26 October 2009

Different games, different midfields

In the midst of the Alonso summer saga, I posted the results from different midfield pairings. Lucas/Mascherano’s line looked like this:

6 wins, 4 draws
2-0 West Brom, 3-0 West Ham, 4-1 United, 1-1 City, 1-1 Wigan, 0-0 Stoke, 5-1 Newcastle, 3-1 PSV [4-4-2], 0-0 Fulham [4-4-2], 2-1 Marseille

Let’s ignore the PSV and Fulham games because of the 4-4-2 formation in Gerrard’s absence (and Torres’ against PSV). So you have romps over United and Newcastle, two decent late-season wins when the entire team was in blistering form, three uninspiring draws, and a tough win in Marseille. This season, the pairing started against Spurs, Stoke, Villa, Bolton, West Ham, Chelsea, Lyon, and United (4 wins, 4 losses).

Those results, coupled with yesterday’s enormous win, reiterate a lingering suspicion many have voiced. Mascherano and Lucas are a good pairing against teams that match Liverpool in possession and tempo. Ferguson fed into Liverpool hands by selecting a lightweight midfield in Scholes and Carrick (United definitely missed the injured Fletcher), but yesterday’s was the type of game in which Mascherano and Lucas thrive.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of the Premiership doesn’t play like that against Liverpool. The Newcastle mauling was more of an aberration against a side in dire straights, while very few teams were able to knock Liverpool off its stride at the end of last season, let alone West Ham or Albion.

On his day, Mascherano is a beast of a midfielder. He is utterly relentless when the opposition’s on the ball, hassles and harries with the best of them, and can man-mark the likes of Kaka out of existence. Let’s just say his attacking qualities aren’t as developed. Lucas is underrated – decent at a lot of things, but not a standout in any area – and still quite young for the position. He’s energetic (a quality Benitez adores), ticks over play, rarely loses possession, and can get from box to box. But despite how I hate how he’s a main scapegoat, this isn’t solely a defense of the player. He’s not a creative force, not a scruff-of-the-neck midfielder, like what Gerrard built his reputation upon. Of course, he’s also 22.

In games like those against West Ham and West Brom last season, as well as the Hammers and Bolton this season, the pairing suffices when Liverpool’s firing, but the creativity often comes from other sources. And when the other players, especially in attack, are underperforming, neither Mascherano nor Lucas can change proceedings. See: Spurs, Villa, and Lyon.

Which is where Alberto Aquilani, whose debut should take place soon, comes in.

We saw it in the Lucas/Gerrard pairing against Burnley and Hull – 4-0 and 6-1 wins – which worked well, but was probably a stopgap given how Gerrard and Torres combine upfront. Mascherano’s forte isn’t needed against the bus parkers. If Lucas isn’t picking up silly fouls, he can be an even more effective defensive midfielder in those games because of his aerial ability, which is how a lot of those teams attack Liverpool. And his versatility next to the likes of Gerrard gives Liverpool far more threat than that of Mascherano. The attacking capabilities of Aquilani should mix well with Lucas’ in those games.

So what does this mean for the future? If everyone’s fit, the team should continue to be built around the Gerrard/Torres attacking partnership. Mascherano, Lucas, and Aquilani would interchange in central midfield depending on the opposition.

Against the likes of Stoke and Burnley, it’ll be Lucas and Aquilani. Against the Uniteds and Chelseas, Benitez will probably go with Lucas and Mascherano. And against the rest – the mid-table opposition, the deceptively difficult away games – we’ll get the balanced Mascherano/Aquilani partnership: one defends, one attacks, and ideally in better proportion than Lucas and Mascherano. More balanced than Mascherano/Alonso as well, which was too defensive for some games last season.

Again, I worry that I’m building Aquilani up into an unreachable paragon, but what Benitez has in mind, and the reasons for gambling over Aquilani's fitness, seems evident.

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