As far as the Premier League’s biggest games go, a clash between 13th and 14th place teams probably isn’t going to get the pulses racing on first glance.
Delve a little deeper though and we find an intriguing set of circumstances which make Liverpool vs. Wigan Athletic a very appetising game indeed, not least of all because of the attacking styles of play between the two sides.
Before Brendan Rodgers took over as Liverpool manager in the summer, principal owner John W Henry was spotted talking to Wigan boss Roberto Martinez in the States, presumably with a view to potentially taking over the role at the Anfield club. The job eventually went to Rodgers of course and he has since set about re-shaping the squad in his own image, and playing to his own preferred methods.
Passing the ball is nothing new to the Anfield club but they are now being encouraged to do so more consistently, more frequently and more often in dangerous areas of the pitch under Rodgers—leading, they hope, to a better quality of chance coming along to score from.
Goals have still been difficult to come by for the home team, who have scored 14 times this season, though this betters Wigan’s 12 strikes. Liverpool have a better defensive record so far too, conceding 12 times against Wigan’s 18.
Formation-wise, this game is an interesting match-up indeed.
Wigan play a 3-4-3 system regularly, with either one advanced midfielder behind two forwards or two wider support players either side of a striker up front. Either way, quickly getting the ball down the flanks and into the feet of the creative players in the final third is a big part of Wigan’s game-plan.
Liverpool have run mainly with variations of 4-3-3 this term but last week twice played with a back three, in the Europa League against Anzhi and in the Premier League against Chelsea.
It is a system type that several Liverpool players are acquainted with, having played similarly under both Kenny Dalglish and Rafa Benitez before Rodgers. Will the manager stick with the system then and go head-to-head with Wigan’s three man defensive system?
It seems unlikely.
Liverpool’s strength in ball retention has been with utilising two deeper midfielders behind a single more advanced one, always having options to pass to and being happy to recycle the ball from near the half way line whenever necessary. That they have struggled to create scoring chances regularly enough is partly to do with the fact that they haven’t quite gotten it right with the “No.10″ role yet—Nuri Sahin is playing more advanced that would be expected usually—and also partly because the wide forwards have yet to really grasp what the role entails.
Entirely understandable, given the two normal starters of Suso and Raheem Sterling have amassed a paltry 30 appearances at senior level between them. As time goes on the latter will develop a better understanding of how to maximise the space in those central areas, and recognise when to move himself infield to occupy them.
Suso, on the other hand, is patently more suited to the withdrawn central role and might best serve Liverpool coming off the bench as a substitute in this role later on in games, rather than starting matches from the right flank and trying to affect matches from the channels.
For Liverpool, the key to comfortable victory at home might well come in this area of the pitch. If they can get Sahin—or Suso, Shelvey or Gerrard—into the zone between Wigan’s central midfielders and three centre-backs, those players have the technical ability to find gaps and measure passes for Sterling and Luis Suarez to run onto or, closer to the penalty box, to simply shoot first time.
Drawing one of the centre-backs out to meet the creator will obviously leave a gap in the defensive line for Suarez in particular to exploit—and given his improvements in finishing off those chances this season, you wouldn’t back against him knocking another couple of goals in this weekend.