It seems nobody believes there will be a twist on Sunday – and that Manchester City will ease their way to a fourth Premier League title in five years.
True, Man City are heavy favourites to beat an Aston Villa side with nothing left to play for and in fairly poor form, and Pep Guardiola’s team have not failed to win consecutive league games all season.
The 2-2 draw with West Ham United is a blip unlikely to be repeated.
But that is only one reading.
On four separate occasions in 2021-22 Man City have failed to win consecutive matches across different competitions, each one a mini-dry spell in which the football slowed down and Man City looked a little too hesitant to break down stubborn defences.
That is what Aston Villa, and Liverpool, will be banking on this weekend and tactical analysis suggests it is by no means a foregone conclusion...
Stifling Villa midfield could increase nerves
If Villa can hold steady for the first 15 minutes (Man City have raced out of the blocks over the last couple of months) then final-day tension will start to play a part.
After all, on occasion this season, Man City have struggled against a rigid and compact opposition defence – lacking the striker needed to pull the shell out of position and play with speed.
Villa would like to play an expansive game under Steven Gerrard, yet they are actually better when forced to simplify their approach with a deeper shape and counterattacking strategy.
Their capacity to sit 11 men behind the ball and shuffle across, forcing City into slow and sideways possession, is the key to ramping up nerves and producing games like their draws against Southampton and Crystal Palace.
The likelihood of Villa success is increased by Gerrard’s very narrow midfield formation.
Either in a diamond 4-4-2 or Christmas Tree 4-3-2-1, Villa will have four midfield bodies crammed into the middle column of the pitch, which is precisely how to defend against a Man City team that build their attacks through Rodri, Kevin de Bruyne, and Bernardo Silva.
Villa’s shape can surround Rodri, while the energy of John McGinn and Marvelous Nakamba gives the visitors genuine hope of shutting down the half-spaces and creating a stodgy, uncomfortable game.
It is worth noting that it took an incredible volley from Silva to win the reverse fixture, in which Man City were restricted to an xG of just 1.02 in a 2-1 win.
Watkins and Ings can get in behind
But if Villa simply sit back and look to frustrate, they will eventually be broken down, and indeed to stand a chance of taking points from Man City, Gerrard’s side surely need to score a goal.
Fortunately for them, they have pretty much the perfect strategy for doing so.
Kyle Walker’s injury had a big impact on West Ham’s 2-2 draw last weekend; Man City need his recovery speed for their ultra-high defensive line to work and, in his absence, Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen both regularly got in behind.
Gerrard will have noted how David Moyes did this, and will instruct Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings to make runs together on the shoulder of the last defender.
With Ruben Dias ruled out through injury and John Stones unlikely to be match fit, Guardiola will either have to start Fernanindho – torn apart by Antonio – or Nathan Ake, who doesn’t have a lot of experience in the Man City back-line.
But for Watkins and Ings to make the most of this injury-hit defence, they will need accurate and quick distribution on the counter, which may be a stumbling block for Villa.
Much rests, then, on whether can get McGinn on the ball in enough space to hit longer passes over the top, and if Philippe Coutinho or Emiliano Buendia can wriggle away from Rodri to break alongside the two strikers.
Again, the chances of it leading to goals – to more or equal than City’s tally – is low, but of all the teams outside the ‘Big Six’ who could take advantage of Man City’s weakness in defending sharp counterattacks, Aston Villa might just be the team Liverpool would have chosen for their rivals to face.
Liverpool should have no problem beating Wolves
Wolves are on a six-match winless run and as the season winds down appear to have run out of ideas.
In fact, things have slowed ever since Adama Traore’s departure, because without his speed Wolves don’t have enough pace or verticality to counterattack – leading to some pretty lifeless performances.
What’s more, their 3-4-2-1 formation looks more like a flat 5-2-2-1 when penned in by a top side, which means large amounts of space tend to open up on the outside Wolves’ two-man central midfield.
That is what happened in their recent 5-1 defeat to Man City, who dominated the half-spaces through Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and Phil Foden.
Mohamed Salah and Luis Diaz ought to be able to get on the ball in the same areas and cause damage, pushing a hesitant – and on the beach – Wolves team into its lacklustre defensive shell.
Liverpool, then, will get their job done at Anfield. Many inside the stadium will assume they need a miracle for that to be enough to win the title, but pundits have written Villa off far too easily.
Gerrard has the tactical strategy to target Man City’s flaws and give us one of the most dramatic final days in Premier League history.