Might Raheem Sterling be the key to Man City vs. Liverpool?
Ordinarily, for a fixture like this week's clash between Manchester City and Liverpool, you want both sides to have full-strength squads, managers able to play their strongest hand and for the game to be influenced by top-class attacking talents.
This time around, however, the absence of Sergio Aguero might prompt a more complex, unpredictable game.
Aguero remains an exceptional striker, boasting a mixture of acceleration and clinical finishing that few others in Europe can match. But he's also somewhat one-dimensional. His link-up play isn't overwhelmingly impressive, he's not hugely creative and his movement tends to be for his own benefit rather than to allow teammates find space. And, in a meeting against a Liverpool side that has caused Manchester City serious problems in midfield this season, Guardiola might not be too disappointed that he'll instead be "forced" to field a trio of Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, three players who offer more versatility, provide more cohesive play and increase the tactical options available.
When Guardiola watches the videos of this season's previous two meetings between the sides, he'll discover that the scorelines don't really reflect the balance of play in either game. Liverpool were dominating City in the meeting at the Etihad back in September, with Mohamed Salah causing Nicolas Otamendi serious problems down the inside-right channel. Aguero's opener put City ahead before Sadio Mane's red card put City in control. The 5-0 result, though, was hugely flattering.
In the reverse fixture, City started brightly and were largely equal to Liverpool for much of the contest. An incredible, high-tempo burst of pressing just after half-time, however, brought Liverpool three goals and put them out of sight. Even then, having been 4-1 ahead, they collapsed to 4-3 in the closing stages, exhausted from their earlier exertions.
In both games, Liverpool won the battle in terms of pressing. Not merely in the manner they pressed City, but also, at Anfield, in terms of how they drew City's press and then played beyond it, particularly by playing balls in behind Otamendi. They were fortunate to be playing a City side without David Silva in that contest, but it was nevertheless impressive how their midfield trio competed with their opposite numbers and also backed up the forwards' pressure to cause City's defence problems in possession.
Guardiola will be hugely wary of losing the midfield battle once again, and while his basic system is unlikely to change dramatically, there's a significant chance he could switch to the approach he used in a crucial victory at Old Trafford just before Christmas: deploying Sane and Jesus, not Sterling, in the wide positions. Sterling, in turn, would move inside to become a "false nine," playing between the lines on the shoulder of Jordan Henderson, dissuading Liverpool's trio from pressing City's midfielders. City would be creating a four-against-three situation in the middle, effectively mimicking the approach Guardiola used at Barcelona, with Sterling playing the Lionel Messi role.
Indeed, that aforementioned victory at Old Trafford might prove more significant than either of these previous meetings. On that occasion, Aguero wasn't injured but simply omitted from the side, as Guardiola instead chose to deploy Sterling in that deeper position. It was a major moment that passed without too much analysis: City's record goal scorer jettisoned in order to put Sterling central. The fact Guardiola used that approach in City's toughest league game of the season (on paper) added extra significance, suggesting it might be his go-to "big game" tactic at the business end of the season.
Using Sterling centrally would also free him from the attentions of Andrew Robertson, who completely dominated Sterling, getting roundly booed by the home supporters, at Anfield. Robertson played well against a player who was looking to receive the ball to start City's attacks, but the use of Jesus (or Sane) out wide would test him in terms of speed, too. The role of the wingers here is likely to be largely functional, stretching the Liverpool back line to create space for others to break into, although Sane, who has scored three in the two games against Liverpool so far this season, also provides a serious goal threat too.
It is decisions like this that Guardiola is famed for, but we've rarely witnessed these decisions during his time as City boss, largely because he simply hasn't been involved in that many big matches. City were well off the pace in last season's title race and eliminated from the second round of the Champions League by Monaco. This season, they've dominated the Premier League to such an extent that Guardiola's tactical tricks have been kept up his sleeve instead.
Now, Guardiola must demonstrate precisely why he's regarded as the world's best manager. After winning the Champions League twice in his first three attempts, he's now on a run of five without success: it's hardly a disastrous record for any other manager in the world, but it's also not quite in keeping with Guardiola's grand reputation.
The two previous meetings between these sides have produced 12 goals, but Wednesday's first leg is likely to be considerably cagier and significantly more tactical. Jurgen Klopp, of course, will have his own tactical plans, likely to be related to pressing in a particular manner that exposes City. He'll surely look to expose the left-hand side of their defence, with Otamendi having struggled against Salah, and either Fabian Delph or Aymeric Laporte fielded in an unfamiliar role. The Egypt international will be crucial.
But it's Guardiola and Sterling who might provide the real tactical surprise. Sterling was suspended for the first fixture between the sides and largely anonymous in the second. The third, then, is time for him to sparkle, quite possibly at the top of a midfield diamond.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.