now, and Aguero should be available, too, beefing up City's forward options significantly, so the battle between them and Liverpool's defence will be an interesting one. Of course, Liverpool's backline was the weak point in their team last term, and while they have upgraded their central defensive options with the purchase of Dejan Lovren, concerns do remain.
Skrtel suffered an alarming decline a couple of years ago before recovering, so it would be natural to worry about his consistency; Daniel Agger seems to be agitating for a move away; but perhaps the biggest and most overlooked concern is in goal. Simon Mignolet is a perfectly good shot-stopper, but then again, that is the ultimate backhanded compliment, for if a goalkeeper wasn't a good shot-stopper then one might wonder what he was doing in that position in the first place. Mignolet's problem comes commanding his area, a concern that the Liverpool coaching staff have reportedly discussed at length; they've even considered a change between the sticks, and against an attacking force like City, who have many options and different ways to hurt their opposition, it could spell trouble for Mignolet and his defenders.
Will Liverpool throw in Alberto Moreno?
Twelve million pounds is a reasonable slice of cash to pay for a left-back, but Liverpool badly needed a decent one after muddling through last season with assorted makeshift options. The question is whether Rodgers will give Alberto Moreno his debut in this game after the Spaniard completed his move from Sevilla, or whether he sticks with Glen Johnson away from his natural flank, where he's been pressed into action before.
Rodgers certainly seems minded to pick the new man, saying about Moreno on Friday: "He gives us balance -- he has got a great left foot, passes it well and sees the pass early. He gets forward on the outside and can penetrate on the inside. ... At 22, he has still got a lot of development in him. He'll pick up the pace very quickly."
Either Moreno or Johnson would represent a gamble against the myriad attacking talents City possess; the former has not played a competitive game since May and had a disjointed preseason, while the latter can be a positional liability at right-back, never mind on his unfavoured flank. Against the right-sided options City can call on, this will be a tricky decision for Rodgers.
Will City be able to cope with Daniel Sturridge?
After the departure of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge is now Liverpool's senior attacker, and the encouraging thing for both his manager and fans is that the England forward is improving with each passing game. Whether the extra responsibility inspires or inhibits Sturridge remains to be seen, but what is certain is that he will be the central threat for Liverpool against City and will cause their central defenders plenty of problems.
Eliaquim Mangala is not yet ready to come into the City side, but Martin Demichelis should be ready to partner with Vincent Kompany. Sturridge's smart and rapid movement is exactly the sort that Demichelis, despite playing above most expectations last season, struggles with, so he will require plenty of help from Kompany. However, the Belgian isn't infallible; he is, quite obviously, a brilliant defender -- one of the best in the Premier League, in fact -- but last season he showed a slightly troubling tendency to make individual errors and because of his previous reputation, he very rarely received strong condemnation or blame for them. The City captain will have to recover his old consistency if he and his defensive partner are to keep Sturridge out on Monday.
Who will win the midfield battle?
The midfield is, of course, where most football matches are decided and controlled, and this one will be no different. While Liverpool have undoubtedly strengthened their attacking options and have a defensive upgrade in Lovren, their starting midfield will probably be much the same as last season. Emre Can might turn into a first-choice midfielder, but it will be a surprise if Rodgers picks him instead of a midfield trio of Steven Gerrard, Lucas and Jordan Henderson against City.
Manuel Pellegrini undoubtedly does have better first-choice options than last term, with the purchase of Fernando adding steel to an already pretty steely central midfield, along with Toure and Fernandinho. With City likely to continue with their loose 4-4-2 system, the question seems to be whether their two will be more effective than Liverpool's three, with Toure often worth more than a single player and Gerrard sometimes requiring plenty of help. Henderson and Lucas will be under plenty of pressure to provide that help.
Nick Miller is a football writer for ESPN FC, The Guardian, Eurosport and a number of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.