Thursday, 28 April 2011
It was Pardew's first game in charge after Chris Hughton had been unceremoniously replaced, and Newcastle still had Andy Carroll in their arsenal (he provided the knock-down for the first, the flick-on for the second, and rifled in a twenty-yard screamer for their third). Kuyt had capitalised on a mistake by the creaking Sol Campbell to equalise with the softest whimper of a deflected goal you're ever likely to see but it will, above all, be remembered as the scene of Woy's bizarre face-rub, a slightly disturbing sign (if any were needed) that he wasn't cut out for the job.
Although, at times, Liverpool had played fairly well - there was, after all, some genuine quality on the pitch - the game represented the real dark depths of the Hodgson era. The flat, narrow, rigid 4-4-2 looked stodgy and predictable, the Torres-Ngog strike partnership proving particularly fruitless, and aimless deep crosses from Paul Konchesky were a regular feature. The change in Liverpool's fortunes since, though, is remarkable.
Probably only four or five players of the same players will feature in red on Sunday, and the formation will be quite similar in terms of notation, but the real revolution has been in the momentum, strategy and optimism of the side (examined by others here and here). Assuming Carroll regains his fitness in time, he should return to face his old club. If not, Kuyt will probably move up front and Maxi Rodriguez will retain his place after his hat-trick against Birmingham at the weekend. Pardew's favoured team seems to be the one which faced Blackpool, so they will probably be unchanged unless he decides he'd prefer Ranger to Ameobi:
Newcastle tend to play fairly narrow, especially away from home, so the fledging full-backs Robinson and Flanagan may still have to wait for their first serious test at professional level (although Gutierrez's pace and skill may cause Flano some problems if Kuyt doesn't track back). Kevin Nolan is something of a dark-horse in the scoring charts this season (he has 12 in the league, level with Chicharito and Van der Vaart), though he has been less prolific since Carroll and his knock-downs went west. The athleticism of the young Nile Ranger, who looked dangerous when he featured against us as a substitute at St James' Park, could cause some concern for Carragher and Skrtel if he is selected, and Barton's creative influence has been genuinely impressive since he moved to the right-wing, but, on the whole, they do not look like a team particularly equipped with the attributes to frighten a Liverpool side high on confidence.
Tiote and Enrique have been good for Newcastle this season, but both are liable to panic in possession when under pressure, so if Kuyt and Suarez do a good job of closing down, Liverpool might capitalise on their mistakes. Barton defends well, so the home side might struggle to make attacking progress down their left unless Suarez pulls wide to take on the comparatively erratic Danny Simpson.
On paper Liverpool should win this comfortably - they have won 5 of their last 6 league home games, patently have the stronger squad, and have a variety of effective strategies for attack, whereas Newcastle's away form has been poor all season. However, even under Dalglish Liverpool have been prone to bouts of inconsistency this season, so will need to be careful if they are to continue their push for one of the European qualification spots.
(Just as an aside, this article by Paul Tomkins and Paul Grech shows how Liverpool's excellent performances against teams with higher reputations this season sees them in 1st place in the top-six mini-league. If only the English Premier League winner was decided, as in Major League Soccer, by a knockout play-off tournament between the top 8 teams!)
Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Khedira and Carvalho are unavailable for Real Madrid. This would normally mean that Albiol would come into central defence, but I am not convinced that Mourinho trusts him. Remember he was sent off in the most recent league meeting between these two sides. As a result, I think Pepe will drop into the centre-back position, vacating the defensive-midfield role he has filled so well in recent weeks. This allows for a slight reconfiguration of the Madrid line-up, bringing in the disciplined Diarra in place of the comparatively energetic and impetuous Khedira, and reverting to their usual formation for home matches - 4-2-3-1.
Mourinho had moderate success fielding three defensive midfielders against Barcelona in their previous two meetings - the 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu in the league (Madrid claiming an equaliser with 10 men), and the 1-0 AET Copa del Rey final victory - and will have learnt some important lessons from the way that his side was humiliated in the away league fixture earlier in the season when they fielded a more offensive side. So why would he risk getting soundly beaten again when his defensive line-ups have had more success?
For one, it's a matter of strategy for Mourinho. Like when his Inter side faced Barcelona at this stage of last season's competition, he will probably want to go out and attack aggressively and energetically at home, in the hope of having a lead to defend when Madrid travel to Camp Nou.
