When two ex-Swansea managers meet for the first Merseyside derby of the season in the blue half of town, it would be the first time that Roberto Martinez faces a system that he himself practiced on the a regular basis in the Premier League.
Martinez’s shape of having 3 at the back, has over the years received huge acclaim for the manner in which the Spaniard allotted the perfect player for each particular role. But the major difference between Roberto’s system and the shape being used on a regular basis by Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool is the quality of strikers upfront in the latter.
Rodgers’ 3-5-2 sees his midfield duo of Gerrard and Lucas sit deep in their half and allow the wing-backs to connect directly with Suarez and Sturridge upfront. Instead of having players in roles reminiscent of Maloney and Jordi Gomez in between the lines or Victor Moses attacking directly from the right, all from Martinez’s system, Rodgers prefers a midfield that presses higher up the pitch without the ball and looks for their main men upfront when on the ball.
Despite all the talk regarding the 3 man defence at Liverpool, Rodgers instead shifted to a 4-4-2 against Fulham. Liverpool’s 3-5-2 got hammered at the Emirates the previous week, and the likes of Bacary Sagna and Rosicky had a field day on the right flank against the clueless LWB Cissokho. The Frenchman was on a number of occasions left undecided whether it was the cutting-in Rosicky he had to cover or the overlapping Sagna.
In fact, Cissokho again faltered in terms of pressing on many occasions in that game, and Martinez’s quote from his Wigan days comes aptly here: “When you play a 4-3-3, you rely a lot on the full-backs to get high up the pitch. You shouldn’t look at a system as a way to win a football match, it is the players that play the system.”
Against Fulham, Rodgers again missed a key player for his 3 man defence: Kolo Toure, and the manager was quick to make a decision to revert to a back 4. Toure and Sakho have been a key part of Rodgers system as neither of the 2 is uncomfortable being stretched into a wider role at times.
Unfortunately for Rodgers he will still be missing Jose Enrique against Everton, and that again leaves Aly Cissokho at LWB. And to worsen matters, the French defender will now be facing the likes of Kevin Mirallas upfront and Seamus Coleman overlapping from the back. Looking at Mirallas’ performance against Spurs, the amount of time and space that the Belgian afforded to his compatriot Vertonghen at Left back for Spurs, could have been put to deadly use by the likes of Jose Enrique.
The other flank is where all the talk of the town is coming from. Leighton Baines and Pienaar were a formidable combination in the last 2 seasons, and though the South African midfielder has just returned from injury, Martinez could really open up Liverpool from this flank. Pienaar is rarely one to stay put on the flank and will mostly be seen in between the lines in a central position.
This would leave the entire wing for the battle between the 2 Englishmen, Baines and Johnson, and based on current form there is only one winner there. Rodgers’ best bet in this case would be to get Lucas Leiva close to Pienaar and close down the Everton man just as he receives the ball in space. This would again leave Johnson to deal with Baines, but would atleast not in effect stretch out Kolo Toure from defence.
Pulling Lucas Leiva out of the center would leave Stevan Gerrard and Jordan Henderson as the only 2 in the mid against Martinez’s trio of midfielders. So now it depends on what Martinez’s selection would be in midfield in order to address this opportunity. Barry, McCarthy and Osman have been starting the last 2 games, and unsurprisingly both of these have been 0-0 draws.
Barry and McCarthy have started to form a good understanding in the double pivot and Martinez will surely need all their experience to thwart the likes of Suarez and Coutinho trying to fall in between the lines. So Osman seems to be the likely candidate to be sacrificed in order to add another English flavor in attack, Ross Barkley.
The 20-year-old has had a fantastic start to this campaign and was quite unlucky to find himself on the bench due to Pienaar’s return. Barkley’s introduction to this game would leave Lucas Leiva with too many things to handle, as Gerrard will surely be no match to Barkley’s swift turns and dribbles in midfield along his trademark ferocious long range efforts.
With the Suarez-Sturridge combo in frightening form for Liverpool and Lukaku at his beastly best for Everton, the game completely depends on which manager will get his midfield correct.
With Ross Barkley being quipped as quick fix for Martinez, Brendan Rodgers will actually have an option of shifting to a 4-4-2 system similar to the Fulham game. This would see Henderson playing from the right and Coutinho playing from the left, and apart from the duo providing better service to “SAS”, this would also see both these players tracking back with either fullback.
With Henderson’s work rate guaranteeing a good marking of Baines, Coutinho’s presence will be a bigger influence in the center of midfield rather than marking Coleman. If Rodgers indeed does shift to this system after being subjected to intense pressing on the wings and being played out by an extra man in midfield by Everton, it will be very reminiscent of the match where Pardew had to shift this Newcastle team to a 3-4-3 to handle a 3 man defence mastered by one Roberto Martinez.