02 February 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Stoke

Skrtel Kyrgiakos Agger
Kelly Lucas Aurelio Johnson
Gerrard Meireles

Meireles 47'
Suarez 79'

Liverpool's lineup prompted a barrage of pre-match questions. Seeing three central defenders, three full-backs, three central midfielders, and one striker-turned-right winger left many questioning exactly what formation Liverpool would use.

Today's XI most resembled the 3-4-2-1 drawn above, with width provided by the wing-backs, spending far more time in Stoke's half, supplemented by Skrtel and Agger striding forward from defense. Lucas played quarterback, holding from deep, completing pass after pass after pass, while Gerrard, Meireles, and Aurelio popped up all over the pitch. Kuyt did well as the main striker, comfortable with back to goal, holding up play for midfielder runners. The fluid movement gave Liverpool more opportunities to carve open the ten men permanently ensconced behind the ball.

Deploying three at the back fell out of use because of the proliferation of lone strikers. But Liverpool weren't out-numbered in other areas of the pitch because of how Skrtel and Agger joined the attack, often leaving Kyrgiakos in a one-on-one battle with John Carew, who spent the majority of the match nearly 20 yards away from teammates.

That the half ended goal-less aptly demonstrates Stoke's resiliency. Liverpool took time to adapt to the new formation, only pinning Stoke back in the last ten minutes of the half. The home side's lone threat in the first 35 came from a set play, when Kyrgiakos' header from Gerrard's corner was cleared off the line in the the 7th minute. Liverpool were delightfully fluid at times, but opportunities from open play were hard to come by, par for the course when facing the Potters.

Begovic was finally called into action in the 36th minute, brilliantly palming away Johnson's close-range header. Less than a minute later, Kuyt flicked a header wide of the far post on Kelly's second successive dangerous cross. Gerrard and Kuyt nearly sliced through a packed penalty box in the 39th, but Kuyt volleyed high and wide when the ball wouldn't come down. The rush subsided when Huth put two feet straight through Johnson's ankles, a tackle no different from the one where Gerrard saw red against United. Unsurprisingly, the defender only received a yellow.

Liverpool were able to maintain momentum after the interval – unlike the seven minutes which doomed the Everton result – taking little time to break the deadlock. Meireles claimed his third goal in four games after a scrambled set play: Gerrard's free kick found Kyrgiakos, who smartly set up the Portuguese midfielder instead of turning and blasting wildly towards goal.

Unwilling to ease off the gas, fully aware of how precarious a one-goal lead is, Dalglish handed Suarez his debut in the 63rd minute, shifting Liverpool to a more "orthodox" 3-5-2. Coupled with Stoke making all three changes – Delap, Collins, and Fuller for Diao, Faye, and Wilson – switching to 4-4-2, it led to an eminently watchable, increasingly open game. That Liverpool were rarely threatened, and rarely out of possession, made it even more fun to watch.

With 11 minutes to play, after demonstrating some clever touches and a much-needed burst of pace, Suarez marked his first game in the best-possible manner. Kuyt cleverly released the Uruguayan, who rounded the keeper only to scuff his shot, allowing Wilkinson time to make what looked to be a goal-saving tackle. But the fullback could only help it into the net. That the shot was initially on target should confirm a debut goal for the Kop's new hero.

Less than sixty seconds later, Reina made the one save he needed to make, smartly keeping out Walters after Carew turned Kyrgiakos and chested a cross into the striker's path. Shelvey and Gerrard nearly added more gloss in the dying minutes, each shooting narrowly over the bar (with Begovic getting fingertips to Shelvey's effort).

All the fears over whether Dalglish had been gone from the game for too long look wholly unfounded. He demonstrated a willingness to adapt to the opposition (I wouldn't expect to see this formation on Sunday), which wholly nullified Stoke. Liverpool blunted every problem the Potters caused in this season's first meeting, out-muscling the rugged side while conceding very few dangerous free kicks or throw-ins. Liverpool are playing fluid, attractive football for a change. And youth has been given a chance with Kelly's sixth-consecutive start and Shelvey's sixth-consecutive substitute appearance. This side – which has taken 10 points from its last five games – is completely unrecognizable to the one which sputtered through the first half of the season.

Liverpool are now two points from sixth, equaling Sunderland's goal difference. A third-straight league win, for the first time this season, is cause for celebration, but it goes without saying that little has been accomplished so far. Other than completely reviving the club's shattered confidence and laying down a cohesive blueprint for the future, of course.


Matt said...

Brilliant Kenny, brilliant.

Oh to have a tactician at the helm again.

Imagine if Woy had been run out a month earlier???

Calico Jack said...

Nice seeing Kelly and Johnson in the wing-back positions and Gerrard roaming the pitch. Onward and Upwards.