And, although tactics aren't crucially distinct from strategy, there are more traditional tactical benefits to be noted. Firstly, the 4-2-3-1 makes it easier for Madrid to press Barcelona high up the pitch, in comparison with the comparatively passive 4-3-3 which would leave Busquets unattended in the centre. In addition, the above formation allows CR7 to be positioned on the right-wing where he can attempt to expose whoever Barcelona choose to play at left-back in the absence of their first three choices (Abidal, Adriano and Maxwell).
Sunday, 17 April 2011
Friday, 15 April 2011
With this in mind (I am not, generally, a fan of the 4-4-2 formation), and also on the basis of the different players we had available at the time (since the 25th of March, Agger, Johnson, Kelly and Gerrard have all been ruled out injured for the rest of the season), I suggested that Liverpool should be playing a 4-3-3 formation with Suarez stationed ostensibly on the left-wing in my piece 'A few tactical points for the rest of the season.'
The side we fielded against City and will probably field against Arsenal is not greatly different from this 4-3-3 - the key change being that Meireles now takes up a left-sided position and Suarez moves more centrally (although of course he is free to move across the entire pitch in search of space). In reality, despite the change in notation from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, the differences are not overly insignificant, because Meireles will regularly look to cut inside, doing much of his defensive and attacking work in the centre of the pitch, and Suarez will often move to the left touchline to receive the ball (see the chalkboards below). It seems that Meireles played as a 'wide-central-midfielder' against City (see Zonal Marking's 'central winger' article if you find my terminology counterintuitive).
There are pros and cons of giving a central-midfielder a wide role. On the plus-side, if wide players 'tuck in' it can create more simple passing options for the central midfielders, making it easier for teams to retain possession and counteracting some of the weaknesses of the 4-4-2 formation in general. Wide players cutting in also creates space for the full-back to charge forward, which is increasingly important in today's game, but it also ensures that there is player with adequate defensive skills always available to help double-up on opposing wingers. Watch how Aurelio combined with Meireles, and occasionally Suarez, in this compilation of his performance vs. Man City (via @milankakabaros):
On the other hand, wide-players who don't offer much in terms of pace, skill, and ability to beat their man can often become passengers, and leave the team stunted in attack. Maxi Rodriguez (sometimes unfairly) has this criticism levelled at him - despite often playing a similar role to Meireles, it is expected that a certain degree of flair and creativity come from the wide-players, especially in terms of beating the full-back, getting to the by-line and crossing the ball for the likes of Carroll to attack. This is part of a more general problem, that playing central midfielders on the wing can mean the team severely lacks width, making them predictable and staid, especially if the full-backs can't get forward, or the forwards don't pull wide often enough.
Fortunately, Liverpool's energy and inventiveness against City ensured that this wasn't a problem, but at the Emirates on Sunday this system might be tested more sternly. For starters, we can assume that Van Persie will do a better job of occupying Liverpool's centre-backs than Dzeko did, which will leave Carragher less free to move across and support the fledgling Flanagan. Kuyt will have to produce a similarly heroic performance in terms of tracking back, tackling and closing down if Arsenal's left-sided players - i.e. Clichy and (probably) Arshavin - are to be stopped. Also, there is a hell of a lot more creativity in a midfield containing Nasri, Wilshere and Fabregas than was offered by Barry, Milner and Toure, so Lucas and Spearing (and Meireles) will have to be vigilant in their closing down and denying them space between the lines. Still, Suarez should be able to find space if Arsenal's midfield pushes forward, and Carroll is exactly the kind of physical, fearsome forward that can cause the likes of Koscielny and Squillaci/Djourou problems. It should be an interesting game.
Monday, 11 April 2011
Wednesday, 6 April 2011
Tuesday, 5 April 2011
Admittedly, this formation is in some sense designed to achieve a scoreless draw, which might seem a bit too unambitious for a club like Real Madrid. Although not entirely devoid of attacking merit (RM's three deep midfielders will force Spurs to patiently concede them possession, or go and press higher up the pitch, leaving space in front of the defence for Ozil or Khedira to break into), it is indeed reactive, in the sense that it is designed to counter Tottenham’s strengths. But it should actually allow Madrid to be less passive in the game overall, by stemming Spurs’ attacks at the root (i.e. Modric, Bale), rather than risking a regular flow of balls to Crouch which would surely cause Pepe (6”1) and Carvalho (5”11) some serious problems.
