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Defense may be Reds' best form of attack

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Luis Suarez is likely to play off Andy Carroll in Liverpool's attack at Wembley
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

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Back in November, Liverpool, still riding high on the optimism that Kenny Dalglish had brought, beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. The Blues had just begun the stutter that would ultimately cost Andre Villas-Boas his job. Patterns were beginning to emerge, weaknesses in the Chelsea rearguard that a number of teams would exploit before Villas-Boas was finally deposed in March. Three weeks earlier, Arsenal had won 5-3 at Stamford Bridge, exposing Chelsea’s discomfort with a high line; Liverpool played on that neurosis, pushing high up the field, pressuring Chelsea in possession.

That led to Liverpool’s opener, Petr Cech putting Jon Obi Mikel under needless pressure with the result that the Nigerian was first dispossessed by Charlie Adam, and then had to watch as Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy played a rapid interchange before teeing up Maxi Rodriguez. Chelsea dominated the first 40 minutes of the second half and leveled when Daniel Sturridge turned in a mishit Florent Malouda shot after the Frenchman had been allowed to run and run, but the basic structural problems of Chelsea’s midfield and defense were exposed again with three minutes remaining as Glen Johnson was able to isolate Ashley Cole before bursting past him into the box and scoring the winner.

Eight days later, in the Carling Cup, and both fielding very different teams, Liverpool beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge again, winning 2-0 despite Andy Carroll missing a first-half penalty.

Since then, though, there have been significant changes at both clubs. The arrival of Roberto Di Matteo to replace Villas-Boas at Chelsea has led to a return to the old ways. The defensive line has gone back, confidence has returned, and Liverpool will be facing a very different side.

For all the talk of Di Matteo returning to the old Mourinho-style Chelsea, there is one notable difference. The defense plays deep, there are long passes aimed at Didier Drogba and there is a willingness to shut games down, but the shape – in domestic games at least – tends to be a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 4-3-3. So rather than seeing John Obi Mikel flanked by Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, both of whom had license to push forwards, the preference now is for Juan Mata to play off a front man with two from Mikel, Michael Essien, Frnak Lampard, Ramires and Raul Meireles behind. One of that group will be tasked with holding, the other given a little more license.

Against Barcelona, Mata was consigned to the flank, as the 4-3-3 returned, with Mikel, Lampard and Meireles in the middle, but that was a specific defensive ploy for that game. While playing that three against Liverpool’s 4-4-2 would almost certainly guarantee control of possession in the midfield, it would also be needlessly negative and might render Chelsea predictable from an attacking point of view, grinding the game into stalemate.

When a 4-2-3-1 meets a 4-4-2 – assuming that is what Dalglish opts for – it should anyway have an advantage in midfield. If Dalglish opts for the same midfield that played in the semi-final, Jay Spearing would presumably operate deep, picking up Mata. That would then leave Gerrard trying to deal with the more advanced of Chelsea’s holders, with only Luis Suarez to deal the deep-lying one. Liverpool’s first-half success in the league game at Stamford Bridge was rooted in the fact that one or both of Suarez and Craig Bellamy – his partner that day – harried Mikel as soon as the ball was played out from the back to him. In the second half, whether because Chelsea went a little longer, because of fatigue or simply because the game shifted more into the Liverpool half so Cech was playing it out from the back less frequently, the superiority of Chelsea’s midfield was clear: it makes little sense for forwards to drop deep into their own half in search of the ball (unless, like Wayne Rooney, they have a particular aptitude for it).

That is the danger for Liverpool again, as it would be for any side matching a 4-4-2 against a 4-2-3-1. Generally speaking a 4-2-3-1 should dominate possession, but the 4-4-2, once possession is won, should pose a greater – or at least a more direct threat – thanks to its extra forward and enhanced width. With Liverpool the situation is more complex because Suarez naturally falls deep from a striking position, particularly when paired with Andy Carroll, as he presumably will be in the final, and because Jordan Henderson has a natural tendency to tuck inside.

Henderson’s role, in fact, may turn out to be key. Ordinarily, his job would be to pressure the opposing left-back, in this case Ashley Cole, who has been in fine form in recent weeks, while Johnson picks up Chelsea’s left-sided forward (Daniel Sturridge, perhaps? Or Florent Malouda? Or conceivably even Mata if Di Matteo did go for a 4-3-3). If Henderson is forced inside to help Gerrard out – something particularly likely given Gerrard’s tendency to get caught upfield, then that may open the way for Cole to push forward and overwhelm Johnson two-on-one, particularly if Chelsea, as seems likely given the probable line-ups, dominate possession.

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Check out the players that can impact the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.

The other flank doesn’t look much brighter for Liverpool. Stewart Downing is, in theory, its main creative weapon (although, as the joke had it, his first assist of the season came in the departure of Damien Comolli as the club’s director of football), but he and Jose Enrique are likely to be up against Ramires – a ball of energy who is in the form of his life, conscientious defender and, as he proved against Barcelona, more than capable of doing damage in his opponent’s box – and the impressively unflappable Branislav Ivanovic.

With that in mind – and this is a depressing statement for Liverpool, given how much the club spent this summer – it may be that the best thing for Dalglish to do is not to engage Chelsea in a firefight but to sit off, accept the midfield can’t be won, look to frustrate a side still a little short of creativity and then strike on the break using Carroll’s ability to hold the ball up and the pace and invention of Suarez. It’s the tactic of a side aware of its limitations, but as Chelsea proved against Barcelona, it can bring rewards.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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