Looking ahead to the Manchester United game

More of the same, please

The biggest game in British football will be played again this Saturday, and it’s all set to be a cracker. Of late, Liverpool –Man Utd games have been characterized by high-scoring but somewhat conservative football, with most of the goals coming either from moments of brilliance, defensive errors, penalties, or a mixture of the three. But this one has the potential to be a lot more open. Man Utd have looked unstoppable for a good part of the season, with bursts of attack and inspiration coming from all over the pitch. Phil Jones has been fantastic going forward from defence, Ashley Young has added another dimension to United’s wing-play, and Nani has just been sensational. In addition, there is an element of fluidity in United’s game that was not present in the last few years, even with Ronaldo. However, United have compromised a bit defensively to achieve their quick attacking game, and their rivals have had plenty of chances in the last few games. So what are these weaknesses and how can Liverpool take advantage of them?

Man Utd Weaknesses
1. Defensive Organization – With so much of Man Utd’s time spent attacking, their defence has not been tested as much as in previous seasons, and thus many of their defensive weaknesses have been glossed over. One of the most noticeable changes in their defensive structure compared to previous seasons is the lack of it. With Phil Jones marauding forward at every opportunity, the back four doesn’t retain its shape as much. Add to that Evra’s natural tendency to advance the ball from the left hand side, and there’s a chance that unless Man Utd are actually sitting back, like they did against Chelsea after going 3-0 up, they won’t retain their defensive shape.
2. Susceptible to the Counter – Another weakness that arises from spending a lot of time in the opposition half, and using both central midfielders and a couple of the defenders to advance the ball, is the increased danger of being caught out with a quick counter attack. With both Jones and Evra joining in the attack, this danger is exacerbated, and a quick counter can prove really dangerous for United.
3. Little defensive solidity in midfield – Man U are one of the few genuinely top teams to still play with only 2 central midfielders, and even their most defensive one, Darren Fletcher, is not an out and out defensive midfielder. Their centre hasn’t really been put under too much pressure this year, and Liverpool could make some inroads by pressuring them when they have the ball and forcing them to make defensive errors. Also, by employing either Kuyt or Bellamy in a four-man midfield, Liverpool can outnumber Man U in the centre of the park, because one of them could help out Gerrard and Lucas in the middle. In addition, the fact that United have no out and out defensive midfielder means that Suarez or Kuyt could exploit the space between the defence and midfield.

Strengths
1. Wings
– United have a history of some of the best wingers in the league, and this year it’s no different. Young has gelled in really well, giving United real width on the left hand side despite being right-footed. Nani is in the form of his life, especially so when he cuts in. One mistake that a lot of teams seem to be making is not closing down Ashley Young quickly enough. Kelly or Johnson will need to ensure that Young doesn’t get too much space to run at them because he will most likely get the better of them.
2. Multiple channels of attack – Because of their reliance on Scholes and Giggs last year, Man Utd had limited modes of attack since neither attacked the goal directly as much. Both used their passing ability and game intelligence to create goal-scoring opportunities. As a result, United’s mode of attack was predictable, with Evra moving the ball from the left, and Nani or Valencia from the right. This year, however, not only are the defenders getting involved more, United are actually moving the ball forward from the centre with slick passing. This is why they have been so lethal – it is impossible to stifle United because they move out of trouble with quick short passing and movement. It’s Evra and Young moving the ball from the left, Nani and Valencia from the right, and Jones and either Cleverly or Anderson from the middle. And I haven’t even mentioned the strikers yet.
3. Options – Not only do United have a fantastic starting XI, they also have players that can change the game, or the playing style. Giggs, Berbatov, Owen, and at least one of Park, Young and Valencia will be on the bench. They can provide Man Utd that much needed boost.

