Imagine the process of staying up to study for a test. It's something you've surely done countless times whether you're young or old, but in this scenario there's a catch: you have no idea what subject to study or what type of test you'll be taking. All you know is that this one exam decides your entire grade, and you've been dreading it since you first saw it on the syllabus last August.
Luckily for you that was just a forced analogy and you are not Manuel Pellegrini, because his task on Sunday is unenviable. As visitors to a stadium that has been near impenetrable for opponents this season, Manchester City will likely be the reactionary side, having to quickly adapt to whatever Brendan Rodgers trots out. Rodgers has fostered immense versatility at Liverpool this year, making it difficult for City to prepare for the upcoming match.
It's uncertain how Liverpool will approach the game even in a stylistic sense because of the chameleon nature of their identity. People used to think that Rodgers possessed a singular style a la Barcelona, but the Reds have proved that theory completely inaccurate. In reality, Liverpool rarely play a strict possession based game, often relying on counter attacks to create goal scoring opportunities. Their style changes distinctly from matchup to matchup, and therefore the general approach on Sunday will be totally different from the one we saw against West Ham. Many teams, even those who've excelled on the biggest stages of Europe, are hindered by singular identities, and I think it works to Liverpool's advantage that they can surprise City with a slightly different emphasis.
In a similar vein, Pellegrini won't know how aggressive Liverpool will come out, which again works to the Reds advantage. Liverpool need all three points, but will Rodgers play the 4-3-3 or the more conservative 4-3-1-2/4-1-2-1-2 diamond? Rodgers could also roll with something completely unexpected, although I hope that he doesn't end up outthinking himself. The point is that Liverpool aren't shoehorned into a game plan that's easy to prepare for, and this flexibility makes it hard for City to anticipate their opponent and allows the Reds to fluidly alter their setup mid-match if things are going poorly.
With a healthy squad, Rodgers can play with his pawns. Liverpool's defensive approach hinges on the decision between Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho. The Agger-Skrtel partnership had been excellent until Agger missed the the West Ham game, and Agger matches up better with Sergio Aguero, who is set to return from his own injury. Agger also provides Liverpool with finesse and quickness, but Sakho could be chosen if Rodgers opts to cut out either Edin Dzeko or Alvaro Negredo's aerial game.
In the midfield, two out of Sterling, Coutinho, Allen, and Lucas will be chosen. Each of those players comes with a unique skill set, presenting another difficulty for Pelligrini, since he won't know the type of midfield he's up against until shortly before kickoff. If I had my choice I'd go with Sterling for his pace and Allen for his solidity, but Brendan commonly surprises us (and his opponents).
It's great to have options ahead of a big game, and I wouldn't be surprised if Pelligrini, for all of his good work, is slightly unsettled as tries to decipher his upstart opposition. Liverpool's versatility makes them a far more dangerous team than they appear on paper, one that's incredibly challenging for the title, and hopefully on Sunday, Brendan takes the blue side of Manchester to school.