Manchester City vs Liverpool draft: Picking our XIs from Premier League’s two best squads

Forget Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. While it doesn’t have the political or cultural or sporting history of the aforementioned El ClasicoLiverpool vs. Manchester City is the best rivalry in European soccer right now: arguably the two best teams in the world, duking it out across multiple competitions.

It needs a better name — any suggestions? — but the high-stakes matchups between the two have not disappointed: Liverpool’s 4-1 win in January 2018; the electric Champions League quarterfinal tie that same year; City’s Hawkeye-aided victory that ultimately clinched the league title for them in January 2019; City’s 4-1 demolition of a reeling Liverpool last February; and this season’s thrilling, back-and-forth four-goal second half at Anfield. The best players and best managers in the world really do seem to bring out the best in each other.

This year, in particular, both squads seem to be deeper and more tactically diverse than ever before. Both City and Liverpool go two-deep and sometimes three-deep with great players at almost every position on the field, and it’s led to this: with eight games remaining, the two sides are one point apart and Sunday’s meeting at the Etihad is the closest thing the Premier League will get to a title match.

So, ahead of arguably the highest stakes high-stakes game between Jurgen Klopp’s and Pep Guardiola’s sides yet, Mark Ogden and I decided to team up and draft our own teams from the pool of Liverpool and City players. Who goes first? Who goes last? Who gets snubbed? Keep reading to find out.


O’Hanlon selects … Virgil van Dijk, center-back, Liverpool. I know I’m supposed to be the “numbers guy” here or whatever, but we’re trying to corner the market on immaculate, winning vibes with the first overall pick.

There aren’t any data points that truly quantify VVD’s impact. Well, other than this one: with the gigantic Dutchman in the lineup, Liverpool have collected results at a 38-game pace of 93 points since he arrived in January 2018. Only five teams in Premier League history have won more than 93 points in a season.

With VVD mopping up counterattacks, scaring opponents into paralysis, spreading possession calmly and powering in goals off set pieces, he raises our ceiling and floor in a way that no other center-back in the world can.

Ogden selects … Mohamed Salah, forward, Liverpool. I can’t argue with Ryan’s first pick. Despite the strength of both squads, Van Dijk would probably be the first name on any team sheet, and I do wonder how much City regret pulling out of the race to sign him from Southampton in January 2018. Had City signed Van Dijk, just where would Liverpool be now? Anyway, back to my pick!

Football is all about match winners, the players who put the ball in the back of the net, and Salah is the ultimate big-game player for Liverpool. I know that leaves Ryan with some great options for his second pick, but I couldn’t leave Salah on the table.


O’Hanlon selects … Trent Alexander-Arnold, right-back, Liverpool. The VVD signing really is an incredible sliding door moment that, I think, shows how many things had to go right for Liverpool to be able to challenge City over the past few seasons. Another one of those things: the best right-back in the world just happened to be born in Liverpool!

I’m not sure how savvy of a value pick this is — João Cancelo is pretty damn good, too — but to my mind, Alexander-Arnold has probably been the best player in the Premier League this season. Not only does he lead the league in assists with 11, but he also leads the league in all of the other kinds of valuable non-assist passes in buildup play and around and into the penalty area.

So, that’s three Liverpool players with the first three picks, huh?

Ogden selects … Kevin De Bruyne, midfield, Man City. Time to redress the balance a bit and have some City in this debate.

No player has been more consistently outstanding in the Premier League than De Bruyne since he arrived from Wolfsburg in 2015 and I’m just delighted that I can pick him, as I was certain he would be Ryan’s second pick. De Bruyne can transition City from defence to attack in seconds with his passing range and ability to carry the ball from box to box.

There has been some great midfielders during the Premier League era — Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard — but De Bruyne shares a pedestal with the best of them.


O’Hanlon selects … Ruben Dias, center-back, Man City. All right, let’s just corner the market on center-backs. It’s easy to forget that City’s defense was reeling a couple of months into last season. The back line was their issue the year before, too: they scored 102 goals and still lost the league by 18 points.