Lucas will be a key player for Liverpool

What Liverpool need to do
1. Lucas has to have a great game –
Of all the defensive-minded players, Lucas will be the one who will make the most difference. Nani has caused a lot of damage running into the middle of the park, where he has usually found a lot of space. He scored against both Chelsea and Norwich cutting in. It is up to Lucas to cut down that space. In addition, Lucas will be needed to help out both Enrique and Kelly/Johnson deal with the wingers. And he will be needed to keep possession in the middle if Liverpool do take the lead (which is a very important role for a defensive midfielder as it helps tire out and frustrate the opposition), and even initiate counter-attacks.
2. Find the perfect balance between pressing and sitting deep – Rooney and Hernandez’s pace, and Carragher’s lack of it, and the fact that Man Utd have looked weak on the counter would suggest that Liverpool should sit back, absorb Man Utd’s pressure, and look to counter. However, this would mean that Man Utd could bombard the Liverpool penalty area, and force an error, and there is no team better at doing this than United, as they have shown countless times when they need a goal in the last few minutes. If Liverpool press too much, however, United can play a quick ball forward, as they have also shown quite a few times this year, and most people would have their money on Rooney, Hernandez, Nani, and Young beating the opposing defender. Thus, Liverpool need to ensure that they get a perfect balance. United’s midfield in particular needs to be closed down quickly, and so too the runs of Nani and Young.

What should Liverpool’s starting XI be
The last time Liverpool played (and beat) United, the starting XI was a fluid 4-4-2, with a midfield four of Meireles-Gerrard-Lucas-Maxi, and a front two of Suarez and Kuyt. I would stick with a similar system, with a midfield four of Kuyt-Gerrard-Lucas-Downing, and a front two of Suarez and Bellamy. I expect there to be a lot of movement between Kuyt, Bellamy, and Suarez in such a system, and even Downing has shown that he can play on the right wing. This movement would cause havoc in Man Utd’s young defence, as Suarez and Kuyt did the last time as well. Also, since both Kuyt and Bellamy can play in the middle, they would help out Lucas and Gerrard close down United’s midfield, and the fullbacks in dealing with the wingers. And I would favour a starting spot for Kelly ahead of Johnson since I feel he is more defensively sound.
Kelly – Carragher – Skrtel – Enrique
Kuyt – Gerrard – Lucas – Downing
Bellamy – Suarez

Man Utd’s starting XI (Prediction)
Smalling – Jones – Ferdinand – Evra
Nani – Fletcher – Anderson – Park/Young
Hernandez – Rooney

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Gerrard’s Best Position

One of the biggest footballing debates in recent times, at least among the viewers of English football, has been Steven Gerrard’s best position. Is it out on the right, where he played from 2005-2007 for Liverpool? Is it on the left, where he’s occasionally played for England? Is it as an old-fashioned central midfielder, where he played for most of his Liverpool career until Benitez came in? Or is it just behind the centre forward, where he’s played since Torres signed for Liverpool? Lets take a look.

Out Wide
While most would think of Gerrard as a central player, he has shown that he can do a job out wide. In fact, he started his Liverpool career as a right-back, and temporarily played there in the final of the Champions League in 2005. He certainly has the qualities to succeed as a wide midfielder – he can cross well, he will have space to operate, his defensive duties will be more limited than that of a central midfielder, and he has the ability to cut in towards goal which is the last thing defenders want to deal with. However, there is a big problem with that – he hates playing wide, as he’s stated time and time again. Gerrard also isn’t the type of player who is good at keeping shape, and has the tendency to drift centrally, which makes the team narrower, and places too much responsibility on the shoulders of the full-backs. I think we can safely say, though, that Hodgson will only look at Gerrard as a wide player in case of an injury crisis, so its futile discussing that.

As a Central Midfielder
Now this is a position that most English pundits seem to feel Gerrard would be best at. He does seem to have all the qualities required of a good central midfielder – he’s an excellent passer and tackler, has very good movement and stamina, and loves to be in the thick of things. He does have one glaring weakness, however, and it is something that a lot of managers seem to have picked out – his tactical indiscipline. Its no coincidence that both Capello and Benitez have seemed reluctant to play Gerrard in his “natural position” – he makes too many mistakes to warrant a regular starting place there. Unlike Paul Scholes and Xabi Alonso, Gerrard prefers to play the game at the pace its being played at, rather than dictate the tempo of play itself. He is also guilty of vacating his position time and again, and being a bit rash with his tackles. Arrigo Sacchi once said of Gerrard:

