Friday, 25 March 2011

A few tactical points for the rest of the season

When I last arbitrarily predicted the results of all Liverpool's and Tottenham's remaining Premier League fixtures this season, I had us marginally pipping Spurs to the now significant fifth-place position on mere goal difference. This may seem like wishful thinking, but it isn't entirely implausible that we might record wins over WBA, Newcastle, Birmingham, Fulham, Villa and, crucially, Spurs. Also, Tottenham are likely to be mentally distracted and physically exhausted by their upcoming clashes with Mourinho's Madrid (something which I, as a Liverpool fan, am extremely jealous of). Spurs do have a huge squad, so intelligent rotation might well see them through games against Wigan and Stoke, but they must still worry about their visits to Stamford Bridge, Eastlands and Anfield, and they certainly won't be looking forward to entertaining Arsenal on April 20th.

It seems likely that, assuming the squad stays largely injury-free, Dalglish and Clarke will field something like the following team for most of the remainder of the season:

It is possible that Aurelio will regain enough fitness to play the odd game at left-back, in which case Johnson could be dropped or moved to right-back in place of Kelly. It also seems likely that Carragher will still be in and around the first-team, perhaps at the expense of a starting place for Skrtel. Also, the front three will continue to play fluidly, with Kuyt and Suarez swapping wings and taking turns at moving into more central, deep-lying-forward positions. Necessary rotation should also ensure games for Maxi Rodriguez, David Ngog and Jay Spearing. But this team is likely to be Dalglish's first-choice.

The first thing to note is that the right-wing looks more defensively solid than the left. Kuyt is a battling wide-player, renowned for his energy and effort in harrying opposing full-backs, denying them space and tracking back when necessary. Suarez, perhaps seen as more of a creative luxury-player, might at times leave Johnson (who has never been the best defensively) exposed to attacks down that flank, but there are a few important responses to this concern.

The first is to point out that Suarez is actually quite dilligent defensively, used to putting a shift in against marauding full-backs. This is starkly evidenced by Suarez's tackling statistics against Man United. He helped to keep Evra reasonably quiet, as his tackling chalkboard indicates:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Also, Glen Johnson has looked comfortable defensively at left-back, probably more so than at right back. He seems to have been told to position himself square-on to his opposing winger, showing them inside onto their left foot and, with auxiliary help from Lucas or Meireles, quelling danger down Liverpool's left. There's no doubt that our opponents might look to mount fast counter-attacks down that flank though, so Johnson will have to maintain his good form if we are to make a decent attempt at fifth place.

It should also be noted that lining up with Suarez ostensibly on the left is likely to be very effective in an attacking sense. He is very comfortable cutting in from the wide areas and the fact that he is naturally right-footed means he will always be looking for space on the inside, closer to Andy Carroll, where he can really do some damage. This will leave space for Glen Johnson to charge into, which will make the most of the full-back's attacking ability, allowing us to really overload teams and put them under pressure while retaining possession. Agger is comfortable pulling across to cover for Johnson, too.

We will also have to hope that Agger maintains his exceptional level of performance, especially considering that, of the last six games he has played, we have won six (in comparison with the last six games he has been absent for, of which we have won just one). Skrtel, too, has been impressive recently, and it may well be that these two have the opportunity to show that they ought to be Liverpool's long-term first-choice centre-back partnership. Lucas has made more tackles (125) than any other Premier League player this season, so it seems we can rely on him for defensive assurance. Meireles' tackling has been less impressive (although it should be pointed out that his defensive statistics are drawn mostly from games in which he has been the most advanced of the three midfielders) so we will need Gerrard to continue in the spirit of positional discipline and defensive solidity that has (to my surprise) defined his recent performances. And, although I have already taken Suarez's exuberant brilliance for granted, he will need to maintain his level of form for the rest of the season, especially until Carroll regains full fitness (see my blog-post on Sunderland 0 - 2 Liverpool from this weekend).

On the whole I am optimistic that we can make a strong push for fifth-place, especially as we are sadly unhampered by European or domestic cup fixtures. It would be nice if Gerrard could hit a few last-minute thirty-yeard screamers, just like the good ol' days, but fortunately we won't be relying on him quite as much as we used to.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Sunderland 0-2 Liverpool – Talking Points

Liverpool were slightly fortunate to win this. That’s not to say that we didn’t play well (especially in defence), it’s just worth acknowledging that Sunderland probably had the better of the first half until Jay Spearing was awarded a lucky penalty, and even after that we didn’t create too many chances. We should be pleased to have got three points, especially as we have generally been poor in our away fixtures after mid-week European games, and there were a few positives/lessons we can take from this performance.

1. Let me start by highlighting the excellent performance of Lucas Leiva in central midfield. Although he was no better or worse than usual today, it is impressive that he showed no signs of tiredness after the birth of his baby son Pedro Lucas on Friday night. Also, it is nothing new, but for a player at times unfairly maligned by fans and media, his closing down was phenomenal, breaking up Sunderland attacks time after time, ensuring that they couldn’t cause us any problems down the middle (credit for this must go to Spearing too, see below). His timing of challenge, as well as his quality of positioning and anticipation were again evident today. He also looked comfortable moving forward with the ball into space when given the opportunity, most notably with his excellent through-pass for Andy Carroll in the 42nd minute. Although we didn’t learn much new about Lucas from his performance against Sunderland, it seems kind to mark the birth of his son by acknowledging that he has become one of Liverpool’s most important players. Admittedly, this is partly because of the reduced competition from Mascherano, Alonso and Torres in recent seasons.

2. It is probably indicative of the fact this was a solid, cautious performance rather than an overwhelming victory of attacking play, that young Jay Spearing was another of Liverpool’s best players today. I have generally been unconvinced by Spearing: he is quite an impetuous, old-fashioned-English-style midfielder whose use of possession is sometimes poor. I always felt that he would surely have been a centre-back were it not for his slightness of height and build. And, although the comparison may seem lazy, his game has aspects of both Carragher’s and Gerrard’s – scrappy, sometimes wasteful, not especially measured or intelligent in his use of the ball, but occasionally excellent, always committed and hard-working. Today, though, his defensive qualities shone through, tracking back effectively and ‘sweeping up’ very tidily. His passing and running was good too, and he is to be commended for the tenacity which eventually won Liverpool the penalty which Kuyt calmly dispatched (to maintain his 100% penalty record for Liverpool). It goes without saying that he is far more useful than Poulsen.

3. Passes to the feet of Suarez are still, at least for now, significantly more effective than balls to the head of Carroll. Carroll is certainly the best header of a ball I’ve ever seen, both in terms of the force of his attacking headers and the accurate control of his knock-downs, but he looked off the pace today. Suarez was regularly frustrated by his clunky build-up play, and, in the same way that the introduction of the big Geordie slowed things down against United, we looked sharper and more dangerous after he was replaced by N’Gog this afternoon. He needs to work on the speed of his feet, especially on the turn, if he is to be of use to us as anything other than a HeHHasdas Heskey-style ‘big man up front.’ I have faith, though, that as he begins to strike up a relationship with Suarez and regains his full fitness, he’ll be of tremendous help to us as we push for 5th place.