Everton. Chelsea. FC Basel. What do these three teams have in common? They were supposed to be the games Liverpool would prevail in to kickstart their season. Not only has either of these circumstances prevailed, but the term ‘kickstart’ has been used one too many times. Against Everton, the Reds were denied a deserved victory by the swing of Phil Jagielka’s right boot. Against Chelsea, the Reds led through Emre Can’s deflected opener only to be downed by Diego Costa. Against FC Basel, an unlikely turnaround looked on the cards when Steven Gerrard netted a brilliant free kick that gave the ten men of Liverpool ten minutes to find one more, though that saving goal didn’t come.
Against Manchester United this weekend, at Old Trafford no less, Brendan Rodgers and his men face another potentially season-defining game. Win, and it might kickstart an extended run in the domestic cups and give Anfield a lift for the visit of Arsenal the following weekend. Lose, and even Bournemouth away in the FA Cup will seem difficult and tricky. There’s no point discussing what a draw would do.
So how should Rodgers’ approach this game? Should he go about his now predictable, usual approach? Or should Rodgers come up with something new, different, and try to outwit the vastly more experienced Louis Van Gaal and his five-match winning United side?
The Predictable, Practical ‘Rodgers’ Approach
If Rodgers continues to be stubborn to his ways, we will likely see the usual 4-2-3-1 line-up. Lucas and probably Henderson attempting to anchor the midfield and somehow try to stop the likes of Juan Mata and Angel Di Maria, with an increasingly fatigued and thus increasingly inconsistent Raheem Sterling, probably alongside slowing skipper Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho supporting a potentially half-fit Mario Balotelli, who has just returned to training.
This ‘neither here nor there’ approach will certainly play into United’s hands. Rodgers will probably ask his side to sit back and try to be solid defensively, while getting on the counter whenever possible. The first situation may be possible to do, but as seen so frequently this season, quickly transitioning to pose a threatening counter-attack is something the Reds cannot seem to do at the moment.
United will have no problems trying to get the ball to the likes of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie as quickly as possible, with Marouane Fellaini and Di Maria flooding forward in support. Van Gaal will know that even if they lose possession, his United forwards will have enough time to fall back into the solid defensive shape that he likes, immediately nullifying any Liverpool counter-attacking threat and forcing the Reds to find something special to even penetrate the Red Devils’ injury-ravaged defence.
Starting Sterling from the off would make no sense, given his increasingly inconsistent performances that is no fault of the player. Instead, it is due to Rodgers’ poor player management. Unlike Gerrard, Sterling is on the opposite end of the career spectrum, but like Gerrard, Sterling needs to be managed properly to ensure his young body isn’t burnt out so early in his career and for this season, in December. No doubt, Sterling’s pace will come in handy, but it will certainly be better off for him to come off the bench against tiring legs to maximise his trickery and flair on the ball.
Rickie Lambert have ran himself into the ground for the last five consecutive games, and if Balotelli is remotely fit, the Italian will most likely start in place of Lambert. And though Lazar Markovic got a silly yet undeserving red card against Basel, Rodgers needs to place his faith in Markovic, and either start the Serb or bring him on as one of the first substitutes. His impact in the little time he had against Sunderland and Basel shows he is starting to adjust to the rigours of football at this higher level.
The Conservative-Extremist Approach
Basically, Rodgers needs to have his side at pretty extreme ends during both halves of the match. In the first half, a narrow, defensive 4-4-2 diamond would serve the Reds well. Both full-backs need to tuck in – like how Sunderland deployed against Chelsea to great success – and defend the length of the penalty area, with Henderson and Emre Can sitting deep to either side of midfield anchor Lucas. Can’s physical presence and Henderson’s stamina will mean both can cover more ground, allowing the Reds to close and harry the United midfielders, giving them little time to create. The rigid seven’s (back four and Lucas, Henderson and Can) only job will be to defend, and whenever they have the ball, it is to get it to the front three as quickly as possible.
Only the front three will be allowed to attack at will. Coutinho should be the roaming playmaker or No.10, with Balotelli simply plonked up front and battling against whoever Van Gaal plays in central defence. A roving, slightly wider forward, hopefully Fabio Borini, will be tasked to harry either full-back, while making intelligent outside-to-in runs that Coutinho will be responsible to find. Very rarely, one of Can or Henderson can push up in support of an attack.
This defensive approach will be greatly contrasted by the extremely offensive approach of the second half, regardless of Liverpool chasing an equaliser or go-ahead goal. Sterling will emerge at half-time in place of Henderson and take his place as the free third forward, who will make darting runs in behind and beyond the two front men. Coutinho will be slightly behind and continue as the No.10.
The key to this second half approach is the discipline of Emre Can and Lucas, who both has to continue sitting deep in defensive positions supporting the centre-backs, allowing the full-backs to bomb forward and provide the width and deliveries for Balotelli and Lambert or Borini. Another key to this overall approach is the surprise element in this instance, and also that the players are capable of switching their mentality as quickly as possible. Of course, when defending, the full-backs have to fall back, and there would at least be six players in defensive positions. This would also give the likes of Sterling and Coutinho a breather and less pressure or need to fall back.
The Bold Approach
How about this. Markovic, Coutinho and Adam Lallana supporting Balotelli, with that same defensive shape of Lucas and Can supporting a very narrow and defensive back four. Four purely attacking with six simply defending; much like Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning line-up.
In the second half, Sterling will probably have to come on for Lallana, who if playing will have had painkilling injections for his broken ribs. While if Rodgers wants to go even bolder, sending another striker in Lambert or Borini for Lucas, with Coutinho dropping into central midfield. And if he wants to go crazy, or is really desperate for a goal, Gerrard could come on for Markovic, or even Can to go all-out.
What do you think? What approach should Rodgers take for this massive clash against Van Gaal’s United?