Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson has named an unchanged midfield for the past three matches against Chelsea, Wigan and Stoke, but will have one or two decisions to make in this area of the pitch for the weekend fixture against West Ham United.
The quartet of Meireles, Gerrard, Lucas and Maxi battled their way to a victory against the league leaders before "tiredness" saw them struggle to contain Wigan a week ago. The 1-1 draw there was followed by last weekend's dismal showing at the Brittania Stadium against Stoke where, in fact, there was barely any midfield play worthy of the name in the entire game, and where Liverpool's unbeaten run came to an end.
Lucas Leiva's late sending off against Stoke means he will miss the game with suspension, a blow to both the Brazilian and his team given his recent form. Only a week ago Lucas was winning plaudits for a four-game 95 percent pass completion rate and his trademark energetic performances; now, however, he will miss a home game as the Reds look to bounce back from the disappointing defeat.
There are three possible replacements for the Brazilian ball-winner: summer signing Raul Meireles has so far been given precious few opportunities to play from the centre of the park in the league and has recently been back out on the right side of the quartet, limited to making futile runs back and forth against Stoke for the hour until he was replaced by enthusiastic top-scorer David Ngog.
Secondly, Jay Spearing could come into the starting lineup. The Scouse midfielder has had little Premiership action recently, notably the final couple of minutes against Chelsea at Anfield, and Hodgson has shown a reluctance to throw youngsters in from the start if seniors are available until now.
Christian Poulsen, much-criticised by fans this season—with some reason—is the other alternative. The Danish player made a 20 minute cameo appearance against Wigan last week but his first team action has been limited of late. An good outing for his national side this week may aide his cause. Tough tackling and combative perhaps, but is that what is required for Liverpool against the Premier League's bottom club?
West Ham have had plenty of difficulties of their own this season and have been difficult to predict a starting 11 for. Changes in formation as well as personnel have possibly contributed to their own downfall; though the Hammers have drawn their last three matches.
Mark Noble and Scott Parker are undoubtedly good players but the support cast can leave something to be desired: Luis Boa Morte has flattered to deceive for as long as he has been in England while the less said about Keiron Dyer's return for money the better.
Up front, Victor Obinna and Frederic Piquionne have clicked as a pair at times, while Carlton Cole has drifted in and out of the team as formations dictate.
But after the last game against Stoke, I defy anybody to argue that a game cannot be won and lost by the midfield.
Liverpool's non-existent brand of midfield play last week was a result of two things:
1) Stoke's greater desire, commitment and work-rate to win the first and second balls, and to keep piling the pressure relentlessly on Liverpool's defence from deep positions, and
2) Hodgson's decision ( supposedly) to play such an incredibly narrow midfield that it was almost like Brazil's World Cup 4-2-2-2 formation, but without the ability on the ball or the movement off it.
Let me make something clear: there is nothing wrong in principle with playing a central midfielder out wide. It has been done, many times over, with many types of central midfielder. Zidane played out on the left for Juventus and Real when needed, Gerrard and Murphy played on the right for Liverpool under Houllier, a succession of England midfielders have been "accomodated" out wide at International level and we all know what Stevie did on the right for Rafa Benitez.
This type of positional change will always have varying success, depending on the overall team tactics, the other wide players in the team providing balance (opposite flank winger, overlapping full backs etc) and the team mentality of the player in question.
So far, playing Raul Meireles out on the right side has not been a resounding success. He is not a wonderful crosser of the ball or a player with blistering pace and dribbling ability, he is a clever player with good movement, good use of the ball and a pretty decent shot on him. Sooner or later one of those long-rangers are going to go in.
Playing the way we did against Stoke, with Meireles and Maxi more or less sat on top of the even-deeper Lucas and Gerrard, Liverpool had no way to get the ball off Stoke in midfield, retain possession and build their own attacking impetus.