While City’s style as a whole has shifted since then, the biggest personnel change was the arrival of Dias. He’s just a fantastic pure defender — equally comfortable slowing down a one-on-one or blocking a shot with his face. I love the idea of him covering for TAA and while Dias can struggle with balls in behind sometimes, we’ve already got VVD there to mop things up.

Ogden selects … Andy Robertson, left-back, Liverpool. OK, time to build my defence. There’s no rush to select my center-backs now that Ryan has made his two picks, and I also have a few right-backs to choose from with Alexander-Arnold already taken, but at left-back, there really is only one option.

City don’t have a world-class left-back, but Robertson is every inch that calibre for Liverpool. He and Alexander-Arnold are crucial to Liverpool’s game plan, with both full-backs playing high up the pitch and being as important going forward as they are defensively. But while Alexander-Arnold can be caught out when defending, Robertson is much more solid and reliable. He’s the complete full-back.


O’Hanlon selects … Joao Cancelo, left-back, Man City. Think again! Cancelo has almost played as a left- and right-back interchangeably throughout the season, but more of his appearances (24) have come on the left.

Am I worried about a back line of four players who are all right-footed? You bet! Given the comparative rarity, there’s clearly a reason we typically don’t see teams rolling out defensive lineups without a single southpaw. But Cancelo is such a special player — and the other options (bump Aymeric Laporte out left, or go with Oleksandr Zinchenko or Kostas Tsimikas) are so unappealing — that we’ll make it work.

It might feel like overkill to have two world-class creative playmakers at both full-back spots … actually, that sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? I’m envisioning something like David Alaba and Philipp Lahm under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.

Ogden selects … Phil Foden, forward, Man City. I’m going to take Foden and play him in my front three. He’s now 21 and showing every ounce of potential that saw win the FIFA U-17 Golden Ball after England‘s U-17 World Cup win in 2017. Foden has pace, brilliant movement, finishing ability and physical toughness despite his slight build. He is also one of those youngsters who plays with absolutely no fear, only backing himself in every situation.

For me, he’s a future Ballon d’Or winner, and he could end 2022 as a World Cup winner with England and Champions League winner with City. Oh, and by the way, have you noticed the abundance of left-footed players in my team?


O’Hanlon selects … Thiago, midfield, Liverpool. It’s a shame we can’t have these two teams actually play against each other; with all the righties on my side and lefties on yours, it’d be like looking into a mirror — except, I guess, the only thing the mirror reflects back is your foot and not your overall appearance and OK, I’ve lost the plot a bit here. Anyway!

I’m taking the best all-around midfielder on either team and probably in the entire league — an elite ball winner, passer, dribbler and tempo setter. When he first arrived in Germany, Guardiola was asked by the Bayern Munich front office who he wanted them to sign. His response: “Thiago or nothing.” In the Premier League this season, Liverpool have won 12 of 12 games when Thiago starts, they’ve scored 35 goals and conceded just two.

Ogden selects … Rodri, midfield, Man City. Thiago is a great player, but will he be fit for the game when it comes around? He’s already missed more than 20 games this season because of injury or illness, after all. Although my team is all about flair and goals and excitement, I need somebody to break it up, too, and nobody does that better than Rodri. But then again, he’s learned from the master at City in Fernandinho.

Rodri can create, but nobody does a tactical foul better than the former Atletico Madrid midfielder, and sometimes you need the ugly side of the game to win.


O’Hanlon selects … Diogo Jota, forward, Liverpool. I was hoping you’d just let the fact that Thiago has played at least 2,000 domestic minutes just twice in his career slide by unnoticed, but alas. We’re going for upside here!

I think this is where the draft really gets interesting and strategic, as we can both take a risk in trying to wait out some positions we think the other person has already drafted. Since I have more passing than I know what to do with, but no one on my team who can score goals, I’m gonna nab the best goal scorer still on the board. His combination of aggro-pressing off the ball and savvy, unceasing movement in possession makes him the modern version of a striker, even if he doesn’t always play through the middle.

