Liverpool approaches another landmark game this weekend; one that I feel will define the first part of the first half of the season. And no, it is not likely to be a blood-and-thunder affair the likes of the Merseyside Derby, nor is it a rattling of spears between Champions’ League rivals. No, Liverpool merely take on Southampton at Anfield. However I firmly believe that this game is the most critical of the first 6 despite its low billing and likely poor odds from the bookies against a home win.
How can I claim this game is more vital than the recent trip to Wales, or the visit of United? Several reasons, really:
- This is our first ‘easy’ game – in week 2 Aston Villa, although a team that barely escaped last season’s relegation battle, was an away fixture that followed their win at the Emirates and a surprisingly strong showing at Stamford Bridge; a minefield rather than a banana skin. Liverpool had a habit not so long ago of not winning the easy games (eg the same Aston Villa at Anfield last December at a time when some thought we’d “turned the corner”, only for us to lose 3-1 despite dominating every metric tracked).
- Suarez serves the last game of his suspension, with the Reds P9 W7 D2 in those he’s missed. Sometimes the last step is the hardest, as everyone already has eyes on the conclusion – a mouth-watering trip to Old Trafford in the Capital One Cup next week when he is eligible to play for the first time since April.
- Sturridge, Agger and Toure are not fully fit, Johnson and Cissokho won’t play, and Coutinho left the Liberty Stadium with his arm in a sling and will be out for 6 weeks – the ‘key player’ injury list is just about longer than that of the fit players. Coutinho especially will be missed, as he along with Suarez present our most creative output, with Aspas not up to speed despite his hard running and good movement off the ball (Borini, mark II).
- The starting XI will likely once more contain mainly players under 23, most of whom made their Liverpool debuts during this calendar year – an inexperienced side brimming with promise, but who have not yet fully appreciated how deep one can and must dig for results in this league.
- Lucas and Gerrard struggled in their last game after the international break, and we will need them to be on form – though reports suggest that our tough pre-season training schedule is what is adding to those heavy legs that have seen us unable to score a second half goal so far this season despite always entering the half ahead.
- Our tactic of trying to get in front and then defend, rather than trying to push on and score more as we did last season, is not one that will bear fruit for an entire season. Rodgers needs to pick his moments to mix it up, and this may be one of them. Such action could be something of a gamble without a proper number 10, and with a defensive plan of little more than “2 deep banks of 4” a la Hodgson – apparently abandoning playing from the back or resting with the ball due to Mignolet’s discomfort on the ball.
- As impressive as Simon Mignolet has been, Liverpool have faced an alarming number of shots on target this season – 20 thus far, a league high. Someone is going to punish us rather than settling for the draw as Swansea appeared to, and it could just as easily happen in the next game when our guard is down for this ‘easy home game’.
- Sakho got through a lot of work at the Liberty, and had some impressive match stats, but it should be remembered that his debut (allied with the absence of Agger, Johnson and Toure from the regular back four) ended a 5 match clean sheet streak in the league. More questions to be asked next time out for sure, especially of his occasionally poor timing of challenges outside the box.
- Liverpool are top of the league, and that comes with a certain amount of pressure.
- Southampton were the last team to beat the Reds (back in March), though admittedly not at Anfield.
We can take comfort that Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers have lost only 5 games in all competitions at Anfield (P28 W15 D8 L5), and no team in the bottom half of the EPL table has scored a goal at Anfield or emerged with any points this year, apart from West Ham whose 0-0 came when they were 12th on the table but about to climb up to their finishing position of 10th. In fact, among teams in the bottom half only Aston Villa and Newcastle scored at Anfield since the beginning of last season. Although Stoke ended the season outside the top 10, their Anfield 0-0 came at a time when they were in the top half of the table – perhaps balancing the West Ham result.
The implications of a win are worth mentioning. It would put Liverpool on 13 points from a possible 15, and would keep them at the top of the log regardless of other results. Going back a decade to Arsenal’s Invincibles season, only 6 clubs have come away with W4 D1 in the opening fixtures of the season (with 5 clubs hitting a perfect 15, finishing in the top 2 each time). In 3 of those that club won the title. On a further 2 occasions that club finished 3rd. The odd man out is Portsmouth back in 06/07 when they were top of the log after 5 fixtures, but eventually finished 9th. Portsmouth had not won all their first three (as Liverpool have this season), and had only played teams who would finish in the bottom half of the table in their opening 5 fixtures (unlike Liverpool who have played the league champions, among others). Another morale-boosting win should set our sights firmly on the top 3, with the prospect of one of the most dangerous players in the league set to return to the side immediately after the final whistle.
It seems too early for the league leaders to have a ‘must win’ game, and yet each season is a set of stepping stones; each one missed sets one back more than one might expect, especially when the step to it appears easiest. Liverpool are where they are despite not having played especially well for more than 45 minutes of any of their fixtures thus far, and despite Brendan Rodgers’ apparent allergy to making tactical changes even when the opposing manager has turned the game around and has 70% possession. They need to begin to demonstrate greater ability on the day in order to avoid getting sucked back into the whirlpool of ifs, maybes, and might-have-beens of the last few seasons.
My selection for the match – 4-3-3 with the ball, high line; 4-5-1 without it [no more two banks of four!]:
Wisdom Toure(vc) Sakho Enrique
Aspas Henderson Moses