If there are similarities between Manchester City and Liverpool at the back, their midfields could hardly be more different. Whereas the champions fill the middle of the park with stardust, the challengers fill it with stodge.
If you were picking a five-a-side team, Georginio Wijnaldum would not be selected over David Silva, Jordan Henderson would not get in over Bernardo Silva, James Milner would not be picked over Kevin De Bruyne. Milner might even drily admit as much.
Yet to reduce comparisons to whether one player is simply ‘better’ than another ignores the very different purposes they serve. It would be negligent of Pep Guardiola not to demand invention, creativity and match-winning individual contributions from his ‘number eights’ given their supreme talent. Likewise, given the dynamism and speed Liverpool possess up front and out wide, it makes sense for Klopp to balance his system by muddying up the middle of the park.
As we have already seen, Liverpool’s playmaker-in-chief is their right-back. Trent Alexander-Arnold is the only player in the Premier League currently rivalling De Bruyne for creativity. But in order to be this effective in the final third, he surrenders space in behind. He and Andy Robertson are expected to sprint back and recover if they are caught out of position, but they can also count on covering runs and protection from Henderson and Wijnaldum.
These two, alongside Milner, have been known as ‘the Brexit midfield’ by some supporters. It is not meant to be a sympathetic nickname but, amid the noise and fury of Klopp’s high-octane style, their job is to take back control.
Due to Liverpool dominating possession in the vast majority of games, these players do not post impressive raw defensive statistics, but their work covering space horizontally and vertically, pressing opponents when out of possession and supplying the full-backs and forwards when on the ball.
Many credit the signing of Virgil van Dijk with transforming Klopp’s Liverpool into an impressive defensive unit but it coincided with Philippe Countinho’s sale to Barcelona and the gradual adoption of a more conservative midfield set-up. Once a three-man combination of Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner or holding midfielder Fabinho became the default at the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Liverpool’s defensive record was exemplary and eventually the third-best in Premier League history.
The result is that Liverpool rarely move the ball forward through the centre of midfield. Combine Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner and Fabinho’s league assists last year and you fall short of Robertson’s total, let alone Alexander-Arnold’s. This is totally in-keeping with Klopp’s belief that “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing”. It also perhaps explains why the more adventurous Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita are only considered to be rotations options, for now at least.
Guardiola’s ‘number eights’ are given an entirely different brief. While Wijnaldum played around nine successful passes in the final third for every 90 minutes he played last year. David Silva played 29. Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner set up seven league goals combined, while De Bruyne already has nine assists to his name this season. Injury permitting, he will expect to surpass Thierry Henry’s Premier League record of 20 set during the 2002-03 campaign.
He and Silva - who is a doubt for Sunday's game - are far from City’s only sources of inspiration. Assists are shared around in a fluid system, with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero contributing too, but their priority is to create openings and craft opportunities for their team-mates.
This is partly because of the advanced positions they occupy. De Bruyne and Silva are not traditional central midfielders but more like two No 10s who sit just outside the penalty area when City are in possession and occupy the half-spaces. These are the inside-left and inside-right channels, vertical lanes running the full length of the pitch parallel to the edge of the six-yard box and penalty area, where De Bruyne and Silva often find space and time to pick their way through an opposition defence.
De Bruyne has proved particularly deadly from these areas this year. Six of his nine assists have come from the inside-right channel, so too have the vast majority of his touches. He is capable of stepping back from a well-set defence and crossing for team-mates inside the penalty area - as for City’s first goal in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in August - or he can drive in behind a defence and cut back from the byline - as he did for their second. “He sees things others cannot see on the pitch, or even off the pitch,” Guardiola said of the Belgian recently. “He’s a special player.”
If there is one Liverpool midfielder that Guardiola might happily take off Klopp’s hands, it is Fabinho. Since adjusting to English football midway through last season, he has arguably been the Premier League’s leading holding midfielder. Liverpool are yet to lose a game which he has started.
“Inside the ‘organised chaos’ that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse,” Pep Lijnders, Klopp’s assistant, has said of the Brazilian. “His timing, his vision, his calmness, it gives another dimension to our midfield play.”
The holding midfielder - or ‘number six’ - is arguably the most important in Guardiola’s entire set-up, not least because it was his own role once and therefore one he knows intimately well. Fernandinho excelled in the position during City’s two title-winning campaigns but at 34-years-old even he could not be relied upon to play another 50-plus game season in this side’s demanding position. The long search for a replacement ended with Rodri’s arrival but the £62m signing from Atletico Madrid struggled with the particular positioning the role demands before suffering a thigh injury.
Rodri’s absence means Ilkay Gundogan will most likely play on Sunday. Gundogan was Guardiola’s first City signing, is one of the players most closely aligned to his manager’s playing style and was wanted by Klopp, only to opt for the Etihad rather than Anfield. And yet, he splits opinion among City’s fanbase.
Whereas every other City midfielder has a specific skill, Gundogan does not create, press or win the ball outstandingly well. He is comparable to Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner in that regard - a dependable but unspectacular performer - yet he will be the one who has to knit City’s play together in what could be the definitive game of their season.