Walker and Mendy the men to make Guardiola system click vs. Liverpool
It might leave Manchester City fans feeling a little nervous, but Pep Guardiola will have the perfect opportunity to show what his 3-5-2 system can do when Liverpool visit the Etihad on Saturday lunchtime.
Designed as a way to get a strike partnership into the team and as a formation that will offer more defensive cover, it could be best suited to earning the Catalan all three points in what will be his toughest match of the campaign so far.
For the fans, there are flashbacks to the year Roberto Mancini's team crumbled time after time with the three at the back set-up, and it's easy to understand why they'd be wary of returning to it. It was 2012-13, and as defending champions City weren't up to the task of competing for the crown for a second season running.
Mancini had brought in Maicon from Inter Milan, to operate as a wing-back on the right while Aleksandar Kolarov did the same on the left. It worked once, a 2-1 home win over Tottenham, but it failed on countless other occasions. City just didn't have the players to make it a success.
It may seem like the in-vogue thing to do at the moment, especially with Chelsea's success with a back three last season, but it seems like it will serve City well with the personnel they have.
For the first time since the beginning of the campaign, Guardiola can call upon both Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker in the same match, after suspension and injury kept them out of playing together. The pair must be the manager's first choice for the system, as both look imperious going forward and have the defensive nous to know what to do when pushed back by the opposition.
That was where Leroy Sane, played out of position as left wing-back, fell down in the 1-1 draw with Everton. In the 2-0 victory over Brighton, Danilo was troubled in that role -- he was fine defensively, but had to check back onto his stronger right side every time City tried to push forward. With Mendy and Walker, both of those issues should be eradicated.
Liverpool won't try to stifle the game at the Etihad, either. In many ways, both teams have had similar issues over the last couple of seasons -- they've looked strong going forward and fragile defensively, meaning they've both been more comfortable taking the initiative in open matches.
With the visitors' strength on the front foot, an extra centre-back will provide cover that was so severely lacking in similar fixtures last season. It means Guardiola's team can play a high line, a tactic that was exposed frequently in his first year in the job, while also having players who can act as cover.
One of the main criticisms of the 3-5-2 is that it stifles the attacking talents of Sane and Raheem Sterling, who were a large part in why City were impressive going forward last season. While that's a valid argument, the fixture with Liverpool comes in a week that the England international is suspended -- not that he generally performs well against his former club, anyway.
It seems the better way to get at Jurgen Klopp's team would be to put pressure on the centre-backs. It's no secret the Anfield boss wanted another defender in the transfer window, having failed to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, and the creative talents City can put in behind a partnership of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus could cause all manner of problems.
David Silva has been dazzling the fans at the Etihad for seven years and he still manages to amaze supporters with how he can unlock defences. Add to that the already impressive Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, who is beginning to look more at home playing slightly deeper in Guardiola's team, and City should be creating a host of chances.
Of course, there's the age-old problem of the team actually converting those opportunities, but there's only so much the manager can do. He's been left frustrated with his side's profligacy in front of goal since he arrived.
In this case, sticking with 3-5-2 would mean City could have five attacking players operating centrally and putting enormous pressure on the Liverpool midfield and defence. They'd be able to do it without sacrificing any width to their play, with both Mendy and Walker working down the flanks, and without leaving themselves vulnerable to the counterattack as they were so often last season.
It may be a system that leaves fans feeling a little uneasy, but it's surely the best way for City to try and stifle Liverpool's threat while also maximising their own.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney