LFC v RMFC preview: Liverpool’s midfield troubles and the Ronaldo threat

Real Madrid are the visitors at Anfield on Wednesday night in a key Champions League group stage fixture for Liverpool. Plenty of issues needs to be addressed, most important being the base of the Reds’ midfield. Cristiano Ronaldo has a duck to break at Anfield (surprisingly), and he comes to town for the first time since leaving Manchester United. Ronaldo and co provide the biggest test for Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, as teething problems continue to affect the Reds’ performances and results

Basic setup

Liverpool’s big dilemma will be their line-up. Real Madrid are a brilliant attacking side, with expensively assembled attacking tools. Brendan Rodgers has persisted with a lone forward in the absence of options, and has no surfeit of alternatives in midfield. Personnel-wise, Rodgers has to decide between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond, and will be hard pressed to go for the latter in Mario Balotelli’s lack of form. The 4-4-2 diamond offers little less defensive protection, and exposes Steven Gerrard to the mobile duo of James and Isco (if selected). Gerrard has had his problems dealing with David Silva’s movement between the lines earlier in the season against Manchester City, and it’s going to be a long night for Liverpool if he struggles.

The problem

Liverpool’s lucky escape on the weekend against QPR offered plenty of pointers. Steven Gerrard as an advanced midfielder worked against Liverpool as QPR could’ve been two goals to the good within the first half. Emre Can and Jordan Henderson’s defensive positioning left a lot to be desired as QPR’s Leroy Fer and Charlie Austin failed to make the Reds’ mistakes count. Real Madrid will most likely line up in a shape similar to the one they did in their weekend win over Levante. Ronaldo played a tad more centrally, while James and Isco started as inverted wide men from their respective halfspaces and cut inside.

Gerrard v QPR first half: Little to no contribution in an advanced role.

Gerrard v QPR first half: Little to no contribution in an advanced role.

Real Madrid are a forceful attacking unit whenever they have the ball, and this would require extra protection to the ageing legs of Gerrard. The lack of a proper, ball-playing holding midfielder is the issue here, and apart from Gerrard, there is hardly anyone who could pose danger in transitions. A diamond would mean two bodies on the defensive halfspaces which could free up the wide areas for the full-backs, while 4-2-3-1 would isolate Gerrard totally. In the defensive third, another problem is the 2v2 situation for the center-backs.

Ronaldo's positioning and the zone of uncertainty: Could create a lot of headaches.

Ronaldo’s positioning: Could create a lot of headaches.

Ronaldo’s starting position, even though he is a forward, is slightly off-center towards the left. Martin Skrtel and Javier Manquillo/Glen Johnson form the right half of Liverpool’s back four, and Ronaldo in the middle poses another problem here. Skrtel, the center-half, should stick tight to Ronaldo, but cannot afford to leave his line. While Manquillo/Johnson faces a similar problem of having to man Ronaldo’s zone. Ronaldo’s excellent movement makes it difficult to cut him off; this is an area where a proper holding midfielder would’ve come handy. Gerrard’s lack of positional awareness and another threat in Benzema (although Lovren will be the man on him) makes it even more difficult for Liverpool in defensive transitions.

Dejan Lovren has been ordinary at best, and this owes largely to his front-foot style of defending. He was pinned for an hour by Bobby Zamora against QPR, and his tendency to bypass his man without anticipation could be fatal. Alberto Moreno, the full-back on his side, is highly attack-minded, which leaves little choice for the Croatian Lovren to play his natural game. He would have to be extremely patient, and must be disciplined in his decision-making. Once the likes of Benzema or James runs clear, Liverpool have little pace to track back successfully.

Should Rodgers play deep?

Parking the bus would be a tough tactical choice for Rodgers, given his well-known ethos of aesthetic football. Liverpool could ill afford to play an expansive style of football, as Real Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking sides in world football at the moment. A slightly deeper line would mean little space for Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to ping the balls forward, but this also gives them more space to operate in Zone 14. Deeper Liverpool lines would also mean that their secondary threat, the full-backs, would also be starting from deep. Problems galore for Rodgers’ Reds, but a good bet would be to remain disciplined and soak up the pressure and hit back on the break, or from set-pieces. A hint of Rafa’s Reds, but Liverpool really needed their old gaffer tonight.

Just in

Team news have come in. Liverpool have gone for the 4-4-2 diamond, with Coutinho at the tip of it. Joe Allen and Henderson will flank Gerrard. Both Allen and Henderson have questionable defensive attributes, and will have to be extremely disciplined.

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