Liverpool's rivals in Manchester were always United but it will soon be City
Ahead of Raheem Sterling's return to his former club Liverpool, there will be plenty of debate over the difference between Liverpool-era Sterling and City-era Sterling, along with questions about precisely how he's improved so much. But that's a slightly false debate -- or, at least, it's not the most interesting debate.
The key is precisely what has changed between last season and this. After all, Sterling was playing under Pep Guardiola last season yet his performances were entirely unremarkable -- better than in his first Manchester City campaign under Manuel Pellegrini but considerably worse than his previous best season, in Liverpool's nearly campaign of 2013-14.
The answer is relatively simple: Sterling's role at City has changed subtly, but significantly.
When Guardiola arrived in English football, he was determined to create a side reminiscent of Louis van Gaal's mid-1990s Ajax side: two wingers who remained near the touchlines, stretching the play whenever possible and charging down the outside of the opposition full-backs. This created gaps between defenders, perfect for the forward runs of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, playmakers who were re-deployed in central midfield roles.
That system was partly a consequence of City's limited full-back options. Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy were all the wrong side of 30, no longer possessing the stamina to motor up and down the touchlines relentlessly for 90 minutes; the only true "over-lapper" in the group, Kolarov, was generally used at centre-back anyway. The full-backs sometimes drifted inside to become central midfielders, which meant the width came from the wingers and therefore, Sterling was largely positioned out wide. It all makes sense but these days, key contributions rarely come from those zones.
This season, City have used a different approach -- more similar to the way Guardiola played with Barcelona -- and the width is provided from deeper.
At the start of the campaign, Guardiola surprisingly used a 3-5-2 formation (which actually excluded Sterling from the starting XI on the opening day) but Sterling netted crucial late goals against Everton and Bournemouth. The 3-5-2 was unquestionably bad for Sterling, who no longer had a natural position in the side, but it also demonstrated that Guardiola had speedy full-backs (newcomers Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy) who could be re-deployed as wing-backs. Therefore, when Guardiola returned to a system featuring wingers, they'd be able to drift inside more often.
Sterling's goals against Everton and Bournemouth were both struck from a central position and on both occasions, the ball was played into the box from wide-right positions by Danilo, deputising for Walker. That foreshadowed the nature of his strikes over the next few weeks: they were all essentially "poacher's goals." The Everton strike came after a cross was half-cleared while the Bournemouth winner was a very fortunate deflected, close-range effort.
His third goal of the season, against Watford, was a late penalty in a 6-0 win. His next four -- two against Palace, one against Stoke and another at West Brom -- were all struck from point-blank range and three of them were open goals that, as the pundits might suggest, their grandparents could have scored. Their grandparents, however, probably wouldn't have got themselves into the right positions, which is key to Sterling's goal tally.
Sterling's enhanced role in Man City's optimised formation has contributed to his goal flurry.
Sterling's next strike, a late winner at Huddersfield and his eighth of the Premier League campaign, was another open goal... and barely even a shot. Gabriel Jesus' effort was saved with the rebound bouncing off Sterling and looping in. Sheer luck, perhaps, but this was Sterling's most telling goal as 10 seconds before the ball pinged into the net, right-back Walker found himself receiving possession in a narrow position, almost in central midfield. This was the Manchester City of last season: full-back narrow, winger wide.
But what happened next reversed the situation. Walker played the ball wide to Sterling and immediately made a very deliberate overlapping run around him. This allowed Sterling inside; he attempted a one-two with De Bruyne but the return ball didn't quite come. It fell first to Jesus, then to Sterling and then into the net.
As Sterling naturally wheeled away in celebration towards the left flank, the direction he was running in anyway, he suddenly performed a U-turn and darted towards Walker who was still located on the right flank. It might have been coincidence, perhaps, but Walker's positioning was the reason for Sterling's goal -- and the reason for his huge improvement.
With the arguable exception of his Everton strike on the opening weekend, none of Sterling's finishes until this point were remotely difficult, which is somewhat typical of a player who had previously appeared strangely incapable in front of goal. In truth, his shots-to-goals statistics were never disastrous but he sometimes lacked the ability to generate sufficient power. He wasn't slamming shots against the post but scuffing them into defenders, a level of incompetence that the statistics arguably overlook.
