21 December 2014

Liverpool tactical preview: Welbeck to shine

And so we return to the scene of one of our worst drubbings in recent memory. The 5-1 loss at Anfield last spring stands as a symbolic turning point, as it seemed to send us into a tailspin. Prior to that infamous result, we had won six of seven Prem matches; afterwards, we would only win two of the next eight. Yes, we followed that shellacking with a nifty 2-1 win to advance in the FA Cup, but the loss stands out as perhaps the moment when we lost the plot in the Prem. That was the loss that knocked us from our perch once and for all, and we fell from first to fourth, never to recover. As we gird our loins for a return to Anfield, I look to Danny Welbeck to lead the charge.

The sexy choice would be Alexis. After all, he's been a talisman to put it mildly. The irony, of course, is almost too much to resist. He was linked heavily to a move to Anfield all summer only to choose Arsenal. Liverpool, spurned, turned to the misfiring Mario Balotelli, who will miss the clash in order to serve a one-match ban for a foolish, tin-eared Instagram post that the FA deemed racist and anti-Semitic. To then suggest that Alexis will arrive at Anfield eager to prove his suitors wrong misses the point, for they courted him aggressively, even outbidding us on the transfer-fee (and who knows what was discussed in wages?). It's not as if they turned up their noses at him, and so he has little reason to seek some kind of revenge. He jilted them, not the other way 'round.

Instead, the more-direct comparison might occur between Balotelli and Welbeck. The former was seen as a dynamic, perhaps even dominant scorer who would return to the Prem triumphant, eviscerating and obliterating opponents with his vast talent. That has not come to pass. The latter was seen as a bit of a cast-off, deemed superfluous by his boyhood club and sold off to a league rival to make way for yet another flavor-of-the-month forward in Falcao. That he has taken large strides towards reaching his potential should not be overlooked. No, he has not set the league on fire with his scoring, but he has found time enough to score thrice in both the Prem and the Champions League. By contrast with Balotelli, who seems to be firing blanks, there is a sense around Welbeck of a storm gathering as if he stands on the verge of striking again and again.

The return to fitness of Giroud might at first threaten to defuse Welbeck before he can set fire; after all, it was a long-standing complaint of his that he had to play on the wing at Manchester United, tracking back on defense and deferring on offense. While it may remain the case that he'll have to contribute on defense, that deference should not be an issue. Giroud is not the diva that van Persie is and will not complain of other players "occupying the spaces [he] wants to play in". Instead, Giroud is more likely to occupy and grapple with the opponents' burliest and busiest defenders in order to create chances for his teammates, whether it be through a deft flick in a tight space or by winning an aerial duel. In either case, swooping into the space behind Giroud might allow Welbeck any number of chances against Liverpool on Sunday.

Should Liverpool stick with the 3-4-3 formation (very likely given the injuries to defenders Johnson and Flanagan), Giroud will spend most of his time grappling with Skrtel while Kolo Touré does his level-best to contend with Welbeck on the wing. Touré may struggle to keep up with Welbeck's pace on the flank, but both Touré and Skrtel will have to worry about Welbeck's movement across the front-line. By contrast with Man U, Arsenal offer a very fluid attack with players interchanging incessantly. Giroud, while starting central, may move to the left or the right, inviting teammates like Alexis or Welbeck into the middle. Skrtel, who will carry four cautions into the match, will have to be wary of being booked for overly physical encounters with Giroud and for rash tackles on Welbeck.

Shielded as it were by Gerrard, himself carrying four cautions while taunting tortoises and slugs with his blinding pace, and by Henderson, whose pace and industry were honed by years of chasing down his own poor first touches, Liverpool's backline may struggle to contend with the pace offered by Welbeck on one side and Alexis on the other. Alexis's contributions feel like a foregone conclusion. It's Welbeck's contribution that feel to me like the game-changer. If he can rise to the occasion, he should find himself through on goal several times on Sunday. Whether he makes good on the chances is up to him.