Cardiff follow up the important win over WBA with a trip to second place Liverpool. Liverpool’s irresistible form has seen them win four of their last five matches and they have the league’s top marksman up front, Luis Suarez.
Brendan Rodgers has been one of the more creative managers this season, alternating between a back three and four at times and sometimes using a strike partnership or lone striker. Against Spurs, and without Gerrard and Sturridge, Liverpool played a 4-3-3, with Coutinho supporting on one side and Sterling staying in an attacking position on the right flank. Henderson has also played on the right flank, but he was central this time, alongside Allen and in front of the defensive Lucas. Youngster Flanagan made another appearance at full back, with the overlapping Johnson on the right.
Suarez’s performances this season have been nothing short of exceptional and there have been very few top division players in recent years with a run of form quite like this, particularly one lasting a couple of months. He is averaging around a goal and a half per match and even that is not the full story. Not only has he outscored every other player this season (having missed the first five league matches) but he has also set up more goals than anyone else. Calling Liverpool a one man team is unfair but you have to look to Cristiano Ronaldo or Diego Costa to find another player currently in such dominant goal-a-game form in a major league (and Suarez’s 16 goals in 11 games beats Ronaldo’s 17 in 15 or Costa’s 17 in 16 comfortably).
Against Spurs, Suarez either scored or assisted all five goals and only Arsenal and Hull have managed to keep him from doing either in a match this season. In contrast to those efforts, Spurs did their best to help him. Spurs and Villas-Boas were widely criticised after the game for playing a high line against Liverpool, which is certainly true, but it has to be noted that Capoue (filling in as a makeshift centre back) did not adjust well enough to playing at centre back and consistently played far higher up the pitch than Dawson. Their complete lack of awareness of each other showed as Capoue regularly drifted forward into his regular position as defensive midfielder, leaving Dawson stranded behind him and a large expanse of grass for Suarez, Coutinho and Henderson to race into, safely onside. Liverpool’s opening goal is shown in the screenshots below, with the gap between Capoue and Dawson indicated by the black line.
In the first screenshot, Capoue has raced out to close down Suarez, who plays a decent, but not too dangerous, through ball to Henderson. Dawson cuts the ball out with a slide tackle (second screenshot) and there is a shield of four Spurs players between Dawson and Suarez; however, none make as much effort in tracking back as Suarez does in racing forward. Henderson recovers the ball (third screenshot) and plays it into Suarez, whose run is indicated with a white arrow and he finishes expertly.
Gaps behind the defence
The respective heat maps of the Tottenham centre back ‘pairing’, if they can be called that, are shown below, with Dawson above and Capoue below. The left image shows their positions over the whole 90 minutes and it can clearly be seen that Capoue is frequently far in advance of his partner. Most of his excursions into the opposition half occurred between 75 and 90 minutes (right image) as Spurs chased a point at 2-0 down and it is no coincidence that Liverpool scored a further three in this period, having a dominant 70% possession over the final 10 minutes.
In comparison, the heat maps of Cardiff’s centre back pairing (Turner top and Caulker bottom) from the West Brom clean sheet are shown below. This is more typical of what you would expect to see, with both centre backs taking up a position between the penalty box and halfway line.
In front of the Cardiff back four, as always, will be Medel but the positions of the other midfielders is less certain. Whittingham could well be on the left flank again to give defensive assistance to Taylor, in order to reduce the threat from Liverpool’s right wing. Liverpool’s formation against Spurs listed to the right, with Coutinho frequently cutting inside from the left and Sterling pushing forward with Johnson overlapping him from full back. On the left, the relatively inexperienced Flanagan was unprotected (although he did make some visits to the opposition penalty box, including his goal) which might give an opportunity for one of Cardiff’s pacey boyhood Liverpool fan right wingers, Noone or Bellamy, to attack him. If one was selected, Cowie may be given a central defensive midfield start to move over and provide some cover when necessary, with Mutch playing as the box-to-box midfielder and also pressing high (as he did successfully to score at Stamford Bridge).
Liverpool tend to try and build from the back, so pressure on the centrebacks and Lucas to prevent Mignolet passing them the ball is vital. Against Spurs, Lucas was Liverpool’s second top passer and received 92% of his passes in his own half (his position when receiving passes is shown below) and his discipline to stick to his role is admirable. By comparison, Capoue (an extreme example, perhaps) received 28% of his passes in the opposition half, despite supposedly playing at centre back. Campbell and Bellamy, if playing, are both used to chasing down defenders and they will be required to force Mignolet to play long balls, which should give Caulker and Turner, both excellent in aerial duels, an advantage in winning the ball back.
The Cardiff defensive line will not be as high up the pitch as Spurs was, which will make through balls a lot more difficult; however, it will also increase the playing area available for Liverpool to use. Cardiff’s hope will be to limit space by crowding their own half and that can only be done with bodies. Expect to see Mackay revert to the tactic of the wide players dropping back to the back four line, forcing the full backs closer to the centre backs and there is every chance that another defensive minded midfielder will play alongside Medel.
Liverpool dominated the ball against Spurs, a passing team themselves, completing 411 passes to Spurs’ 272, and Liverpool winning the possession battle in this game is inevitable. It might be a long afternoon but Cardiff’s chances of returning with a point, or even returning with a respectable defeat, depend on how rarely the passes find Suarez.
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