But Sterling has always appeared something of a confidence player and getting these "easy" goals, thus improving his scoring tally, has seemingly made him more refined when attempting difficult shots. His curled winner against Southampton, for example, was an entirely different goal that owed more to execution than position.
Two goals against Spurs were more simple but then his strikes against Bournemouth (from a wider position than the majority of goals) and against Newcastle, a volley from a straight pass squeezed in from an acute angle, were both genuinely fine finishes. Technical concerns are no longer seem a problem.
This appears an improvement in three very different respects: tactical, psychological and technical. It appears to have occurred in that order, too, with his improved technique seemingly following from improved confidence, which owes much to simple goals from a different tactical role.
Sterling's improvement isn't about how Guardiola has changed him from his Liverpool days but about how Guardiola has changed City from last season.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.
David Moyes insists he is in no hurry to sell any of his misfiring strikers amid reports West Ham are open to offers for Javier Hernandez, Andy Carroll, Diafra Sakho and Andre Ayew.
The quartet have notched a paltry 11 Premier League goals between them so far this season.
Mexico front man Hernandez has cut a frustrated figure during his increasingly rare appearances in the starting line-up with Moyes preferring to play wingers Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic in attack since he took over in November.
But West Ham would want to recoup a large chunk of the £16 million they paid Bayer Leverkusen last summer were "Chicharito" to leave.
"I think the form of Marko and Michail has probably made it difficult," added Moyes. "When I joined -- and I've only been here nine or 10 weeks -- Javier was injured and we had to go with Marko and Michail up front and they have both done well.
"He's a really good player, his finishing ability is as good as there is anywhere, he thrives on balls in the box and maybe in a lot of games we haven't had that service to give him.
"But you'd be hard pushed to say that he would necessarily be playing in front of the other two at the moment."
Sakho, who tried to join French club Rennes in the summer only for a move to fall through, has been linked with a move to Crystal Palace.
But Moyes said: "I'm not aware of that at all. I know there has been talk of it, but Diafra is injured so I can't give an update on it.
"There has been talks, everyone has been aware of that for quite a long time here, but we are more than happy to keep Diafra. We like him and there is no problem if he is still here.
"I don't want any of them to go. We need to add to our squad. My intention is not to let anyone go.
"What I will say is we have four or five strikers and the competition is tough for all of them. But I'm happy with that. It would take an awful lot of money in this window to prise them out."
Whether Alexis Sanchez joins Manchester City or Manchester United is essentially meaningless for Arsenal.
If he does take an early exit in January, rather than waiting for his contract to wind down, it will either be to a club far out of Arsenal's reach or to a club even further out of Arsenal's reach. To describe either Manchester club as a rival to an Arsenal side scrapping in sixth, mired in the Europa League and being eliminated from the FA Cup by Nottingham Forest would be an insult to logic and reality.
The latest reports in this breathless saga have Manchester City refusing to meet Arsenal's financial demands and preparing to walk away from any deal; they are unwilling to match the £35m demanded by Arsenal and instead want to pay £20m. Either way, it's considerably cheaper than the £60m they agreed to back in the summer so let's not discount a move to the Etihad just yet.
The breaking news, though, will focus some minds on what has been painted as the nightmare scenario. The prospect of Sanchez going to United in the manner that Robin van Persie once did seems completely unconscionable to some Arsenal supporters. But losing Van Persie in the summer of 2012 was a monumental disaster: Wenger selling his captain to Sir Alex Ferguson, his greatest rival in football.
Wenger would no doubt find it unpalatable to lose a player of Sanchez's quality to Jose Mourinho, but the comparison falls down thereafter. Sanchez has six months left on his contract so he has all the negotiating power, and while five-and-a-half years ago Arsenal still maintained the presence of being a serious elite club, they no longer can.
Whenever Sanchez goes, it will be to a bigger club with bigger prospects and bigger plans. City or United -- who really cares? Arsenal won't be competing with either at the top level any time soon.
What Arsenal do have to consider carefully is who they replace Sanchez with -- and potentially Theo Walcott, of course, who is in talks with Everton over a permanent deal too. If both players leave in January, it will blow a considerable hole in Arsenal's attacking ranks.