Lots has been made of how the Reds merely "hoofed" the ball away—but even this was a flawed attempt at a limited concept, as the whole idea behind a "kick and rush" approach would be to quickly get midfield players up in support to the front one or two to challenge for the second ball, pressurise the opposition high up the pitch and look to play off the main target man.
But the Liverpool midfield were always, always, 30 or 40 yards away from Torres and at times Kuyt, and instead of pressing forward to keep the ball in the Stoke half of the pitch, simply sat back and waited for the next aerial bombardment.
Again, this was neither the way to get the best out of an out-of-position Raul Meireles, nor, as it obviously turned out, the way to best handle the Stoke City approach.
Against West Ham, at home, in a(nother) game we badly need to win, surely the way forward for the Reds is to finally combine Raul Meireles and Steven Gerrard in a central midfield duo?
Both have stamina, strength, passing ability and enough positional intelligence to cover for each other in both defending and attacking senses. Both have the heart to take on a combative opponent and the ability to take on a technical one.
And perhaps most importantly of all, given Liverpool's dire goals:games ratio, both have the capacity to make up that extra player, so often the difference between a goal-scoring chance and a lost opportunity, arriving in the opposition penalty box in a timely fashion to support the attackers.
West Ham's defence is hardly awe-inspiring this season. Matthew Upson, for some reason regarded for years as an England nearly-man, is shaky and 'keeper Rob Green, outstanding in reactions and reflexes, has all the decision-making ability of a drunk David James on the phone to Steve Coppell.
One suspects—hopes—that the Hammers' back-line will have their hands full with trying to cope with Fernando Torres, who has of course already netted one Anfield hattrick against them. An extra player or two arriving from deep could be a key ingredient in winning the match for the home side.
That, of course, assumes that some service of the ball will be forthcoming from the other midfielders.
Which brings us nicely to the second decision that Hodgson may have to make.
Joe Cole is expected to return from his troublesome hamstring injury to face his old club - but will he get back into the team? Should Meireles indeed be moved into the centre of the park, the right sided spot would become free, leaving an obvious option of slotting Cole straight in (or switching Maxi to the right and putting Cole on the left, where he played before his injury).
Cole has yet to set the world on fire this season but there have been signs, and if Fernando Torres is fit to play and his movement is of the standard we've seen against Chelsea and Wigan at times, then a few Cole through-balls could be another big element of Liverpool's attack.
There are other options—Milan Jovanovic and Ryan Babel have both been waiting somewhat impatiently in the wings and both could fulfill either the right or left sided roles if need be. Alternatively Dirk Kuyt could switch to the right, as he did in the latter stages against Stoke, with either Babel or David Ngog drafted in alongside Fernando Torres in attack.
For what it's worth, I would like to see, aside from the aforementioned centre midfield partnership, Cole and Jovanovic both get starts against the Hammers. Hodgson cries out that the players are tired, but then seemingly does nothing about it. The same starting eleven as often as possible is great if that eleven is winning and strong, but the current crop are neither.
For those who still don't get the idea of rotation, just take a look at what always happened to Charlton when they were in the Premiership, come February/March time. Or Aston Villa every year under Martin O'Neill. Or take your pick from any of the teams later on this season who are consistently playing the same faces now.
However, one suspects, as a sad indictment of what we are fast becoming accustomed to, that the one change will be the uber-defensive Christian Poulsen, who slots straight in at home to West Ham, and the shape and line-up of the rest of the team will remain vastly unchanged, barring further injuries this week.
At home the Reds have been somewhat more confident and three points is three points, however obtained this weekend, but surely it would be an idea to play one or two more technically-able players at home and try to actively win the game rather than focusing on stopping as much of the opposition play as possible and hoping for a defensive lapse to allow Torres his one chance per game to win it for Liverpool?
Time will tell what Roy deems the best side but for now, and for the rest of this week, I for one will be hoping for a rather different lineup in the LFC engine room.
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