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Not since 2009 did Liverpool go to Old Trafford and gain such a convincing and triumphant victory. That day, Rafa Benitez was in the helm, and though Liverpool had Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard at his peak, Manchester United had Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. That day, the 4-1 victory was unexpected and surprising. Today though, Brendan Rodgers’ side went in as favourites, played to their tag and came out with a similar three-goal margin win.
With Tottenham Hotspur losing to Arsenal today as well, the top 4 is now more-or-less consolidated amongst Chelsea, Manchester City, and the victors of today’s respective derbies. Spurs are 7 points behind City, having played three more than the Sky Blues, while 9 points behind Arsenal and Liverpool, having played a game more than both. United’s defeat against the Reds effectively sees them out of the race for the top 4.
What this means is that Liverpool can now focus upwards, towards Chelsea and probably City, in their challenge for the improbable but not impossible, instead of having to look over their shoulder at the prospect of Spurs or Everton catching 4th spot. It should also mean Rodgers can use their tag as title underdogs or dark horses and keep the players calmed and relaxed, with some knowledge, barring a calamitous breakdown, the Reds should be playing Champions League football next season. But first, how has the Reds managed two consecutive 3-0 away victories, keeping two clean sheets at Southampton, and now at their arch-rivals?
After conceding 7 goals in the four games that came after the 4-0 thumping of local rivals Everton at Anfield, most notably the three conceded against Swansea at home, Rodgers once again tweaked his formation, starting with a diamond midfield four at Southampton.
It worked, as the Reds were able to neutralised the double threats on both flanks. Jordan Henderson’s versatility and stamina on the right side saw the Reds curtailing Adam Lallana’s influence, while Luke Shaw could not overlap past Jon Flanagan. On the other side, Joe Allen’s return to the team ensured Glen Johnson would not be double teamed by Jay Rodriguez and Calum Chambers.
Today against United, Adnan Januzaj and Rafael on Liverpool’s left could not get past Allen and Flanagan; while on the right side, £37million playmaker Juan Mata and Patrice Evra were ineffective going up against Henderson and Johnson.
Having Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge upfront, supported by either Philipp Coutinho or Raheem Sterling, meant that one of the opponent’s central midfielders had to sit back. At times, both had to drop deep to cover for their back four, in today’s case, Maourane Fellaini covering alongside Michael Carrick. This meant that Gerrard only had to deal with United’s no.10 at any one time, in this case Rooney, and the skipper rarely got doubled up in the middle, which would have caused Liverpool more problems. With the opposing attack effectively shut down, Liverpool knew they could easily dispossess their opponents and then send the ball forward to their deadly trio as quickly as possible.
The use of this midfield diamond by Rodgers has given the boss yet another tactical option to choose from. He has already deployed four formations this season, showing his adaptability, situational awareness and tactical prowess. With Suarez banned at the start, he played with two sitting midfielders in Lucas Leiva and Gerrard in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Coutinho behind the lone striker Sturridge. When Suarez returned, he dabbled with a back three and Suarez & Sturridge up front in a 3-5-2. Sterling return to form meant Rodgers just had to include him, thus using a 4-3-3 formation with SAS interchanging offensive duties to cover on one side. Lastly, Rodgers also tried a narrow 4-4-2 with Coutinho on the left and Sterling on the right. With the run-in coming up, teams will be on their toes as Rodgers can spring a tactical surprise anytime.
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Squad Depth Returning
The game was over to such an extent that Rodgers could take off his man-of-the-match skipper and bring on Lucas, returning from a long lay-off, in the 85th minute. The Brazilian managed to get ten minutes under his belt, which can only be an encouraging sign for the Reds. French defender Mamadou Sakho also returned to the bench after two months out, leaving long-term absentee Jose Enrique the only first-team member out injured. Liverpool are almost full-strength now, and at a good time too, with the final stretch in sight.
Rodgers use of different formations, especially this midfield diamond in the past two matches, has, in a way, increased the squad depth as well. Allen has managed to return to some good form lately, while Gerrard’s rebirth as a holding midfielder means Lucas is now his back-up. If Rodgers plays with the midfield diamond, one of Coutinho or Sterling misses out. If he goes back to the 4-3-3, Coutinho and Allen are battling for the last central midfield spot alongside the ever-present Henderson. If Rodgers decide to go back to two sitting midfielders in his favoured 4-2-3-1, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling and Allen are fighting for two of the three attacking midfield places, seeing that Lucas would sit beside the skipper.
Everyone is now fighting for their places. This use of the diamond has also meant Rodgers having to leave out one of his four offensive players. It’s never going to be the SAS, which means he will have either Coutinho or Sterling to bring off the bench as his impact substitute. Not bad considering we have not even mentioned Victor Moses or Iago Aspas – however ineffective both of them might be.
Finally, after a long time, Liverpool have options off the bench.
The young English winger had an impressive substitute appearance at Southampton, scoring with his first touch and within a minute of coming on. He started against United, and carried that form into the game. What’s more impressive, in a role that is unfamiliar to him, as the no.10 behind SAS.
He ran United ragged the whole time he was on the pitch. Running at the defenders, picking up the ball in midfield and having Fellaini & Carrick chase him, nicking the ball off Januzaj or Mata, Sterling simply gave his all before he was subbed off with a quarter of the game to go. His stock is certainly rising and as always been said, Roy Hodgson would be foolish not to take him to the World Cup.
Sterling has to make sure he turns up for the away games against the relegation candidates, namely Cardiff next weekend, West Ham United, Norwich City and Crystal Palace. These teams will probably sit back and soak up the pressure, and Rodgers will hope Sterling stretch these teams to open spaces for the SAS to exploit.