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Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Southampton (a) 03.16.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.01.12
2-0 Southampton (a) 01.22.05
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.28.04
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Swansea (a); 1-0 United (h); 4-2 Notts County aet (h)
Southampton: 0-0 West Ham (h); 0-1 Norwich (a); 5-1 Barnsley (a)
Liverpool: Sturridge 4; Moses 1
Southampton: Fonte, Lambert 1
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho Enrique
Henderson Aspas Moses
Brendan Rodgers has a few tough decisions to make, all due to injuries to key Liverpool players. Johnson and Coutinho, both large cogs in the Liverpool machine, are assuredly out for the next six or so weeks. Agger's still doubtful after picking up a knock in training last week. With Suarez suspended for one more match, that's four certain starters, four of Liverpool's best players, absent. That rarely, if ever, happened last season; maybe the last match against QPR counts, with Suarez, Gerrard, Agger, and Allen missing, but that match otherwise counted for little.
Coutinho, Liverpool's playmaker and attacking epicenter, will obviously be the biggest loss, the toughest to replace. Aspas, seems the most likely, used in the same manner as against he was Stoke and Villa when Coutinho played on the left, even though the Spaniard struggled to make an impact in both matches. Luis Alberto would be a gamble – a very enticing gamble, but very much a gamble. He's seemingly the most like-for-like replacement, but he's incredibly raw, unfamiliar with the pace and strength of the English game, despite his obvious potential, and both of Southampton's holding midfielders – Schneiderlin and Wanyama – will be difficult opponents, able to deny time and space to the cleverest, quickest attackers.
Personally, I'd prefer Henderson used centrally with Aspas on the right. Henderson's in excellent form, and his pressing and work rate could be crucial to disrupting Schneiderlin and Wanyama's ability to start Southampton attacks. Aspas losing possession and flitting in and out of the game would seemingly harm Liverpool less if he's used on the flank, and he'd be better able to run at a full-back to cut in on his much, much strong left foot than against a center-back and holding midfielder. This change also seems even more apropos if we're going to see a more defensively dependable player at right-back in Johnson's absence (no offense to Andre Wisdom).
There are three, possibly four, options in lieu of Johnson at right back: Toure, Wisdom, Kelly, or even Henderson. With Toure only fit enough for a substitute appearance last weekend and Kelly needing more time with the u21s to find match fitness, Wisdom got the nod against Swansea to mixed results. Kelly played well at times in Tuesday's u21 match against Sunderland, but I expect Toure to be the choice: reliable, versatile, experienced, and with the pace to join the attack if need be, although Enrique would obviously bomb forward far more often on the opposite flank. Rodgers' system often keeps one fullback back against threatening opposition, with Johnson and Enrique usually taking turns.
Revealingly, Agger's not to be found in the Liverpool Echo's spread of training pictures. If the vice captain's still injured, Skrtel and Sakho – as against Swansea – appear the most likely pairing, but Toure could well replace the Slovakian if Rodgers trusts either Wisdom or Kelly at right-back. Both Lambert and Osvaldo are quite good in the air, which means that having the physical presence of Toure, Skrtel, and Sakho could be beneficial tomorrow.
No team troubled Liverpool more in the last few months than Pochettino's Southampton, the last side to beat Liverpool, way back in mid-March, 14 matches ago. They beat Liverpool at its own possession game – well, more accurately, last season's possession game – and the fluid front four tore holes through Liverpool's defense both on the counter-attack and with patient build-up.
With the acquisition of Dani Osvaldo, Southampton's attacking set-up has become slightly different, more a 4-2-2-2 when both Lambert and Osvaldo play rather than last season's 4-2-3-1. Both formations are possibilities tomorrow. Lambert and Osvaldo started the last two matches, but Southampton failed to score in both, losing 0-1 at Norwich and drawing 0-0 against West Ham. Which makes me think Pochettino's more likely to start with last season's preferred formation, using either Lambert or Osvaldo – most likely the Englishman – with Lallana, Rodriguez, and Ward-Prowse behind the lone striker. Otherwise, the Saints' XI seems fairly set in stone: Boruc in goal; a back four of Clyne/Chambers, Fonte, Lovren, and Shaw; and Schneiderlin and Wanyama in midfield.
Like Liverpool, all of Southampton's matches have been incredibly narrow, featuring few goals. Southampton's both scored twice and conceded twice, winning 1-0 at West Brom and drawing 1-1 with Sunderland prior to the previously mentioned loss and draw in the last two league matches. Dejan Lovren has been an excellent addition to the defense. Brilliant left-back prospect Luke Shaw has also recovered from an injury against West Ham and should return to the line-up tomorrow; his ability going forward is another reason why I think Rodgers will start with Toure at right-back.
Southampton's style and ability will test Liverpool tomorrow. More specifically, test whether Liverpool's lack of possession in the first four matches, especially in the second half, was a small sample size fluke or a discernible trend and tactic. With a week since the previous match, fitness and stamina concerns shouldn't be as evident as they were after the international break or the midweek cup match.
If Liverpool allow Southampton time and space to cut them apart, Southampton will most likely cut them apart, no matter how Lambert, Osvaldo et al have struggled to find the net; how thoroughly Liverpool's defense has throttled Stoke, Villa, and United; or how many times Mignolet has denied opposition strikers. And as against Swansea, Liverpool's defense will most likely be unfamiliar and somewhat makeshift, even if it's the same back four that featured in South Wales.
Liverpool are at home, where they're almost always better able to keep the ball. Liverpool will need to keep the ball tomorrow.