“When I was director of football at Real Madrid I had to evaluate the players coming through the youth ranks. We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry. But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have the subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective. And for many, I wasn’t sure they were going to learn. You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team and, by doing this, making both of you and the team greater. In situations like that, I just have to say, Gerrard’s a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”

In the Hole
This was a position that seemed perfect for Gerrard when he played there from 2007-2009. He linked up perfectly with Torres up front, the two combining to form one of the most potent partnerships in world football. He effectively had a free role, with limited defensive responsibilities. Alonso and Mascherano were rock solid behind him. It was the start of a golden era, and its no surprise that Liverpool had their best Premiership finish in 08-09. Then suddenly it all went wrong last year. What was the problem? Alonso’s departure had a huge effect on Gerrard’s game. Alonso was pulling the strings from his deep midfield position – controlling the tempo of the game, getting the ball to Gerrard where he was most dangerous, and usually starting the attacks for Liverpool. Lucas Leiva is not the same player as Alonso, and it was expecting too much from him to replicate Alonso’s game. Benitez would’ve done better to move Gerrard back, or look for a midfielder with a game similar to that of Alonso’s (easier said than done). Suddenly, Gerrard wasn’t getting involved in the game as much as he should’ve been. When he did get the ball, he got it from deeper positions, and didn’t have as many players forward to pass to. You have to try and set your formation to get the best players into the game, and Benitez had failed to do that. Also, opposing managers were now used to Gerrard playing in the hole, and a lot of them had a defensive midfielder man-mark Gerrard all game long in order to keep him quiet. A good example of this is last year’s game against Bolton Wanderers where Megson decided to use Muamba to man-mark Gerrard, meaning that until Sean Davis was sent-off, Gerrard was remarkably quiet and failed to influence the game. Megson himself admitted to this tactic in the post match interview

“Being reduced to 10 men at this level always has an impact, and when it happens against a team of Liverpool’s quality even more so. We were man-marking Steven Gerrard up until that point, and he was under a measure of control. But when Davis was sent off we were unable to use (Fabrice) Muamba as a man-marker from then on, you can’t do that when you only have 10 men. Steven is clever, he dropped deeper and deeper and orchestrated the game from then on.”

Within minutes of Davis being sent off, Gerrard played his part in creating Liverpool’s 2nd goal by playing the ball in for Torres to score, and then proceeded to score the third himself. You can see from the highlights below just how much better he was before and after Davis was sent off

Verdict
So where does that leave us? Is Gerrard a jack of all trades, master of none? No. He still remains a world-class player, but the manager has to use him in a way that brings the best out of him. He is good enough for the team to be built around him. I think the key is in looking at the opposition. Unless Meireles turns out to be a lot like Alonso, I think Hodgson will do extremely well to play Gerrard in a couple of positions depending on the level of the opposition. This will require Meireles and Lucas to be quite versatile as well. Seeing as the “lesser” teams are the ones who are more likely to single out Gerrard and man-mark him, I would like Hodgson to play Gerrard as a central midfielder against those teams. As long as he plays with a defensive midfielder, Poulsen primarily, he can focus more on spreading the ball around and trying to influence play. Gerrard has been criticized for his lack of game intelligence, but that criticism is mostly in comparison to the cream of the crop, and I reckon he can certainly do a job from central midfield against most of the teams in the Premiership. As for the other games, the ones against the top teams, where maintaining tactical shape is of utmost importance, it would probably be better to play him just off Torres. He’s still not immune to being man-marked, which is what Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti have done at Chelsea in the respective fixtures against Liverpool, but then again, you can only prepare in response to your opposition so much, you have to try and be proactive to a certain level. If he’s really being played out of the game, then it’s up to the manager to see what to do – whether to take him off, or push him back and change the formation.