I also like this choice because Diogo Jota’s own flexibility leaves me some flexibility regarding the other attackers I end up selecting.

Ogden selects … Raheem Sterling, forward, Man City. This was a tricky pick. I was thinking about Riyad Mahrez, but that would be taking the left-foot obsession too far if all three forwards favoured that foot. Roberto Firmino and Jack Grealish are totally different players, but both worthy of selection. So it came down to a choice between Sadio Mane and Sterling … and it’s basically a toss of a coin.

Mane scores more goals, but Sterling just has that X factor. I admit he can let you down sometimes with his finishing, but he has improved in that area, so he’s my pick. I may regret it, but Sterling is a great player regardless.


O’Hanlon selects … Bernardo Silva, midfield, Man City. You’ve let the global southpaw community down, Mark — and me, too. Given that you already had Salah, I was hoping I’d be able to grab Sterling and play him out right with TAA. Sterling and Salah are two of the best players in the world at getting on the ball in the penalty area, but Sterling, in my imagined setup, would have also given me some much-needed width. Instead, I’ll go with Bernardo.

I don’t need any more passing from deep; I need someone who breaks forward into space from midfield, and well, per the site FBref, Bernardo ranks in the 99th percentile among midfielders for progressive passes received and touches in the penalty area. He’ll likely play the “Jordan Henderson role” here, and the combo of him and TAA down the right should lead to some beautiful stuff.

Ogden selects … Ilkay Gundogan, midfield, Man City. I had two options for the formation — one involved a five-man attacking group including Bernardo, the other being a slightly more cautious two-man holding midfield with De Bruyne behind the front three. For that to work, I need Gundogan alongside Rodri in front of the back four.

I could easily have gone for Fabinho to fill the role, but Gundogan is so versatile that he could also be deployed virtually anywhere in midfield or the front three. Guardiola used him as a false nine at times last season and for a while, he couldn’t stop scoring!


O’Hanlon selects … Sadio Mane, forward, Liverpool. Gundogan was one of Klopp’s favorite players, while Thiago, as previously mentioned, was one of Pep’s. Funny how they both ended up on the opposite teams. Now, getting Mane — one of the, what, five best attackers in the Premier League over the past half-decade? — with my eighth pick feels like pretty good value.

From an expected goals and assists perspective, he’s actually having the best season of his career; it’s just being overshadowed by Salah going supernova again and the breakouts of Jota and even Luis Diaz. Mane’s still one of the best attacking outlets in the world, and he’s gonna get me a bunch of good shots every match. Along with Jota, he adds some much-needed pace to my team, too.

Ogden selects … Aymeric Laporte, center-back, Man City. Here we go, another left-footer! With Ryan going early to pick Van Dijk and Dias, I’ve been left with a free run for some world-class defenders and Laporte is as good as that pair!

Let’s not forget that City signed Laporte ahead of Van Dijk in January 2018, and but for a cruciate ligament injury in 2019, City could have won the title again in a season dominated by Liverpool. Laporte has a great passing range, reads the game brilliantly, is good in the air and tough. All center-backs have to be tough and he doesn’t back down for anyone.


O’Hanlon selects … Alisson, goalkeeper, Liverpool. Absolutely love that for you. I ultimately would’ve grabbed Laporte as my makeshift left-back had I not been able to sneak Cancelo in there. While I still have some attackers and midfielders to fit in, we’ll go with Alisson, because I think the gap between him and Ederson is a tiny bit bigger from the other positions I still need to fill.

The latter has been a slightly above-average shot stopper since joining City, providing most of his value elsewhere. Alisson, though, is a fantastic sweeper, a devourer of crosses and one of the best shot-stoppers in the world. Most importantly, he’s the best there is at shutting down one-on-ones and, well, have you seen my full-backs?

Ogden selects … Ederson, goalkeeper, Man City. I think we should have made the goalkeeper selection a bit more fun by saying that both Alisson and Ederson were ruled out through suspension and therefore we had to pick Zack Steffen or Caoimhin Kelleher. However, we are being professional, so we are left with selecting from two of the best keepers in the world. Woe is us!

