Those who have begun to doubt him will question how significant a loss it is, but Liverpool will be without Steven Gerrard for Sunday’s clash with Southampton as he recovers from a hamstring injury. Lucas Leiva is a doubt, but Raheem Sterling should be available after playing the final 13 minutes against Besiktas in the Europa League on Thursday.
The biggest issue in terms of team selection is how Brendan Rodgers chooses to deal with the exertions of that 1-0 win. For Southampton, the injuries are beginning to mount. As many as eight members of their first-team squad will be out, although there are hopes that Morgan Schneiderlin, Shane Long and Toby Alderweireld will all be fit.
Liverpool won 2-1 when the sides met on the opening weekend of the season, but it was far from a simple victory, Southampton managing six shots on target to Liverpool’s five before Daniel Sturridge found a winner with 11 minutes remaining.
That day, Liverpool notably struggled to deal with the forward surges of the Southampton right-back, Nathaniel Clyne scoring the Southampton equaliser, but the switch Brendan Rodgers has made to a back three means that dynamic is totally different this time around. In the 16 games since the 3-0 defeat to Manchester United at which the 3-4-2-1 first made an appearance, Liverpool have lost only once in 16 games, and that the extra-time defeat to Chelsea in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final.
LIVERPOOL’S CREATIVE PAIR
One of the major issues Liverpool have posed opponents over the past couple of months is how to deal with their two attacking midfielders.
Very few sides use two creative players operating in that three-quarter-positions behind a lone striker and it requires a major rejig of marking structures to deal with it, particularly with either a false nine such as Sterling or a highly mobile centre-forward such as Sturridge. Philippe Coutinho has revelled in the position over the past few weeks and even in the absence of Gerrard, Rodgers has the option of Sterling or Adam Lallana, against his former club.
The back of midfield has been Southampton’s great strength this season, with Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama providing a vital platform for their pressing game. In Schneiderlin’s absence Harrison Reed has fulfilled the role well, but even given their strength in that area, it’s a major task for two anchors to guard against two creators dropping off and pulling wide without risking leaving the back four exposed.
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The main reason Southampton have been able to play so far above their apparent status this season is their pressing, something introduced by Mauricio Pochettino and carried on, perhaps even improved, by Ronald Koeman.
They’re extremely good at winning the ball back quickly, forcing teams to try to pass hurriedly out from the back. The approach can falter against teams who are extremely technically accomplished, though, which perhaps in part explains the recent defeat to Swansea City.
One of the features of Liverpool’s fine form since December has been the crispness of their passing – most notably, perhaps, in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final against Chelsea – and that suggests that they should be less affected by Southampton’s pressing than most sides. It also raises the possibility of Liverpool scoring on the break if they can bypass the press quickly and use the pace of Sturridge or Sterling.
SOUTHAMPTON’S WIDE MEN
Southampton’s greatest attacking hope is probably from wide. Using attacking minded wing-backs has given Liverpool greater options in the offensive third, again and again finding an overlap, but it does render them vulnerable to a genuine threat from wide.
Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic – and Eljero Elia – have all had highly impressive seasons and if they can find space behind their respective wing-backs, they could get a run at a Liverpool back three that still doesn’t entirely convince.
Southampton’s recent results have remained good, with four wins and a draw in their last six games, but there’s been perhaps a sense of them scrapping towards results rather than playing with quite the fluency of earlier in the season.
Given how well Liverpool are playing at the moment, 2.90 on them to win looks tempting, although Southampton’s defensive record – only eight goals conceded at home – means it’s probably wise to temper that by backing them +0.25 at 1.72.
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