Daniel Sturridge’s return from injury gives Brendan Rodgers a dilemma given the potency of Liverpool’s forward line against Wigan. Luis Suarez’s hat-trick strengthens his claim to the central berth, although Rodgers will argue that the Uruguayan has been equally dangerous from deeper, wider positions. Both Philippe Coutinho and Stewart Downing also performed well, and will be difficult to drop. Rodgers is likely to choose between including Sturridge in his usual front three, probably at the expense of Coutinho, or switching to a 4-4-2 variation with Suarez and Sturridge through the middle. However given the threat of Gareth Bale for Tottenham Rodgers is likely to want to keep an extra man in midfield, so a 4-1-2-3 seems the likeliest option.
Tottenham’s impressive victory over Arsenal last weekend will have increased their confidence further and Bale, and his teammates, have adapted well to the Welshman’s new central role. Jermain Defoe’s return after a long absence will be a relief to Andre Villas-Boas, who must be getting worried about Emmanuel Adebayor’s lack of form. Elsewhere Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson will compete for the left midfield role – Sigurdsson was solid against Arsenal and supplied Bale for the first goal, but Villas-Boas probably still identifies Holtby as a longer term solution. Despite the manager rotating his defence throughout the campaign, Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson’s excellent performances against Arsenal may suggest a first choice partnership has been found.
Contrary to popular belief it is Liverpool that come into this game in free-scoring form, having scored three or more goals in 7 of their last 13 league games. In contrast Tottenham haven’t won a league game by more than one goal since the 1st of January.
Tactical Comparison: 4-1-2-3 vs 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1
Tottenham’s recent use of Bale in a central role has changed the complexion of Villas-Boas’ side. Tottenham’s central midfield pairing still sit deep, but Bale’s advanced positioning has also seen Sigurdsson/Holtby and Aaron Lennon retreat into more generic wide midfield positions. This has turned Tottenham’s system from something resembling a 4-2-1-3 to a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. While Bale is still supported from the flanks in attack, without the ball Villas-Boas’ side now have the option of defending with two banks of four.
This makes a big difference to the tactical battle, most notably with the protection of the full backs. Both sides attack well in wide areas – Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson get forward well in support of Liverpool’s wingers, while for Tottenham Sigurdsson and Lennon are ably supported from full back by Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker. However Liverpool’s wingers’ high positioning gives their full backs far less protection than Tottenham’s, and Walker and Assou-Ekotto may find their forward runs untracked. Given that all four ‘wingers’ on show also enjoy drifting into central positions, the defending of wide areas and overlapping full backs will be key.
Both teams also have opposing midfield triangles, although the space between them is very different. Liverpool are compact, with Lucas in a holding role and Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen operating in central midfield slightly further forward. In contrast Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele and Scott Parker are positioned quite deep, whilst Bale is advanced of the midfield zone. This leaves to possible options: Lucas will certainly watch Bale, so Dembele and Parker will need to decide whether to move forward to engage Gerrard and Allen, or hold their position ahead of their centre backs. If they choose to engage they risk leaving space between the lines for Liverpool’s forward to exploit; if they stand off, Liverpool’s midfield players will have time and space to dictate the tempo.
Tactical Adjustments: Narrow left wingers
Both managers have a decision to make in the left side of their attack – does Rodgers move Suarez wide in place of Coutinho to reintroduce Sturridge at centre forward, and will Villas-Boas retain Sigurdsson ahead of Holtby? Whoever they opt for, noe of the four options are natural left wingers, and all will habitually take up more central roles.
This has a knock-on effect for all full backs involved. Firstly, left backs Enrique and Assou-Ekotto will need to get forward to provide natural attacking width, and secondly, both right backs may often find their forward runs unopposed if their direct opponent fails to adequately cover the flank in defence.
This will be particularly important to Liverpool. Tottenham’s wide players are likely to have success in central areas, as Liverpool’s holding player (Lucas) will be occupied by Bale. However the home side’s lack of a permanent player between the lines means that should Suarez, Coutinho and Downing move infield they may find themselves crowded out by Dembele and Parker.
Individual Analysis: Lucas
After a slow start to his Liverpool career the Brazilian has become one of the Premier League’s best holding players, and will have to be at his very best to stop Bale on Sunday. Under Villas-Boas Tottenham attack the space in front of the defence from all areas – Bale has the freedom to move across the pitch, both wide players will drift infield and Dembele and Parker infrequently burst forward from deep.
Fortunately Lucas is very strong positionally, and he often finds himself in the right place to thwart the opposition’s threat. Nevertheless he will need help from his teammates, particularly Allen and Gerrard. Rodgers may even choose to field Allen in a holding role alongside Lucas to occupy the space between the lines, leaving Gerrard to compete in midfield.
These are two sides that initially stuttered under new management but are now looking to complete impressive campaigns. Villas-Boas may not have his ideal squad – Tottenham still lack options in attack and a creative presence in midfield – but the Portuguese manager looks set to lead the club to the Champions League at his first attempt. Similarly Rodgers continues to adapt his squad to the demands of his footballing philosophy, but should Liverpool achieve a top six finish he would have combined a transitional season with a successful one. The two sides are far from the finished article but can be considered emerging forces in the league.
This fixture also demonstrates the flexibility shown by either manager – both clubs have used 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 variations this season depending on the players available and the opposition. With both sides playing well it promises to be an interesting game.