Joe Allen to fill Henderson’s Boots? The Liverpool XI that could breeze past Norwich
With 22 days and four matches remaining of the 2013-14 Premier League season, Liverpool find themselves in unfamiliar territory, leading the pack, in a lofty position above their most bitter rivals at the summit of English football’s elite division. Four matches remain between now and May 11 to clinch their first league title since 1990, cementing Steven Gerrard into their Hall of Fame, and perhaps more fittingly, capping a rather poignant year for everyone involved with the club.
The first of the remaining four to <test the might of Liverpool in their quest for glory is Norwich City, who face Brendan Rodgers’ side on Sunday at Carrow Road with equally important ambitions of their own, albeit in rather different surroundings. The Canaries, managed by Neil Adams following the dismissal of Chris Hughton at the start of the month, find themselves with damaged wings at the foot of the table, thrashing in distress as they attempt to stay afloat, two points from safety.
As Liverpool endeavour to clinch a vital three points against Norwich, strengthening their elevated position, the Reds face the prospect of starting the match with the unfortunate double-blow of losing both Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson to injury and suspension respectively during last weekend’s important 3-2 victory over Manchester City.
With that in mind, here is the team that I believe Rodgers will pick for tomorrow’s match, assembled in a 4-3-3 formation (and not his recently preferred 4-4-2 diamond) due to the removal of the aforementioned players.
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
Only six goalkeepers have conceded more goals than Simon Mignolet (42) in the Premier League this season, with the 26-year-old Belgian having produced four defensive errors that have led to the opposition scoring.
The former Sunderland keeper needs to maintain concentration at Carrow Road against a team in the thick of it, at the wrong end of the table, fighting for survival. However, he need not panic; the Canaries’ lack of proficiency in front of goal has resulted in the East Anglian side having scored the fewest goals (26) this season.
Right-Back: Glen Johnson
Glen Johnson is Liverpool’s most creative defender, having fashioned a total of 23 goalscoring chances for his teammates during the current campaign. If Norwich City decide to activate damage limitation mode, digging in and fortifying their 18-yard box in the hope of securing a valuable point, Johnson’s overlapping surges forward could unlock the rigid defence.
Centre-Back: Mamadou Sakho
With Norwich City’s offensive threat being minimal, Rodgers could opt to give Mamadou Sakho his third league start this year, perhaps deciding to rest the returning Daniel Agger – whose excellent form has played a pivotal part in Liverpool’s ascent – for the decisive clash against Chelsea next week. Kolo Touré could also be given the nod, however Sakho played the full 90 minutes of their recent victory (3-2) against Manchester City and thus could be rewarded.
With a 92% pass accuracy and 69% tackle success after 15 games played, Sakho would give Liverpool added ball retention in attack and sturdiness in defence, giving the visitors the perfect foundation from which to build attacks against a disheartened Norwich with only three wins this year.
Centre-Back: Martin Škrtel
You only begin to realise the extent of Martin Škrtel’s excellence this season when you scrutinise his statistics.
Škrtel is the highest scoring defender in the league with seven goals, aided by having won a staggering 110 aerial duels with a success rate of 69%. In addition to this, 202 clearances, 17 blocked shots and 25 interceptions have been performed at opposition stadiums dotted around the country.
Given his ruthlessness away from Anfield combined with his aerial ability, the 29-year-old Slovakian could dominate from set pieces given Liverpool’s proficiency from the dead ball – no other team has scored more goals than Liverpool from corners (11) or crossed free-kicks (5) in the league – and Norwich City’s inferior 44% aerial duel success.
Left-Back: Jon Flanagan
Jon Flanagan has come on leaps and bounds since making his debut for Kenny Dalglish on 11 April 2011. Three years have passed and the 21-year-old is now held in high regard as a future England full-back, although Martin O’Neill is prowling because of Flanagan’s eligibility for the Republic of Ireland.
Whatever nation he decides to represent at senior international level, it’s Norwich who need to be wary of his surges forward (52% take-on success) as Liverpool’s fluid attackers interchange positions up front.
Defensive Midfield: Steven Gerrard
Thrusting his team into battle by the scruff of the neck, Steven Gerrard has been inspirational for the Reds this season, having won 59 tackles while patrolling the space in front of the back four. The England international’s delivery, especially from set-pieces, has also been impeccable and the skipper has achieved a total of 10 assists throughout the season.
Every title-challenging side needs a player in the mould of Gerrard; a hard worker with excellent ball distribution and a true leader both on and off the pitch.
Central Midfield: Lucas Leiva
With Henderson suspended for three matches, Lucas Leiva is a good bet to make the first team due in part to his aerial duel success of 62% – a somewhat surprising statistic for a player of his physical stature.
Lucas could form a three-man midfield pivot alongside Joe Allen and Gerrard, with the Liverpool captain perhaps freed of his shackles to advance into midfield as one of the defensive-minded midfielders holds position.
Central Midfield: Joe Allen
I have chosen Joe Allen as the other central midfielder, although as pointed out, Gerrard could assume an advanced role for this match if Liverpool need additional creativity going forward – it’s not something I feel they’ll have a problem with.
The former Swansea City man has achieved 42 tackles this season with a success rate of 55%. If Brendan Rodgers is looking to keep things tight, giving utmost freedom to the creative front three, then Allen’s inclusion would certainly fortify central midfield.
Right Wing: Raheem Sterling
On the shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, Raheem Sterling has blossomed into a attacking player full of pace and trickery (62% take-on success), carving defences open alongside Daniel Sturridge and the Uruguayan that everyone loves to hate.
Sterling has improved a great deal this season under the continued tutelage of Brendan Rodgers and Gerrard, and should be a firm favourite to be on the first flight to Brazil this summer.
Left Wing: Philippe Coutinho
Philippe Coutinho, so often deployed as a secondary playmaker this season – Gerrard as the primary playmaker orchestrating from deep, Coutinho secondary and Henderson as the runner, or box-to-box midfielder linking the two – may have to move to the left flank due to the absence of two key Liverpool players.
Offering the ability to beat his opposite man (56 take-ons), a willingness to shoot (86 shots) and no hesitation in harassing the opposition from the front (49 tackles won this season), the former Inter Milan player is a constant threat.
Striker: Luis Suárez
When it comes to scoring goals against Norwich City, there is no better player at Liverpool than Luis Suárez. The 27-year-old has scored an amazing 11 goals against the men in yellow in five matches.
Don’t be surprised to hear Delia Smith’s war cry roaring from the stands as she single-handedly attempts to quell the red tide. However, even her best efforts at mimicking Braveheart will surely fail as Suárez goes for the jugular in pursuit of the title.