With Danny Welbeck never looking like he's going on a prolific run, Alex Iwobi attracting the wrong headlines and Alexandre Lacazette going eight games without a goal, things don't look particularly promising on that front. A new forward, or maybe even two, is going to be essential.
Strangely enough, transfers are the one area of football operations that Arsenal can approach with any sense of renewed optimism. With a new power structure in place following the appointments of Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi as head of recruitment and head of football relations respectively, there should be a newfound competency in both identifying and acquiring new players in the coming years.
Mislintat's first spot was young defender Konstantinos Mavropanos, who was an unused substitute for the League Cup quarterfinal first leg against Chelsea in midweek, which ended 0-0. He has so impressed Wenger already that a prospective loan move in January has been shelved so he can start with the first-team until the summer at least. It's a promising step, but no more than that.
Instead, the biggest test of any recruitment department is trying to find a quality forward who is going to be a regular source of goals -- at a reasonable price -- and that is precisely the task facing Arsenal if Sanchez does depart. They will have to replace the club's best player and won't even have a big injection of cash to help, with Sanchez's prospective transfer fee a paltry amount for a player of his quality.
So Mislintat and Sanllehi have walked into a nightmare scenario. The latter does not technically start work until February but given he helped Barcelona to navigate one of the most complicated, and controversial, transfers in recent history with their signing of Neymar from Santos, any advance input would probably be welcomed as Arsenal try and fill a Sanchez-sized hole in their team.
Bordeaux's Malcom has already been named as a likely target, but January is not always the best time to buy new players, particularly at the top of the market. However, with three competitions still in play it is hard to see how Arsenal can avoid it, if indeed Walcott and Sanchez both leave.
Whichever Manchester club Arsenal's best player decides to join, the real challenge comes in finding an adequate replacement.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport
Tyrone Mings has revealed the extent of the racist abuse he regularly receives on social media.
The Bournemouth defender says he has received thousands of racist posts online, and has hit out at how that can be allowed to continue.
Mings received a retrospective five-match suspension for stamping on Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic in March last year, and has revealed online abuse hit new heights afterwards.
"Clearly people think they can get away with things on social media that they wouldn't get away with on the street," Mings told The i. "If someone was racist to me in the street, you'd be a lot more shocked. Which is strange, because social media is real.
"I got thousands of messages. Thousands and thousands and thousands on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Private messages. Personal stuff: derogatory terms, offensive language, you're this and you're that, you shouldn't be alive, this is what's going to happen to your family. It's far too easy to target people on social media.
"You'll see the majority of replies to that sort of thing is positive -- people defending me, or criticising the other person.
"But there are some that are just completely pathetic. I show my friends occasionally and they'll read through it and be like, 'How are people allowed to get away with stuff like this?' My family are worse.
"This is also what people don't realise: my mum will read comments, it might not affect me but if it affects my mum -- and it's upsetting -- that's not right. I feel they only do it because social media gives them a voice and a screen to hide behind."
Liverpool's teenage forward Rhian Brewster recently told The Guardian of a host of incidents of racist abuse he has suffered in the game.
Mings has not experienced any racist abuse in person while at Bournemouth, but admitted to suffering two incidents during his stint at Ipswich.
"Player-to-player I think the numbers (of racial abuse incidents) would be really low, which is positive, credit to the organisations, like Kick It Out, who do great work and have done over the years, to get to the stage now where in 2018 numbers are impressive," said Mings.
"But if you look at fans and social media and those numbers there, there's certainly a lot more that can be done in terms of punishment.
"Someone might go on Twitter and write a racist tweet and get banned from Twitter. OK, they're banned from Twitter, I'm not sure Twitter is their whole life.
"If they are found to be guilty of that then it should come with repercussions from the police. If it happened on the street it would."
There is a shift happening in the north west. It is not just the balance of power in the Premier League that has altered. Manchester City have changed the landscape of the domestic game and they're also beginning to redefine the rivalries in English football, too.
