De Bruyne vs Thiago Alcantara: Man City and Liverpool's potential title-deciders

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Kevin De Bruyne Thiago Alcantara Manchester City Liverpool 2021-22 GFXGetty/GOAL

It is not hyperbolic to suggest this might be the biggest match in Premier League history.

Rarely do we get genuine to-the-wire title battles, let alone head-to-heads that seem almost certain to decide which team will lift the trophy.

The emerging rivalry between Manchester City and Liverpool is certainly the most high-quality English football has ever seen, and the two manager's contrasting styles have given us some of the sport's greatest moments over the last five years.

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But for all the talk of Liverpool and Manchester City being an evenly-balanced rivalry, Pep Guardiola has increasingly taken control of this fixture.

Jurgen Klopp will be acutely aware that his side have won just one of their last eight meetings and that the matches themselves are becoming more one-sided over time.

Earlier this season at Anfield, Mohamed Salah's genius dragged Liverpool into the game and earned them a 2-2 draw, but for long periods – particularly in the first half – Man City were dominant.

They should have put the game to bed in the opening 30 minutes, picking up from where they left off in the game before, a thumping 4-1 win at the Etihad.

It has been a long time since Klopp's furious pressing and cutting attacking transitions caused Guardiola serious problems; a long time since City would concede three or four in short blitzes. 

Pep Guardiola Manchester City Liverpool Premier League 2021-22 GFX

It might have slipped under the radar but Guardiola has found a way to tame Liverpool, deploying a cautious back three (Kyle Walker stays deep) to control against the counters as well as provide wide passing options to circumnavigate Liverpool's narrow forwards. 

But Klopp has an ace up his sleeve, a way to control this fixture a little more.

It is no coincidence that Man City's late flurry of goals in their 4-1 win last season came after Thiago Alcantara was substituted.

The Spaniard was taken off in the 68th minute with the score at 1-1. Liverpool essentially fell apart without him.

Thiago missed the 2-2 draw altogether and, in his absence, Liverpool couldn't evade the City press and build their way up the pitch.

Man City penned them in, before targeting right-back James Milner by instructing false nine Jack Grealish to double up on the left with Phil Foden.

That should not happen this time, not with Thiago on the pitch for the full 90.

His press-resistance in central midfield and unique capacity to break the lines even when surrounded by on-rushing opponents makes him arguably Klopp's most important player.

Thiago takes total control of games, ensuring Liverpool retain a territorial advantage and play with verticality and urgency, wriggling clear of the press to set his team-mates away.

Thiago Alcantara Liverpool Watford Premier League 2021-22 GF

And the stats would back that up. Liverpool have won all 12 Premier League matches this season in which Thiago has started.

He makes 11.12 progressive passes per 90, the most among Premier League midfielders, and 14.5 passes under pressure per 90, second behind Rodri.

He is undoubtedly the key to Klopp redressing the balance, preventing Man City from swarming, and giving Liverpool a foothold in the game.

And intriguingly, his direct opponent on that left side of central midfield happens to Man City's most important player: Kevin De Bruyne.

The Belgian will occupy the same half-space as Thiago, and considering the likelihood that the Liverpool midfielder will help his team weave away from pressure to counter – creating an end-to-end game – their tussle for space will travel the length of the pitch and back again.

The sight of De Bruyne steaming into open grass is rare, but not against Liverpool; Guardiola allows his team to play more directly than usual in this fixture.

Thiago's capacity to track De Bruyne as he does so will be crucial, although perhaps of more relevance is how the Liverpool midfielder deals with De Bruyne's unusual movement out to the right.

Few No.8s in world football play quite so far out to one side.

Kevin De Bruyne Manchester City Atletico Madrid Champions League 2021-22 GFX

De Bruyne often takes up the position of a traditional right-winger, crossing and assisting from the pocket of space around the corner of the penalty area.

This is of particular significance to Liverpool because their narrow 4-3-3 demands a lot of the two central midfielders either side of Fabinho.

Thiago's work getting out to meet De Bruyne when he peels wide could prove decisive, especially considering Andrew Robertson will have his hands full with Riyad Mahrez.

Thiago versus De Bruyne aside, it is difficult to predict where this game will be won or lost because so much will rest on in-game changes.

In a frantic contest, Klopp and Guardiola will react and counter-react to one another, as they always do.

It is worth noting that the 4-1 wasn't just about Thiago leaving the pitch. It was also the result of Guardiola switching to a 4-4-2 with two false nines, puzzling the Liverpool players.

We should prepare ourselves for more surprises on Sunday.

But whatever the outcome, and however the action unfolds at the Etihad, more than likely one of Thiago or De Bruyne will have been the catalyst; the match and title-winner for their side.