Brendan Rodgers’ and Liverpool tactics could hold the key to the Reds leaving Stamford Bridge with three points.
Chelsea face Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in the penultimate heavyweight clash of the 2014/15 Barclays Premier League season, on Sunday, having already wrapped up the title and facing a guard of honour from today’s visitors as a mark of respect for winning the championship.
Jose Mourinho’s side has been clinical and consistent throughout this season, especially in domestic competitions, and thoroughly deserve their imperious league title victory.
The Reds, on the other hand, have been searching for consistency throughout the season and, barring an impressive three-month period since the beginning of this calendar year, much of their campaign has been in shambles.
With Manchester United defeating Crystal Palace last night, tonight’s visitors have to win their remaining three games and hope Louis van Gaal’s men fail to grab even two points from their remaining two games, if Brendan Rodgers’ side are to make it to next season’s UEFA Champions League.
They first have to mastermind a victory over Mourinho’s men, whose record over the last two seasons in these heavyweight clashes is well-documented.
It may not be impossible for the Merseysiders to overcome a resolute Chelsea side, but how does Rodgers go about getting the task done?
Read on… as we look at the prospective Liverpool lineup and the system they should play in against the Blues.
Team news – Liverpool
Mario Balotelli could return to action after recovering from a foot injury that he suffered during his side’s 0-1 defeat to Hull City a fortnight back.
Mamadou Sakho, the French central defender, picked up a hamstring injury during Liverpool’s 6th round FA Cup replay against Blackburn Rovers in April, and will not be available for tonight’s game.
Daniel Sturridge underwent a hip surgery in America on Tuesday and is ruled out for the rest of the season.
Liverpool do not have any suspensions and Rodgers can pick a really strong side to face the Londoners later today.
The Liverpool manager has experimented with many a formation this season: it began with the 4-1-2-1-2 or the 4-4-2 diamond system that proved so successful for the Merseysiders last campaign; once his side started conceding a lot of cheap goals earlier this season, he switched to a back three and played a 3-4-2-1 or the 5-2-2-1 system, which saw last season’s runners-up turn around their league form since the beginning of 2015; after successive league defeats to United and Arsenal not-so-long ago, Rodgers has gone back to playing the archetype 4-3-3, with Steven Gerrard playing the pivot or deep-lying playmaker role, ahead of the four-man backline.
Against Chelsea, Rodgers has to get his playing system right and I don’t think any of the aforementioned systems has brought the best of the players they have at their disposal.
Gerrard doesn’t have the defensive nous or speed to track back while playing as a No. 4. Therefore, in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-1-2, unless some other player can play that defensive midfielder’s role to perfection, I would abandon it from my thought process, at least for today.
The 5-2-2-1 system needs players – especially wingbacks – with great positional intelligence and plethora of energy levels, to shuttle up-and-down the flank all day long. I am afraid Liverpool do not have specialist wingbacks who could make this system work.
Also, against the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian, you wouldn’t want to leave even small pockets of space in wider positions, for they are good dribblers and can exploit the slowness of the visitor’s wingbacks, which will most likely be two amongst the trio of Glen Johnson, Emre Can and Alberto Moreno.
The 4-2-3-1 system is simple and will give Liverpool the defensive solidity they need in order to enhance their chances of winning tonight. But, again, Rodgers would be better off playing Gerrard in a higher position, closer to Thibaut Courtois’s goal.
This season, the Reds have managed to score a mere 49 goals, but conceded (38) close to 80% of what they have scored, which is the reason why they have not challenged United and Arsenal for a top-four league finish.Last season too, Liverpool conceded a lot of goals (50), but in Luis Suarez and Sturridge, they had two lethal strikers who tore Premier League defences apart.
Simon Mignolet has turned around his wretched form from earlier in the season, and will no doubt start in goal for the visitors.
Johnson has been doing well lately at left-back, winning 9 of his 14 attempted tackles and 12 of 17 aerial duels in his last four consecutive starts for Liverpool. If I was Rodgers, I would shift him onto the right fullback position, where he will be going face-to-face with Hazard.
At left-back, in place of Johnson, I would place the faith on Moreno, who has gone out of the reckoning after a couple of listless defensive displays against United and Arsenal, when his Spanish compatriots – Juan Mata and Hector Bellerin – made a mockery of his defensive sense and positioning.
However, I would bring him back on for the simple reason that he does have speed on his side, and can match Willian’s, who is expected to play on the right flank for the hosts. Also, having had time to reflect on his shambolic displays, Moreno could return a rejuvenated figure and add solidity to Liverpool’s backline.
At the heart of that rearguard, Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren have started 3 of their side’s last four games, managing to keep just 1 cleansheet in that period. Going into a game of this magnitude, I wouldn’t want to be fiddling with my defensive personnel, and Skrtel and Lovren should retain their places.
Coming to the engine room, as aforementioned, I would like to see Gerrard not be played at No. 4, but further forward. Also, Rodgers needs to keep things simple and opt for a double pivot that Liverpool need, to counter Chelsea’s threat in counterattacks and cover for Johnson and Moreno, who like to venture forward from their respective right and left fullback positions.
Jordan Henderson has had a good season, playing in 34 league games and scoring six goals, which is the second-highest tally for a Liverpool player, behind Gerrard and Raheem Sterling’s seven goals.
Not only has he been getting the goals, but creating them, as well, registering 8 assists and creating 61 chances overall in 34 league appearances. In addition, he has shown good passing capabilities over the course of the campaign and has good pace to match his counterparts’, making him a viable choice to play as one of my defensive midfielders for tonight’s clash.
Henderson’s partner has to be another hard-working midfield player, who is willing to do the donkey work and render comprehensive defensive support. Can, having been brought from Bayer Leverkusen as a midfielder, would be my preferred choice in front of the back four.
The German has won an impressive 57% of his attempted tackles in 24 league appearances and, like Henderson, has the necessary speed to track back or recover from mistakes, so Can would make a good choice.
Further forward, Gerrard would be my No. 10 because he can render creativity and also possesses that innate goal scoring ability. At 34, you want the Englishman to give you as much as he can in an attacking sense, which can only be possible when he has been relieved of his defensive duties.
To the left of Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho is a certainty, given the kinds of goals he has scored this season and his ability to go past people when in full flow. He has been a tad inconsistent, though, but don’t expect him to be warming the benches for today’s game.
It is unclear as to who will play to the right of the veteran, as Balotelli may not be fit to start and Sterling might have to play the No.9 role, which he has played well at different stages during this campaign.
In that case, the ebullient Adam Lallana should occupy the right attacking midfielder’s slot.
Such a lineup, in my view, should make Liverpool a tough side to break down. They will have hard-working midfielders shielding the back four, while the likes of Sterling, Coutinho and Lallana add a lot of flair and creativity to break down the meanest defense in the Premier League this season.
Mourinho, despite having won the title, wouldn’t want to lose to a heavyweight Premier League rival, so expect the Portuguese to set up defensively and look for a mistake or two, that the visitors have the propensity to make. It should be an intriguing fixture, but I just hope that Rodgers is sensible with his Liverpool tactics and doesn’t tell his players to over-commit themselves, which will only play it into the hosts’ hands.