The great Manchester-Merseyside duels have traditionally been contested by United and Liverpool. It is arguably the most dramatic matchup of the season even if it frequently produces dull games. At Anfield, however, attention is shifting away from Old Trafford towards the Etihad. City are not just the team to beat; they're also the club setting the standards off the pitch. When the sides meet in front of the Kop on Sunday, the packed crowd will witness another episode of a showdown that is becoming more intense by the year.
This has been City's decade. Anfield has struggled to match their progression. It is a scenario that John W. Henry, Liverpool's principal owner, foresaw and feared when he took control of the club eight years ago. In one of his first public statements, Henry made a clear allusion to City when discussing the challenge of keeping his new team financially competitive. "I do not have Sheikh in front of my name," he said.
City, of course, are owned by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. The investment from the Middle East has transformed City from Manchester United's struggling neighbours into the most powerful force in England. This has caused resentment among the game's traditional powerhouses but it is simplistic to believe that City's progression, and the growing rivalry with Liverpool, is all about cash.
Almost a decade into the "project" in east Manchester, there are clear signs that the club's planning has produced a successful outcome. Not only have City spent well in the transfer market but the creation of the Etihad Campus has allowed them to build an impressive academy system that is beginning to produce graduates capable of playing for the first team. The entire set-up was designed to entice the world's best players and managers, with Pep Guardiola's arrival two years ago showing that the policy is working.
City are extending their reach, too, with a worldwide network of clubs that bear their name. A framework is being built to create global domination. And it is happening on Liverpool's doorstep.
Klopp and Liverpool consider Man City and Guardiola to be their biggest rivals.
Overall, there is a mixture of admiration and exasperation towards City from Anfield. The teams are competing for the same young players and the Etihad's aggressive youth recruitment policy has irked Liverpool. City's spending power is a source of envy and animosity. The clubs are allies in the ongoing attempt by the "Big Six" to restructure the finances of the Premier League -- most notably by changing the way overseas TV rights are allotted -- and Henry admires and respects Ferran Soriano, the Etihad's chief executive. Yet Liverpool understand that City present the biggest threat to their ambitions.
On the terraces, United are the team to beat but in the boardroom, City are the targets.
Liverpool's planning has been haphazard over the years of Henry's ownership. The strategy has been vague and subject to sudden changes of tack, while City have worked to much clearer objectives.
Transactions in the transfer window illustrate this. Last summer, Henry and his Fenway Sports Group consortium were determined to keep Philippe Coutinho at Anfield, even going to the lengths of issuing a statement that the Brazil international would not be allowed to leave. Days into the January window, Coutinho was off to Barcelona for a package that could be worth £142 million. There was no obvious replacement lined up when the deal was completed and the decision was down to Jurgen Klopp. If there is a masterplan at work, there is little evidence of its genius.
Liverpool's response has been to approach Red Bull Leipzig in an attempt to bring Naby Keita to Anfield earlier than agreed. They paid £54 million for the midfielder last summer while allowing him to stay in Germany for an extra season. To do this, they will have to pay another premium of up to £18m. Many sneered when City bought Kyle Walker from Tottenham Hotspur for £50m last year, saying that Guardiola had overpaid for the wing-back. Walker has been a very useful addition to the City team and has been an impressive cog in the side's dominant first half of the season. Liverpool, by contrast, are trying to overpay by installment for a man who was expensive anyway and has not yet kicked a ball for the club.
Klopp is arguably second only to Guardiola in terms of glamour and pulling power for potential recruits. This is one area where Liverpool have shown long-term thinking, signing the former Dortmund manager up until 2022. The 50-year-old has built a side that is almost as dynamic and exciting going forward as the Catalan's team. With United under-performing, Chelsea moving through another period of uncertainty over Antonio Conte's future, Spurs still suffering growing pains and Arsenal directionless, Liverpool have the opportunity to put some pressure on City. Yet they still lag a long way behind Guardiola's side.
On Sunday, the hosts need to make a statement at Anfield. Even though their other top-six rivals will retool and present strong opposition to Klopp's side over the coming seasons, Liverpool see themselves as the team to challenge the Etihad's dominance in the medium-term. The rivalry will grow but only if Klopp can land a blow on City.
United may always be considered the traditional enemy from Manchester by Liverpudlians, but they know behind closed doors at Anfield that City have become the team to beat. Both now and in the future.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.