Ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final clash with Aston Villa, Jack Lusby addresses three key selection questions for Liverpool.
Liverpool take on Aston Villa at Wembley on Sunday with a place in the FA Cup final at stake, and will be confident of victory over Tim Sherwood’s side.
However, Brendan Rodgers will need to treat this tie with the utmost respect, and will surely be masterminding his tactical outlook in the days leading up to this high-profile clash.
So which selection questions must Rodgers answer for Sunday?
Back Three or Back Four?
Ahead of every Liverpool game at this point one tactical question pervades: will Rodgers select a back three or a back four in defence?
After the phenomenal success of the Emre Can-Martin Skrtel-Mamadou Sakho trinity, injuries and suspensions have torn Rodgers’ security blanket from his slouching shoulders.
However, with Skrtel back from suspension, and Can having performed comfortably at the heart of a decidedly calamitous defence against Newcastle United on Monday night, the manager has two of his three best defenders back and available for selection.
This opens the prospect of the return of a back-three defensive system, with Can and Skrtel joined by Dejan Lovren at left centre-back.
However, with much of the Reds’ potency restored with a back four in place at Anfield on Monday, why tinker with the system?
Can could partner Skrtel at the back, leaving another man available in the midfield.
Alternatively, Can could be used in a right-back role, with Skrtel and Lovren used at centre-back, alleviating the issue of having to play Glen Johnson, who truly suffered after a bright start against Newcastle.
With Villa’s main attacking threat being the aerial monster that is Christian Benteke, it would make sense to restore Skrtel to the starting line-up.
But with the Villans fairly useless elsewhere in attack, Rodgers may be wise to overload their defensive areas.
Does Steven Gerrard Start?
According to reports, Rodgers is “pondering over whether to hand [Steven Gerrard an] instant first-team recall,” for Sunday.
“Gerrard will be desperate to figure to ensure his Reds career ends with an FA Cup final date on his 35th birthday on May 30 against either Reading or Arsenal. [He] bolstered his fitness by featuring in a behind-closed-doors friendly at Melwood this week.”
After sitting out for three games following his red card against Manchester United, Gerrard is back and fit to start, but where would he slot in?
If Rodgers is to persist with either a 4-3-3 or return to a 3-4-2-1, the central midfield roles in each system would surely demand too much of the 34-year-old, who was mercilessly targeted in this role by Villa under Paul Lambert earlier in the season.
Gerrard has performed more effectively in an advanced role this season, with his one-touch play and vision aiding the build-up of attacks.
It would be interesting to see whether the captain could perform in the false-nine role that Philippe Coutinho assumed against Newcastle, but it is important to point out that Gerrard is far from as bustling, energetic and elusive as the No. 10.
The main issue that Rodgers must face here is that he must not let sentimentalism—of Gerrard’s last game potentially being the FA Cup final—cloud his decision.
Can Philippe Coutinho Continue as a False Nine?
On the subject of Coutinho, after the 22-year-old performed so devastatingly for much of the 2-0 win over Newcastle on Monday night, should he continue as Liverpool’s false nine at Wembley on Sunday?
Exploiting the Newcastle back line expertly, Coutinho drew on their lack of pace and, seemingly, concentration to cut them apart time and again.
The Villa defence is similarly lumbering (the finesse of Jores Okore aside) and this could therefore be a tactic that pays off once again for Rodgers.
However, given that one of Liverpool’s supporting attackers at Anfield on Monday, Jordon Ibe, is cup-tied for this clash, Rodgers would be a man short from his successful previous 4-3-3 selection.
Lazar Markovic could fill that role, or Coutinho could switch back to the right-wing position that he filled in the previous FA Cup win over Blackburn Rovers.
Mario Balotelli is reportedly in contention for the trip to Wembley after recovering from illness, but the Italian is barely trusted when he’s full fit—is he a big-game player for Rodgers?
With Liverpool looking short of attacking options, perhaps Coutinho proved he is the way forward—for the short-term—and should continue at Wembley on Saturday.
How should Liverpool line up in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final clash with Aston Villa? Let us know in the comments below.