By Kaustav Bera
The weekend debacle notwithstanding, Liverpool have looked a formidable side in the Premier League off late, scoring goals for fun, including their 5-0 thrashing of Norwich at Anfield, coming at the back of a promising performance at Old Trafford where they could have so easily snatched a point. Brendan Rodgers should be credited to sticking to his guns, and not changing things around to get results, as they sit 7th on the league table, 3 points off their challengers, Arsenal. The once fabled fourth position and Champions League spot looks an ever so realistic proposition for a club who hasn't been part of the top flight European football, for far too long.
Arsenal's league form lately has been shambolic to say the least, with the Gunners having picked up only one win in their last four league games, leading to widespread discontent among the 'Gooners' who are usually the most patient of the lot, some even going to the extent of calling for Wenger's head. However with 37 points and not sitting at where he would want in the table, Wenger will be desperate for all three points against a Liverpool side who have yet to win against a Top 6 side.
After the weekend debacle with a premature FA Cup exit at the hands of Oldham Athletic, as Brendan Rodgers said, Liverpool need a response against Arsenal especially after going down 0-2 at Anfield, one heralded as one of their worst performances of the season. Moreover if they are to achieve their target of a fourth spot, beating Arsenal will certainly be the start as that would level them on points with the Gunners, whom they trail by just three points.
|How Arsenal could be advancing|
The most advanced midfielder would effectively be the playmaker, devoid of most defensive duties. The front three, although having one recognized central striker and two wide forwards, will essentially at times be narrow with three strikers effectively in the box. This will allow space for Arsenal's attack minded full backs to gallop forward and drill crosses in for the target man.
Liverpool: FormationWith Rodgers' early season experimentations of a 3-man central defense with 2 wing backs, not proving entirely successful against the likes of Everton and Chelsea, the former Swansea manager too has adopted the 4-3-3 formation as his forte. However the Liverpool formation is characterized by its fluidity and relentless pressing from the front, with the team intent on keeping the ball on the ground.
The midfield three of Liverpool however should be much more fluid than the home side's with no pre-defined roles as they would exchange responsibilities at will. The front three too would be more dynamic with them dropping into space while maintaining the shape. This might easily turn into a two striker formation at times, especially with Luis Suarez playing off Sturridge and dropping into empty spaces while Downing might as well hug the touchline. This would similarly allow the equally adventurous full backs to come forward.
|How Liverpool could be advancing|
Arsene Wenger will indeed have some selection headaches especially with the poor defensive showing in the FA Cup, with a late Walcott cameo saving Arsenal the blushes as they ran away winners against lowly Brighton and Hove. With a fit Thomas Vermaelen returning to the side, Wenger is expected to shake up his defense as he is most likely to allow Laurent Koscielny to start, since he has to contend with the pace and trickery of the Suarez-Sturridge combo, something which Per Mertesacker is ill equipped to handle.
With first choice full backs, Sagna and Gibbs available, the full back positions will certainly be a source of attacking impetus for Wenger' side who are expected to play more narrower than their opposition, as they did in their victory at Anfield earlier this season.
Another issue, is that of Walcott's position on the field. With Olivier Giroud in great goal scoring form, and also keeping in mind his overall play, there is absolutely no question of dropping him. So Walcott will have to contend playing on the right but will more often than not, drift inwards. The same can be expected of Lukas Podolski on the opposite flank.
In the midfield though the loss of Mikel Arteta who Wenger reckons is still not fit, will mean that Abou Diaby will slot in his place, while Santi Cazorla will be the No.10 drifting into space wherever existing. Diaby's pace and power in the middle of the park was clearly one of the deciding factors in the Anfield victory and might well be so once more, with Jack Wilshere expected to play a more deeper role.
Liverpool: SelectionWhile Brendan Rodgers will have fewer selection issues, especially with the poor showings of his fringe players in the FA Cup, for which he lambasted them in no small words, there are still a few dilemmas.
