While Pep Guardiola was once considered an inflexible ideologue during his period with Barcelona, realistically the Manchester City manager is amongst the keenest tacticians around, spending hours researching the opposition before tweaking his side to exploit perceived weaknesses.
Indeed, Guardiola once said that his favourite part of coaching was the moment where, after locking himself away with videos of his upcoming opponent, he suddenly found the key to victory, the "eureka moment" that has inspired many successful performances with both Barca and Bayern.
Ahead of this weekend's match against Liverpool, Guardiola will surely have pinpointed one particular area where the game will be won and lost: the wide areas. The Catalan, having invested almost £125 million on three full-back/wing-backs this summer, must use those players intelligently this weekend and justify his staggering outlay.
As ever, little about Guardiola's starting system this weekend is certain. For the first two league games he started with a 3-5-2, before ditching that approach and going 4-3-3 against Bournemouth last time out. In truth, neither formation has worked particularly well for City so far, and questions persist about whether his players truly understand precisely what their manager wants.
Using a three-man defence this weekend, however, would be a huge gamble. Guardiola will have witnessed the way Arsenal's back three were ripped apart by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah a fortnight ago, and while his defence is unlikely to be as disorganised as the Gunners' was, using a three-man defence would expose his centre-backs to the sensational speed of Liverpool's wide forwards Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
It's difficult to imagine how Vincent Kompany, a player consistently uncomfortable when dragged out to wide areas, would survive against Mane -- although the Belgian is an injury doubt anyway -- or how often Nicolas Otamendi would manage to stay on his feet when challenging Salah. It would be a recipe for disaster, and that surely means a four-man defence.
The speed of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy should be perfect for coping with Liverpool's speedy duo. However, the problem for Guardiola is that if he uses those players in predominantly defensive positions, he doesn't have completely satisfactory wide options to attack Liverpool's own full-backs himself.
Upon Guardiola's arrival at City last year he was determined to use two outright wingers permanently stretching the play, but both Nolito and Jesus Navas returned to Spain in the summer, while Raheem Sterling is suspended following his controversial dismissal away at Bournemouth. That leaves only Leroy Sane, who will presumably be deployed from the left flank this weekend. On the other side, Bernardo Silva or Kevin De Bruyne might be fielded, but both are likely to drift inside rather than taking on the opposition full-back regularly.
Why is that a problem? Well, because Liverpool's full-back options aren't overwhelmingly impressive. At right-back, with Nathaniel Clyne expected to be out until at least Christmas, Jurgen Klopp is choosing between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez. Both are hugely promising players -- the former, in particular, has made a fine start to the campaign, although the latter seems more likely to be favoured for this game -- but Guardiola will nevertheless be interested in exploiting their lack of big-game experience.
On the left, Andrew Robertson is a fine technical footballer but is yet to be given a serious defensive test since moving to Anfield this summer. Alberto Moreno simply isn't trusted in big games, while James Milner's stint deputising at left-back appears to be over. Liverpool's full-backs are, if not their weakest players, certainly their least experienced. Guardiola will want to target them.
So what if Guardiola decides that the best players to exploit Liverpool's weaknesses at full-back are actually his own full-backs? Mendy and Walker are surely City's quickest and most direct players, and Mendy offers tremendous end product with clever cut-backs into the penalty box. Guardiola may work from front-to-back, deciding that this attacking need necessitates using Walker and Mendy as wing-backs, pushing high up the pitch to effectively become wingers, and therefore takes a risk in deeper positions with a back three.
A compromise would be to use two right-backs in tandem, deploying the attack-minded Danilo on the right flank, with Walker playing more conservatively and focusing upon stopping the speed of Mane. That approach would underline Guardiola's relative lack of options out wide.
Sterling could have left on deadline day in the club's attempts to land Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez -- though sources told ESPN FC that he will not be included in any future deal -- but the winger has provided two crucial late goals for City so far this season, and could have been useful against the Reds.
More than that, however, this dilemma summarises Guardiola's shift away from concentrating on dominating the centre of the pitch, towards more of an emphasis upon the flanks.
Back in his Barcelona days, Guardiola's main approach was ensuring his dominated the centre, always attempting to overload that zone with three conventional central midfielders, plus Lionel Messi or, in big games, Andres Iniesta drifting into midfield from different zones. The major task of the opposition manager was all about coping in that zone.
But this weekend it's all about the battle down the flanks. Klopp, similarly, has two tasks: ensuring his full-backs are as defensively solid as possible, while encouraging Mane and Salah to remain in attacking positions to speed down the flanks regularly.
This will become a familiar theme of Liverpool's season, as they appear to have the leakiest defence, but the most thrilling wide options, of the genuine Premier League challengers.
This seems set to be the most intriguing tactical battle of the Premier League campaign so far, and with Guardiola's reputation and resources, it's about time he formulated a plan that proved his painstaking attention-to-detail and constant tactical switches are working in City's favour.
After some forgettable performances so far, his selections out wide this weekend could define the rest of City's campaign.
Source: ESPN SPORTS