Getting the best out of him
I thought Benitez did an excellent job getting the best out of Gerrard, especially in the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons. Gerrard was at his attacking best playing behind Torres, and with Alonso and Masch behind him. However, there were times when Liverpool could not break down teams that parked the bus. They were excellent through the middle, but couldn’t create the space from wingplay. Unfortunately for almost all of Gerrard’s Liverpool career, he hasn’t consistently played with traditional wingers. The best ones were Pennant and Kewell, and they didn’t really play that much. As a result, the middle area has often been cramped, and Gerrard’s received little delivery from the wings meaning he often has to get out on the wings himself, where he’s wasted. Gerrard would be far more dangerous if he got on the receiving end of crosses. Also, think of all the room he’d have to operate in. Right now, the only player at Liverpool who fits the role of a winger is Ryan Babel, and he’s yet to establish himself. I’d actually like to see Hodgson try Babel at right wing, but that’s for a different article. Part of the reason for Gerrard’s inability to stick to his position in the middle may be the fact that there isn’t much activity on the wings to begin with, resulting in the middle getting crowded, and he is forced to find space out wide. Hodgson can’t be blamed for this, as this was a feature of both Benitez’s and Houllier’s Liverpool. Hopefully, he will rectify this in the future.

The Lucas Role

Yesterday we got our first glimpse of how Hodgson’s Liverpool would line up, even though only one of the players on the pitch was brought to Anfield by Woy. I was impressed with the creativity in the starting XI, with the manager choosing to play Gerrard in the “Alonso” role next to Mascherano. It was vintage Gerrard, with crushing tackles, sublime long passes and the box-to-box play that was so typical of him earlier in his career.
More importantly, though, I was happy he chose to play Lucas as a defensive midfielder rather than along with one. We saw the lack of creativity in midfield last year when the infamous Lucas-Masch partnership started, and that was one of the major factors in Liverpool’s dour performances. Hodgson thus used Lucas in the same way as his current national team and former Gremio coach, Mano Menezes, used him in the friendly against the US a few days back.
With Masch’s seemingly imminent departure to Barca, we’ll be left with 2 defensive mids – Poulsen and Lucas. How will Lucas’s inclusion affect the team? Lets take a look.

There are 3 things a defensive midfielder is required to do today, as excellently covered by Zonal Marking – tackling, distribution & interception.
In all three areas, Lucas has improved vastly, although his tackling still isn’t up to the level of Masch’s (but then again, whose is?). A lot of Liverpool fans were moaning last year about the number of sideways and back passes he made, expecting him to replicate Alonso’s passing range despite the fact that he was never meant to replace him, but what they were forgetting is that when trying to keep possession, one of the most important things is to be patient and knock the ball around until one can actually make a through-ball that is effective. What Lucas will be very useful for, is helping Liverpool maintain possession, which he did excellently for Brazil against the US. I reckon it will be a tactic used more against the “lesser” teams and you can thus expect to see Poulsen starting ahead of him for the big games. While it is too early to judge the way Hodgson will set up his teams, he has a history of giving up possession to the better ones (like Mourinho did with Inter v Barca) in order to have an upper hand in position. As Egil Olsen once noted, there’s almost always a trade-off between position and possession.
Considering that Lucas will probably be paired with Aquilani or Gerrard in the centre, he can afford to focus more on the defensive side of his game and opt for safety rather than creativity when dealing with the ball. Although he has shown that he can make those game-winning passes on occasion , I would be surprised if Hodgson plays him alongside Poulsen and expects him to be a creator.
You can see in the videos below (which I created) how important Lucas is in a team trying to retain possession. In fact, his exchange of passes indirectly led to the goal, creating space for the player on the left to exploit and cross the ball in. (1st half – 3:15) Another one of his tackles allowed a forward run which led to a chance on goal. (1st half – 5:00)


We see more of his defensive side in the 2nd half, with no less than six successful tackles (at 0:08, 0:19, 0:22, 1:36, 2:11, 2:19) and a couple of interceptions (In the game against Arsenal he made 3 successful tackles out of 4 in the space of 11 minutes). He also made a really nice pass towards the end which led to a goal-scoring opportunity.

The game against the US was one of Lucas’s better performances. Lets hope he can give us a few more of those this year and the Anfield faithful can finally give him the respect he deserves.

