Firmino, Fernandinho injuries force Liverpool, Man City to make tweaks in midst of title race
During Manchester United and Liverpool's dull, goalless draw on Sunday afternoon, it was unquestionably Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side who were affected more damagingly by injuries, with three players limping off before half-time. In comparison, Liverpool lost only Roberto Firmino, who was seen departing Old Trafford on crutches.
In a wider context, though, it's the Firmino injury that carries more weight. The 0-0 draw might have been a disappointing result for Liverpool, but it took them to the top of the Premier League. The title remains in their hands, and the last thing they needed was an injury to their centre-forward.
The Brazilian's injury, it seems, is less serious than first feared. On Tuesday, Jurgen Klopp suggested that Firmino had an outside chance of making the midweek game against Watford, though the derby against Everton on Sunday was a more realistic return date. His absence, however brief, will force Klopp into some tactical tinkering.
Klopp's tactical decision-making on Sunday was questionable. When faced with replacing Firmino, Klopp opted for a natural centre-forward, Daniel Sturridge. He remains a useful penalty box striker, but Liverpool weren't even working the ball into the penalty box, and therefore the striker contributed almost nothing. It's easy to be wise in hindsight, but even at the time, the more logical replacement seemed to be Xherdan Shaqiri, who provides some invention and creativity in midfield.
This is what Liverpool are desperately lacking at the moment. The single biggest question about their starting XI this season has been the relative lack of creativity. Since the departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona last January, Liverpool have lacked a player capable of opening up a defence with an incisive pass. Klopp's side are actually superior overall without Coutinho, it's worth reiterating, but there are circumstances in which some extra ingenuity is required. Adam Lallana has been used sparingly, despite a wonderful piece of trickery in the build-up to Sadio Mane's goal at West Ham recently, and Shaqiri remains best-placed to come into Klopp's side in the absence of Firmino. The natural option would be for Shaqiri to play from the right flank, with Mohamed Salah moving up top.
But Klopp might need to be more inventive. Shaqiri is comfortable on the right flank, but he tends to be somewhat predictable when fielded in that position, always drifting inside onto his left foot, and threatening to shoot. To allow him more creative freedom, Klopp might be better off using Shaqiri centrally, as a more extreme false nine. With Liverpool struggling to progress the ball from midfield into shooting positions, this would effectively create a diamond while retaining the movement from wide positions offered by Mane and Salah.
Even if Firmino returns for the Watford game, Klopp must be giving serious consideration to using Shaqiri and returning to the 4-2-3-1 formation that has generally produced Liverpool's best displays this season. The 4-3-3 is Klopp's preference in big games against stronger opposition because it beefs up the midfield and provides more protection for the defence, but clean sheets aren't particularly valuable to Liverpool if they aren't scoring goals. Manchester City likely won't drop many points between now and the end of the campaign, and Liverpool need to address their shortcoming in terms of creativity. With or without Firmino, it is Shaqiri rather than Sturridge who appears to be the best solution for Liverpool's woes.
Fernandinho's injury could prove problematic for Guardiola, City
Manchester City's own injury setback for a Brazilian -- the absence of Fernandinho for, it seems, around three weeks -- might prove more serious. City have plenty of strength in various positions, but they lack a ready-made replacement for their first-choice holding midfielder -- hence their pursuit of Jorginho last summer and their recent interest in Frenkie de Jong, who has agreed to join Barcelona in the summer.
The obvious stand-in is Ilkay Gundogan, who has played the deepest midfield role on a number of occasions this season, including in various matches in which Fernandinho played a peculiar half-defender/half-midfielder hybrid role. That is arguably the greater issue, considering it has become one of Guardiola's favourite tactical tricks. Gundogan, for all his qualities, won't be entrusted with that kind of role.
It's a particular issue because Fernandinho isn't the only one injured. John Stones is expected to miss City's next couple of matches, while Aymeric Laporte is another who could be unavailable until after the international break in the latter half of March. Now, Guardiola is relying upon Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany. That's hardly a disaster, but the latter rarely looks comfortable playing a series of matches in quick succession.
In positive terms, however, the introduction of Gundogan might improve City's possession play. Fernandinho, for all his qualities, has often made errors when City have played out from the back this season, regularly trying to compensate for a poor touch with a quick foul. The most notable example of this came in the shock defeat away at Newcastle, and there was another example in the Carabao Cup final against Chelsea.
Gundogan doesn't offer Fernandinho's positional quality, and he doesn't disrupt the opposition's play quite so effectively, but he's certainly more composed on the ball. Comfortable receiving possession on the half-turn and easing past opposition challenges, Gundogan forms a remarkably technical midfield trio alongside David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. That said, with City lacking Fernandinho's battling qualities, Guardiola might be more inclined to field Bernardo Silva centrally in upcoming weeks. Sometimes shifted out to the right flank, the Portuguese international is more effective than Silva and De Bruyne at scurrying after opponents and putting his foot in -- not typical qualities that Guardiola looks for but qualities that could be more necessary now.
Fortunately, City aren't being overly tested in their upcoming matches. This midweek, they're at home to West Ham before a trip to Bournemouth and a home contest against Watford. West Ham have some creative midfield talents, while the trip to the south coast means having to cope with Ryan Fraser's clever positioning. But Gundogan should be comfortable enough against sides of this calibre, as City will average around 70 percent of the possession, and it's nearly two months before City face one of the Premier League's other big six: Tottenham in mid-April. By then, Fernandinho should have returned, perhaps having benefited from a delayed winter break.