Saturday, 2 April 2011
After a promising first 15 minutes, we depressingly devolved into the familiar Neanderthal image of Hodgson-era Liverpool. Lamentable injuries to Johnson (torn hamstring) and Agger (knee strain?) forced us into extreme defensive functionality early on, and the game was never particularly exciting (despite some late scrappy goalmouth action). To be fair, we might still have won this. Skrtel scored a header from a corner early in the second half and after that we looked comfortable until Kyrgiakos clumsily gave away a penalty. The big Greek had a nightmare all in all, and was consistently embarrassed by the excellent Peter Odemwingie. As it was, West Brom deservedly won thanks to two penalties. They were more dominant in midfield and looked more dangerous in attack.
1. All in all, attempts to pass the ball out from the back were half-hearted and impatient. Without Agger, Johnson and Kelly, the link between the defence and midfield was absolutely terrible. Carragher just functions as a right-sided centre-back more or less, always getting drawn inside, closer to his own goal, forcing Kuyt to come deep to defend. His passing is very poor – his inevitable punts forward to Carroll looked more aimless than usual. Young Danny Wilson, too, is solid and shouldn’t be judged solely on his performances at left-back, but he was poor. He doesn’t possess the attacking instinct necessary for a modern full-back. Suarez looked particularly lonely when he came to find space on the left wing. As Brom's average position diagram shows (below), their right-back Steven Reid (no. 12) and for the last few minutes Gonzalo Jara (no. 36) stayed relatively deep, preferring to keep goal-side of Suarez. Chris Brunt, their right-sided midfielder (no. 11), regularly looked to move inside which would've made the presence of a quality ball-playing left-wing back all the more useful for Liverpool.
2. Lack of quality on the wings meant that Liverpool had to hope they could wrestle control of the midfield, but for various reasons they were unable to. In all honesty, Jay Spearing was pretty poor, and fairly anonymous. Meireles had one of his most peripheral games for Liverpool too. Lucas wasn’t at his best, but his positioning and closing down was good as usual, particularly in terms of his ability to show players onto their wrong foot or to quickly get goal-side when opposing players were in dangerous positions, which obviously isn’t reflected in the statistics. It was hugely disappointing that we never managed to get at the West Brom defence more, which had looked decidedly shaky for the first few minutes. Liverpool were rarely able to sustain possession in WBA’s half, and almost never managed to attack the space behind Carroll effectively. Perhaps Dalglish should’ve brought on Maxi for Spearing or Meireles early, to allow Suarez to move inside and get closer to the big Geordie who was, on the whole, pretty poor as well. He wasn’t helped by physical defending from Olsson in particular.
3. As noted above, Kyrgiakos was very poor, but Skrtel was pretty good as usual, as was Reina who, despite conceding two goals and giving away the second penalty, could lay claim to Liverpool’s man of the match by virtue of the sheer number of saves he had to make.
All in all, WBA deserved the win, but I think we would’ve taken the three points if it weren’t for the early injuries. This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season, and we’ll have to pray that Johnson and Agger (as well as Aurelio) return sooner rather than later.
Opposition fan's view - Josh Harris (@JoshMDH)
Olsson and Meite are strong, hands-on defenders in a very literal sense, and I didn't fancy their chances against Suarez's pace and quick feet. As it turned out this didn't matter because he saw so little of the ball.
Carroll was wound up by Olsson from the beginning. This frustration led to his being given a yellow card and left him unable to exert his physical presence. Conversely, Odemwingie was excellent, as he has been all season, and several times embarrassed the very sluggish Kyrgiakos, a match-up which ultimately led to both penalties.
Mulumbu and Scharner provided toughness in central midfield, leaving their counterparts Meireles and Lucas nowhere in an attacking sense. This toughness however sacrificed creativity, and with Dorrans, Morrison and Tchoyi unavailable Brunt often drifted in from the right wing to try and make something happen. The space this freed up on Liverpool's left was thoroughly unexploited by Meireles who was anonymous throughout. In the second half Suarez moved into the left channel more regularly and looked a lot more dangerous up against Reid who is not a natural full-back.
Ultimately, Liverpool looked uninspired, and Dalglish was hampered by the two enforced substitutions leaving him little opportunity to change things up. That said, Spearing should probably have been swapped out in the second half in favour of a more creative Liverpool midfielder.