04 May 2012

Liverpool v Chelsea 05.05.12

12:15pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 11.29.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 11.20.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.06.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.07.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Fulham (a); 3-0 Norwich (a); 0-1 West Brom (h)
Chelsea: 0-2 Newcastle (h); 6-1 QPR (h); 2-2 Barcelona (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Bellamy 9; Carroll, Gerrard 8; Maxi 6; Kuyt 5; Skrtel 4; Adam, Downing 2; Agger, Coates, Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Shelvey 1
Chelsea: Lampard 16; Sturridge 13; Mata 12; Drogba, Torres 11; Ramires 10; Terry 6; Ivanovic, Kalou, Meireles 5; Luiz, Malouda 3; Cahill 2; Boswinga 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Spearing
Kuyt Gerrard Bellamy

For those who think formation doesn't matter, that the tactical eggheads who reduce the game to numbers and minutiae are ruining the fun for normal people, well, you're wrong. It matters very much, especially in a match like Liverpool against Chelsea, no matter either's form, and especially in a cup final – matches which are usually decided by minutiae.

I honestly don't know whether Liverpool will play two up front or three in midfield. And the choice will probably define proceedings.

Since Adam's injury, Liverpool have usually been better with Suarez and Carroll up top. Both matches against Everton and Stoke in the FA Cup, most notably. Despite the strike partnership's two-steps-forward-three-steps-back evolution, Liverpool look more threatening with both Suarez and Carroll on the pitch, no matter any subsequent weakening in the middle. And honestly, in most matches, Liverpool's had weaknesses in the middle no matter the formation.

However, the "big game" template – at Chelsea in the league, both legs against City in the Carling Cup semi, both matches against Arsenal, and all three against United – has been a five-man midfield and a lone striker. All of those matches took place before Adam's season-ending injury. Do Liverpool now have the central midfielders to play 4-2-3-1?

Well, the short answer is Liverpool don't really have the midfielders to play either 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. I know, that never looked likely in August. But that sort of postmortem can wait another couple of weeks. Each formation would have detriments and positives. The goal, obviously, is picking the one with more of the latter than the former.

There are still, always, questions over Gerrard in a 4-4-2, no matter if he's paired with Henderson, Shelvey, or Spearing. But is adding another of those three to make a three-man midfield really the best solution? Maybe I'm just biased by what we had to sit through on Tuesday. Henderson did not look good, removed after 45 minutes. Shelvey looked marginally better, but "good" remains a bridge too far. Spearing was approximately the absolute opposite of good. Maybe this won't be the case with a stronger XI. Maybe it won't be the case because it's a cup final rather than a ho-hum-who-cares league match. Maybe it won't be the case with Gerrard playing, either holding behind the attackers, as in the both legs of the Carling Cup semi-final (which remains my template for Liverpool's big game tactics), or roaming behind the striker with two others sitting.

That both of these options have such glaring weaknesses means we might see a curve ball, something similar to the 3-5-2 used at Stamford Bridge last season, but that seems a less likely option simply because the only time it's been used this season was the 0-0 against Stoke at Anfield. Still, there's assuredly a case to be made for an XI of, say, Reina; Skrtel Carragher Agger; Johnson Henderson Spearing Gerrard Enrique; Suarez Carroll.

The other concerns: who plays on the flanks and Carragher. I'm not really concerned by the latter, but I'm mostly just incredulous that he might be an option. Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, and Enrique are all fit. Dalglish has almost always chosen those four when all are fit. The lone exception, the semi-final against Everton, was a different case because it's Everton and because of how Osman played as a "right winger." Ramires (or, less likely, Sturridge or Mata) will play that role somewhat differently. If Liverpool play 3-5-2, he'll play. That makes sense. Carra starting in a center-back pairing with both Agger and Skrtel fit and Drogba likely to start does not.

As for the flanks, it seems an easy answer if Liverpool use a five-man midfield. Downing's been really really really (did I mention really?) terrible lately and Maxi played 90 minutes on Tuesday. That leaves Bellamy and Kuyt. Yet another area where Liverpool aren't exactly overflowing with options. If 4-4-2, it'll probably be Henderson on the right and Bellamy or Downing on the left.

Chelsea, on the other hand, will play 4-2-3-1. Outside of the Barcelona tie, where they were 4-2-3-1 in name only, Di Matteo has solely deployed that formation. Which is another reason I think Liverpool need three central midfielders. Drogba will play as lone striker, in front of a line of Kalou-Mata-Ramires, with Lampard and Mikel, Essien, or Meireles holding. The back four will be Boswinga, Ivanovic, St John Terry, and Shotgun Cole. Both Cahill and David Luiz remain injured.

So, it's finally here. The match which will define Liverpool's season. Win, and there are arguments that the campaign wasn't so terrible despite the overwhelming terribleness of the league campaign. A domestic cup double cannot be undervalued, no matter how much each competition has been devalued in recent years. Lose and, well, I'd rather not contemplate. It would probably be ugly.

It seems insane that there's so much hanging on one fixture, but insanity has been this season's dominant leitmotif. That it's against that lot, the nouveau riche Evil Empire from South London, is eminently fitting. Liverpool have won five trophies since 2004-05: the 2005 Champions League, the 2005 UEFA Super Cup, the 2006 FA Cup, the 2006 Community Shield, and the 2012 League Cup. They had to beat Chelsea on the path to each of those triumphs.


Anonymous said...

This blog is absolutely fantastic.

nate said...

Much obliged for the kind words

Alex said...

Great stuff, as per.

But Chelsea in South London? News to me! (unless you're talking about their training ground)

nate said...

Not south of the Thames, but it's SW6 (I think) and was south of where I lived in London so I'm counting it as South London.