07 February 2014

Liverpool Preview: can midfield manhandle the Mugsmashers?

Due to a bit of an eye-niggle that I picked up while wrestling with my son, I introduce you to Derrick Mansfield, a former student and faithful fan of Woolwich 1886. Take it away, Derrick!

While it's sometimes dicey to extrapolate from how we do at home to how we'll fare away against a particular opponent, it's just as dicey to extrapolate from a fixture against a completely different team. So it makes sense to focus on our 2-0 win from November 13th as we prepare. There have been some important changes, but I think the outcome will be pretty much the same. I won't call for a clean-sheet, but I see Arsenal emerging victorious. As powerful as Liverpool's offense is, our defense is maybe a little stronger. More important, then, will be if Liverpool's defense can contend with our offense.

Formation
Back in November, Liverpool played a 3-5-2, and this clogged the midfield quite a bit as Flanagan, Gerrard, Leiva, Henderson, and Cissokho made it difficult for us to control possession as much as we're used to, just because they were there. Our possession was 54% on the day, down a bit from a season average of 57%. However, Liverpool has gone to a 4-3-3 in recent matches to make room for Raheem Sterling alongside Suarez and Sturridge (is this SASAS?). For as much as that might give them more attacking options, it means that Liverpool opens themselves up for Arsenal to dominate the midfield even more, because Gerrard, Henderson, and Coutinho will frequently find themselves dealing with four midfielders in the attack (along with Gibbs and Sagna coming down the flanks as well. As much as Sturridge or Sterling or Suarez might be willing to drop down deeper to receive passes, none of them are known for their defensive instincts, or contributions.

In fact I wonder if Rodgers might go back to a 3-5-2 to clog the midfield up. As good as Koscielny and Mertesacker were at preventing Suarez and Sturridge from getting clear paths to shoot, back in November, the 4-3-3 might leave them and Sterling waiting around for touches if our midfield can dominate possession and prevent clearances. Manager Wenger pointed out a similar strategy at the pregame press conference, when he said that one of our keys to success is to "dominate the game and leave them as few balls as possible." When they do get the ball at their feet, the test will be if Oxlade-Chamberlain (assuming he plays DM again) can track back, along with the fullbacks, because Arteta and Mertesacker are not going to win many footraces, leaving only Kos to stop them from pouring forward.

Personnel
The key difference between November and now is the availability to us of Oxlade-Chamberlain and the return to form of Santi Cazorla. His only goal of the first half of the season came against Liverpool, but he's found a groove that is good enough to earn Player of the Month from voters. And why not? In January he scored 4 goals and an assist, and he's starting to look like the Mighty Mouse of old. He might've needed time to rest after a lot of international trips with the Spain national team, maybe he was struggling with the pressure of repeating last year's performance. What ever is the case, Liverpool will have to keep an eye on him, especially Flanagan and Skrtel, who are tall but aren't so good moving to stay in front of quick, scampering dribblers like Santi.

The bigger difference is Oxlade-Chamberlain, he wasn't even available to face Liverpool in November. Playing him as a DM against Crystal Palace was a master-stroke that paid off very well because he scored twice in two very different ways, running into the box to collect a lofted cross and chip the keeper, then playing a tight give-and-go to burst 40 yards into the box and slice another shot home. But don't let the goals hide the face that he had a strong game all-around, he added 103 touches (4th best on the team behind Arteta, Ozil, and Cazorla), and this shows he wasn't just cherry-picking for goals. He also completed 5 of 7 long passes, and this shows that he was very involved in the build-up and springing teammates forward. 4 of those passes went down the left flank to Gibbs or Cazorla. With Oxlade-Chamberlain, we're closer to the screening midfielder/box-to-box midfielder we had earlier in the season with Arteta-Ramsey, so it's not a big surprise that Oxlade-Chamberlain got a brace playing from the spot Ramsey got so many of his goals.

At Liverpool's end...
Liverpool's situation gives us even more reasons for hope. Even though they're great at home, injuries mean they don't have a lot of options, and the options they do have give us opening. For one, Skrtel, Toure, Gerrard, Flanagan, and Cissokho lack pace, this will make it hard for them to track our runs or fill passing lanes when we have the ball. It also slows their ability to advance up the pitch. The slowness of the backline means they'll have to play deep to avoid getting caught on counters or by our wingers making runs in behind, and this might create a gap between their midfield and defense that we can exploit.

The key, of course, is Suarez. When he scores or assists, they usually win. When he doesn't, the drop off is huge even when you think about Sturridge. Suarez has scored or assisted in every game but five this season. Liverpool's record in those matches is 0 wins, 1 draw, four losses. Therefore, if we can shut him down, either by denying him the ball in the first place, disposessing him or forcing him to pass early, or preventing him open looks, this will go a long way to shutting Liverpool's attack down. He's been very disciplined lately, at least in terms of biting or racistly abusing anyone, but he's still as divey as ever. However, if we can clamp down on him, and it starts to look like we can take three points, Liverpool will be locked in a three-way race for fourth with Everton and Tottenham. If Liverpool starts to falter in their pursuit of a European spot for next season, his discipline could disappear.

I'm not looking that far in the future, yet. Let's frustrate him as much as we can just to win this one match, and let him deal with his feelings about missing European competition in his own special way.

Final score: Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal.

Come on, you Gooners!

Thanks for that, Derrick. You can follow Derrick at @dmandemon. Top lad.