Alex Keble's latest Five-Star Tactics preview looks at five key issues to consider when Liverpool host Crystal Palace on Sunday.
Jurgen Klopp has claimed that “unlucky” injuries are the reason his team have not sustained a title challenge this season, but this is not entirely true. If Liverpool are to challenge for honours next season, and qualify for the Champions League next month, they need to learn how to win without their best attacking players. Few Premier League winners are as fortunate with injuries as Chelsea have been in 2016/17.
The visit of Crystal Palace this weekend is exactly the kind of game in which an injury-hit Klopp team usually struggles. Sam Allardyce has finally got Palace playing his style of football – deep defending; plenty of long balls; quick counters via a target man and fast wingers – and this could prove extremely effective against such an expansive team as Liverpool.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Liverpool v Crystal Palace on Sunday.
1) Can Liverpool pull a Sakho-less back four out of position without Mane?
The tactical pattern of this match will be easy to follow. Palace will sit in a deep, narrow formation and invite Liverpool to try to break them down, with Chistian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha awaiting the opportunity to counter.
Games against ultra-defensive teams are the hardest for Liverpool to win, largely because their gegenpressing philosophy is nullified by teams with no interest in passing out from the back, while the fluid movement of their nimble-footed forwards is nullified by the compactness of a strong defensive unit. Klopp’s side have dropped points against eight bottom-half clubs this season.
Sadio Mane is usually their saviour. His directness and physical bullishness injects an element of chaos into an otherwise obvious playing style (Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho move in fairly predictable ways), but his injury – coupled with the absence of Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson – will seriously slow down their attack.
However, Mamadou Sakho is unavailable to play against his parent club, which should strengthen Liverpool’s chances of finding pockets of space in the penalty area. Sakho has been instrumental in Palace’s revival, averaging seven clearances per match since joining the club in January.
2) Can Lucas mop up the second balls that fall around Benteke?
Both of Palace’s goals in their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge came via Benteke’s head; long balls towards the Belgian drew defenders close, and Zaha benefited from picking up the loose balls that fell around him. If Liverpool are to stunt Big Sam’s counters, they must limit the impact of Benteke’s aerial duels (he won an average of 10 headers per match in Palace’s wins against Arsenal and Chelsea).
Lucas Leiva has won 13 tackles and made eight interceptions in his last home two games, against Everton and Bournemouth, sweeping up superbly in front of the back four. Romelu Lukaku was completely shut down in the Merseyside derby thanks to Lucas’ close marking; he frequently collected the second balls and calmly recycled possession, limiting Lukaku to one key pass. He failed to muster a single shot on goal.
Lukaku’s Belgian team-mate is unlikely to fare better. His individual battle with Lucas – who won’t be afraid to sit on top of Benteke, thus allowing the back four to drop off – could define this match, unless Lucas fails a late fitness test.
3) Or will Palace’s Belgian striker dominate in the air, bringing Big Sam’s wingers into play?
If Lucas doesn’t recover in time, Benteke will be able to dominate aerially and instigate Allardyce’s main tactical strategy; get the ball out wide and attack the flanks. Both Zaha and Andros Townsend are seeing more of the ball under their new manager, largely thanks to the hard work of Yohan Cabaye.
Cabaye has been moved into a notably higher base position by Allardyce, which allows him to provide the close support Benteke needs. When the ball drops in this zone after long passes forward, the Frenchman attempts to collect the loose ball and quickly move it out wide. From here, Townsend and Zaha put their head down and make a beeline for the goal.
It is a simple tactic but a very effective one. If Lucas is absent, Palace’s wingers will frequently get on the ball in the opposition half. Liverpool are not particularly good at defending their flanks, largely because their three forwards do not enjoy tracking back. As such, the three central midfielders will have an awfully large area of the pitch to cover; Big Sam will know he can exploit Liverpool’s shape by switching the ball from flank to flank after Benteke wins the first header. It will be hard work keeping Zaha and Townsend quiet.
4) Can Coutinho get the better of Milivojevic?
The biggest problem with Allardyce’s system, however, is that both Zaha and Townsend occasionally over-commit to their attacking duties. Liverpool generally only make the breakthrough against defensive teams on the counter-counter – when a rush of blood from their opponents finally sees space open up for Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino.
Coutinho will find space on the left behind Townsend when a Palace counter breaks down. Consequently, Luka Milivojevic’s ability to shift across form right-centre midfield and meet Coutinho will be a crucial individual battle. Milivojevic is proving to be an outstanding signing for Palace, averaging 1.9 tackles and 2.9 interceptions per match. It will take intelligence and diligence to keep control of central midfield while scrambling over to cover Townsend.
5) Zaha v Clyne: who will come out on top?
The most in-form footballer on the pitch will be Zaha. Only Adama Traore and Eden Hazard complete more dribbles than Zaha (4.1 per match), who often single-handedly creates goalscoring opportunities for Palace from seemingly innocuous positions. Nathaniel Clyne is one of the best full-backs in the division at defending one-on-one, making for a fascinating battle on Palace’s left.
Liverpool should be able to maintain enough control over the match to limit his impact in wide spaces, but if Georginio Wijnaldum has another poor game (he made a costly error against Bournemouth) then Liverpool’s control of possession could wane as the match progresses. If this happens, then individual battles on the flank will become more prominent; Zaha will get the better of Clyne if Palace are given the opportunity to play their way into the game.
With injuries likely to significantly lower the tempo of Liverpool’s attacks, a newly-confident Zaha and Palace have every right to feel they can pull off a shock result at Anfield.