With Glen Johnson, Pepe Reina and Jose Enrique back to full fitness, Liverpool's back five look solid especially with the dependable duo of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel marshalling the defense. While both Enrique and Johnson are error prone defensively, they are great going forward and supplying balls into the box.
The real selection headache will however be between Rodgers' favourite Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson with Gerrard and Lucas being sure shot selections. Allen was poor in the 90 minutes he played in the FA Cup while Henderson was mighty impressive in the 5-0 thrashing of Norwich and displayed great energy and drive to break forward at every chance.
Another quandary would be Downing or Sterling to support Suarez and Sturridge. However with Downing in some sort of form and Raheem Sterling, still just 18, Rodgers should go with the former Middlesborough skipper from the beginning and bring the young winger later on, to inject more pace against the tired opposition legs.
Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs
Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski
Wisdom, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson
Suarez, Gerrard, Sterling
Arsenal: tacticsWhat Arsenal found out in their 2-0 victory at Anfield earlier in the season is that sitting back and allowing Liverpool to press high and taking advantage of the vacated space, worked really well. However the Reds have improved much and have adapted to Rodgers' system. With the addition of Daniel Sturridge added to the armoury, the Reds are a different proposition altogether from the side which lost to the Gunners at Anfield.
The Arsenal midfield will be expected to sit back deeper than the opposition with clear defined roles. Jack Wilshere will be expected to sit back and play the passes into the players beyond him, while Abou Diaby would be the tireless runner and probably do a job on Gerrard when they do not have the ball, to stop him from hitting the passes and therebyeffectively neutralizing Liverpool's outlet. Santi Cazorla will have no fixed position as he will drift wherever there is space.
The task of Olivier Giroud will be of paramount importance as he would be expected to hold off the two burly Liverpool central defenders. Besides his job of getting at the end of crosses, especially supplied by the full backs who would find a lot of space to come forward, Giroud will also be primarily responsible for holding up the play especially when Arsenal want to break or get out of midfield. Dragging out the defenders from position, he would make space for Cazorla or Diaby to run into.
Theo Walcott, although starting wide right, would naturally be inclined to drift in and link up with Giroud or Cazorla, while Podolski's versatiltiy on the left flank should keep Glen Johnson's attacking instincts at check.
Liverpool: TacticsAlthough essentially going up against Arsenal, lined up similarly man for man, Liverpool have more fluidity in their system as their three man central midfield can exchange positions among themselves at will. Essentially Lucas Leiva would be the ball winner among the trio while Steven Gerrard would look to spread out play either by stretching it out to the wings or finding one of the forward runners on the counter, with one of his trademark 'Hollywood balls'. Jordan Henderson can easily be the missing piece of the puzzle, if he can remain consistent as he did so effectively against Norwich City. While off the ball he can drop deep to put in interceptions, while on the ball his energy and passion to break forward can be the driving force behind pushing his team on.
The duo of Suarez and Sturridge will be a handful for any team, and with the latter in great formever since his move from Chelsea. They would be even more formidable with their bag of tricks and feints to leave defenders for dead. With the English winger turned centre forward in the side, Suarez would no longer have to carry the unwanted burden of being the focal point in attack and this would instead free him up to play off Sturridge and wreak havoc on the entire field. While Downing on the other flank would be expected to hug the touchline on most occasions, Suarez would cut in at will to devastating effect.
With both teams employing attacking full backs, crosses will come in aplenty but with Liverpool's apparent lack of physicality upfront, Rodgers' philosophy of keeping the ball firmly on the ground will indeed be the way to go. Moreover Liverpool's tactic of pressing from the front through Suarez would come in handy at stealing possession from an Arsenal side who like to play the ball around. Moreover the number of incisive passes too would be more for Liverpool, who would deploy more forward than the Gunners who would be expected to sit back.
What will decide the match?
1. Will Liverpool be able to keep up the relentless pressing?
2. Can Giroud hold off Skrtel and Agger?
3. Can Laurent Koscielny handle Sturridge/Suarez?
4. Which set of full backs will win the battle?
What do YOU think? Where will the match be decided? Can Liverpool take revenge for the 0-2 defeat at Anfield? Let us know...