A matter of knife and depth

(the “knife” in the headline refers to the surgeon’s knife, and nothing dangerous)

With the signing of Aurelio, Liverpool now finally have a starting left-back. While I would also love Insua to stay, it would be hard to argue that he’d start over Aurelio if both stay fit. Aurelio, of course, was excellent for Liverpool whenever he played, and was especially noticeable by his absence last year when we looked considerably weaker on the left with the young Insua starting. He was also statistically the most attacking left-back in the league in terms of goals and assists in 2008-2009. Additionally, with either Jovanovic, Babel or Cole possibly starting on the left for Liverpool, we will have a right footed player on the left wing, so Aurelio can give us the width on that side. He also gives us options with set-pieces. However, the elephant in the room is starting to make some noise and I will have to get to it – INJURIES!!!

Injury record of the most likely starting XI for Liverpool

07-10
XI: 25 starts, 3 subs
Outfield: 23.7 starts, 3.3 subs

(I have only taken Lucas’s last season into consideration because he wasn’t a starting player in the 2 previous seasons)

09-10
XI: 24.7 starts, 3.3 subs
Outfield: 23.4 starts, 3.6 subs

Aurelio has only started 40 games out of a possible 114 in the last three years, a very low number for someone who has been the best player in his position for the team. Unfortunately, that can be said of a lot of our team – Aquilani, Agger, Cole and Torres are all very injury prone. Those 5 have an average of ONLY 15.6 starts a season and 20.3 appearances overall, not very encouraging numbers considering the lack of depth in the squad. Add to that the fact that Glen Johnson and Gerrard have had their share of injury problems as well, and you are looking at a very unstable squad.

Our new Head of Sports Medicine and Sports Science, Peter Brukner, will have his job cut out for him, but I’m sure he’ll be up to it. How much of it is in his hands, however, is to be seen. You can take measures to ensure the players stay fit, but an injury-prone player will remain injury-prone, especially with the kind of recurring injuries Torres (hamstring), Aquilani (ankle) and Aurelio (every single part of his frickin body) have.

Roy can also do his bit to help the problem, and that is increase squad depth at the cost of first-team quality. Manchester United had a terrible injury crisis last year, with Carrick and Fletcher playing in defence at one point, but when you have utility men like John O’Shea and other squad members more than capable of filling in the boots of the first-team players such as Wes Brown, the Da Silva brothers, Anderson & Michael Owen, you can still get the results against “lesser” teams.

So what positions will we need to strengthen the most? A lot of fans want to see a new striker, but I believe we have sufficient cover for that position. If N’Gog isn’t good enough to stand in as cover for Torres, then Jovanovic and Dirk Kuyt can do the job in his absence. What is more important is a quick winger who can also play in the middle. Ryan Babel is the only one in the team who has the pace and ability to make a difference on the wing, but whether he has the consistency to do that is questionable. Not only will such a player provide us the width we’ve been lacking for so long (under both Benitez and Houllier), he can give us a Plan B. It is also important that any wide player that we sign can also play in the middle because all three of our attacking midfielders – Cole, Aquilani and Gerrard – are injury-prone.

The second position where we seem to be lacking depth is the full-back position. Whether Insua is staying or not, we will need a cover for left-back considering the amount of time Aurelio will inevitably spend on the bench. Our other option is Johnson playing on the left, but that leaves the right side short of cover. The ideal player in this situation would be someone who can play on both sides, and possibly at defensive mid as well, like a two-footed Mascherano. I would’ve said across the back four and defensive midfield, but we have six centre-backs, so that is a position that is sorted.

Lastly, I think we need someone who can play in either a central or a defensive midfield position. Lucas is the only person who can do that right now, and even he was converted from a somewhat attacking player to a slightly defensive one.

Who comes in is up to Roy, but this much is for sure – our squad at this moment requires a lot of luck in terms of fitness for us to contemplate a top four finish. I’m not saying it’s beyond Liverpool’s ability to bounce back, or that we will have an injury crisis as strong as last season, but Arsenal, Spurs & City all have deeper squads, and the battle for fourth will be even more heated than last season.

Likely starting XI