Liverpool: Why Fullbacks Are Essential in Overcoming Fulham
Brendan Rodgers will have had a full week working with his team. With no midweek clash to play, Liverpool should have had ample time to ensure that they are physically, tactically and mentally prepared to take the three points.
The manager will have a few decisions to make regarding his starting lineup, with Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling suffering from fatigue recently, while Nuri Sahin and Jose Enrique may be fit to return to the team.
It is in the full-back areas, though, where Liverpool will perhaps face the biggest challenges at both ends of the pitch.
Here's why Liverpool's right-backs and left-backs are key to victory in the upcoming game.
You can catch live text commentary of the Liverpool vs. Fulham match here on Bleacher Report. Kickoff is at 17:30 (UK) / 12:30 (ET) on Saturday, Dec. 22.
Liverpool Will Dominate Possession: Full-Backs Must Cover Counter Attacks
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Last week Stewart Downing and Glen Johnson filled the full-back roles for Liverpool. Though they were heavily involved going forward as usual, the two were unable to stop Aston Villa from counter-attacking effectively after quick turnovers.
The goals weren't exactly the fault of the full-backs, but Liverpool need to find the right balance between committing the full-backs forward during the game and holding a tight defensive line.
Jose Enrique might return to the Reds' 11 for the Fulham match. That could mean a return to the front three for Downing, though he and Jose Enrique have switched roles throughout the past month or two.
Either way, the full-backs need to remain vigilant to counter-attacking threats after sustained spells of possession and need to aid Lucas and the central defenders behind him as much as possible when Fulham attack down the flanks.
Wide Forwards Yet to Hit Top Form, Width in Attack Important
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As mentioned, Raheem Sterling may miss a league game for the first time since the opening day of the season, with Suso a potential replacement for him.
Jonjo Shelvey only lasted a half against Aston Villa, while Oussama Assaidi has been out of favour and Joe Cole seems incapable of playing an entire match.
With those wide forwards not having enough of an impact in the final third, the full-backs become hugely important in the attacking areas of the pitch in maintaining possession, aiding the build-up phases of the Reds' play and combining with the more central attacking players.
Glen Johnson and Luis Suarez in particular have shown a good aptitude in linking up together. More of the same would be great to see against Fulham.
Should Jose Enrique return to the team, Rodgers will hope that he and Downing can recapture their top form and link up down the left.
Jose Enrique, Glen Johnson and Stewart Downing Have All Scored Goals
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Sterling has scored once, the injured Fabio Borini has the same tally, Suso and Assaidi have yet to register and Cole has only recently hit the scoring trail.
With the wide forwards so far failing to contribute enough goals, the full-backs have also stepped up to pitch in with the odd strike.
Johnson, Jose Enrique and Downing have all scored this season and proved they can be a big threat in the final third, Johnson admittedly with far more consistency than the other two.
Liverpool will hope to create plenty of goalscoring opportunities against the second-worst defence away from home in the Premier League. The full-backs bursting forward from deep can be key in opening up the Cottagers' defence, whether that be by scoring themselves or setting up the likes of Suarez.
They Give Brendan Rodgers the Option to Switch Formation
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Rodgers' preferred formation at present is of course the 4-3-3. Since Lucas Leiva's return from injury, Rodgers has started every match with that system, though he has shown a willingness to switch when necessary.
The attacking instincts of all three of the regular full-backs mean that the manager has the option of switching to a back three and pushing the wing-backs on more regularly without needing to replace them from the bench.
Only Andre Wisdom from this season's full-backs would not be entirely comfortable as a more adventurous wide player, but he could certainly filter across as the third centre-back.
Liverpool will hope that they can find an early lead against Fulham to open the game up, but if their wayward finishing continues to frustrate, Rodgers might deem it necessary to switch to the 3-5-2 he used against Everton and Chelsea.
Johnson and the left-sided players, perhaps in particular Jose Enrique, give great athleticism, width, pace and the ability to get into dangerous areas in the final third with more cover behind them in defence.
All of these ingredients could be vital factors in finding Liverpool a lead in the game if it is tight going into the later stages of the match.
Fulham's Attack Stems from Both Flanks
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Statistically speaking, Fulham's attack is almost equally split between the two flanks and the central areas of the pitch.
In other words, they use the wide areas twice as much overall as breaking through central midfield.
Kerim Frei, Alex Kacaniklic, Damien Duff, Kieran Richardson—Martin Jol's team have plenty of options in the wide areas. They exploit this by passing forward quickly into space and looking to supply the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Hugo Rodallega in the middle.
The full-backs have their attacking responsibilities, and will be required to perform well going forward. But the danger presented by the Fulham wide players will require disciplined and conscientious play by the full-backs to ensure their teammates are not overloaded going in the other direction when they lose the ball.
Liverpool's full-backs will be key at both ends of the pitch in trying to defeat Fulham at Anfield.
Statistical data from WhoScored.com