Brazil coach Tite has to do this every time he picks a team and there’s nothing between them. Alisson is arguably better at one-on-ones, but Ederson is so commanding and confident and his distribution, long or short, is crucial for City. So Ederson it is.


O’Hanlon selects … Jack Grealish, forward, Man City. As someone who watched every minute of the USMNT’s path through World Cup qualifying, uh, let’s just say that Steffen would not have gone before the 11th round … unless I could’ve somehow tricked you into thinking that he was left-footed. So, Grealish it is.

His debut year with City hasn’t been as disappointing as it looks on the surface; he’s turned 4.1 xG and 5.1 expected assists into just two goals and two assists, so we’re counting on a big bounce-back after we get him in the building. My team doesn’t really have a ball carrier in it, and Grealish is one of the best there is in that department. He’s not as much of a goal threat as you might expect from teams of this caliber, but I like the balance in my front three: Grealish driving and creating from the edge of the box, while Jota, Mane and even Bernardo crash late into the penalty area.

Ogden selects … Joel Matip, center-back, Liverpool. Matip has been something of an unappreciated hero at Liverpool until this season. Joe Gomez had been seen as Van Dijk’s long-term partner at center-back, while Ibrahima Konate has come in from RB Leipzig this season and shown himself to be ultrareliable and a safe bet for the future. But Matip has been outstanding all season. He glides around the back four and always seems unflappable.

I could have gone for John Stones, but there is always a mistake in the City defender. Matip has ironed that flaw out of his game and he’s a top-class defender now.


O’Hanlon selects … Fabinho, midfield, Liverpool. Things could’ve fallen apart really quickly if you decided to double up on defensive midfielders, Mark. I would’ve been fine with either Rodri or Fabinho, so I’m happy to grab the languid Brazilian here. He’ll probably be my penalty taker, and he’s simply one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. He helps hold Liverpool’s high-wire act together, and it’ll be no different for our team. I also get to pair him with Thiago, and Liverpool have never lost a match that the two of them have started together. Therefore, my team will never lose. It’s science.

Ogden selects … Kyle Walker, right-back, Man City. This was a choice pretty much made for me by Ryan selecting Alexander-Arnold and Cancelo, but I’m not disappointed to have Walker in my back four. He’s a better defender than Alexander-Arnold and possesses the strength and energy to take on any winger, regardless of how tricky or quick he may be. He can also play in a back three, so that also enables this team to switch formations and play with even greater width.

Our final teams are in! Are you happy? Who’s winning this?

Ryan’s team (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Dias, Van Dijk, Joao Cancelo; Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Thiago; Mane, Jota, Grealish.

OK, so I’m a little worried about my team’s balance. There’s gonna be a ton of stress on VVD, Ruben Dias and Fabinho to hold things together whenever we lose the ball, but that’s precisely why I drafted the first two so early. Plus, I’ve got Alisson to bail us out in case it breaks down, and then the likes of Jota, Bernardo, Thiago and Mane are great proactive defenders who will hopefully make sure that the ball never leaves Mark’s defensive third. Because, yes, sure, fine, he has the better attack, but it’s unclear to me just how he’s going to get the ball up to them or get the ball off of us.

All in all, we drafted 22 players and Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Luis Diaz, Gabriel Jesus, Stones, Konate, Henderson and plenty of others were all left out. Woof.

Mark’s team (4-3-3): Ederson; Walker, Matip, Laporte, Robertson; Gundogan, Rodri, De Bruyne; Salah, Foden, Sterling.

The one thing that this draft shows, above all else, is the sheer depth of quality that City and Liverpool possess. Both mine and Ryan’s teams are unbelievably strong in every department. If we were to open this up and allow selections from the other 18 Premier League teams, I think that only Harry Kane would have a chance of breaking the City-Liverpool duopoly, so it’s no surprise that these two teams are so far ahead of the rest, with Liverpool chasing a quadruple and City still on for a treble.

Who wins? My team, obviously, because it has better attacking players!

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