How to Beat Them
With all this in mind, there are some clear things that Liverpool need to do well if they are going to win the match.
The team needs to have solid central defenders who will be able to deal with the physicality of Stoke’s target man. Therefore it would probably be more logical to start with Coates rather than Carragher, especially as the Uruguayan has already played Stoke twice and should know what to expect. They will also need someone with a bit of mobility to cover the more nimble striker. Skrtel should provide this.
In midfield, the team needs to be able to hold onto the ball but also needs physical durability to withstand the pressure that Stoke will put on them. Finally, in attack Liverpool need fluid movement and a constant attacking presence; they need to be able to overlap their wide players and stretch Stoke’s stubborn defence so that they can secure the space in the middle (either between the lines or through the channels).
There are a few tactical variations which can offer this, in theory.
The lopsided 4-4-2. Seeing how well Liverpool played in the Merseyside Derby a few days ago, there are good reasons to play a similar style. One of the potential problems with this is that the asymmetry of the formation (with Henderson tucked inside) may reduce Liverpool’s ability to attack down both flanks and therefore stretch Stoke’s defence across the pitch. As we saw in the last cup game, however, this might not be too much of a problem, especially if Suarez recreates his tactical behaviour from the last match. He constantly pulled wide to receive the ball in the channels between Stoke’s defenders, stretching the opposition by constantly making the defence re-adjust to where Suarez was playing and where to mark him.
The other way to compensate for the narrow right-wing is for Gerrard to be given more freedom. Spearing and Henderson will be behind him and around him to cover, so he might as well aim his forward runs to the right half of the pitch. Effectively, when Liverpool have the ball he would swap positions with Henderson and deliver those famous through-ball-cum-cross passes from the wide areas. This is what he did against Brighton and, to an extent, against Newcastle. Also, if Kelly manages to reproduce his attacking display he can be another weapon on the right-wing (as much as Enrique would be down the left).
With Carroll up front and Gerrard pushing from deep, the team will have the direct and constant attacking presence they need. Carroll can come deep and play with his back to the goal, forcing Stoke’s defenders to leave their comfort zones and leave gaps to be exploited. Downing will complement this by hugging the touch-line and providing a wide option, although, as he showed against Everton, he is intelligent enough to come inside and mix up the play when required both on and off the ball. Henderson will tuck in and Suarez will constantly be roaming, providing the fluidity needed to cause Stoke no end of problems.
The “double false nines” approach. A 4-2-2-2 (or sort of 4-2-4) can provide enormous benefits too. Suarez and Kuyt will move around in the final third looking for space. If they divide their roles, one can be working the wings and the channels while the other drops deeper to stretch Stoke’s defence horizontally and vertically. The key, however, is to give them support by having people run beyond them down the flanks. Maxi coming in from the left and Bellamy coming in from the right looks like the most tactically balanced way to do that.
If we assume that Bellamy won’t be able to play, however (at the time of going to press there is no news on his injury) then Downing could be inverted on the right and Gerrard could push through the middle. The problem is that if Gerrard pushes forward too much he could expose Spearing on the break. Tactically this may not be an issue since Stoke tend to attack down the wings and do not offer a real threat in the centre of the park.
However, if both wingers are either tucked inside or “inverted” (i.e. playing on the side of their weaker foot so that they naturally come inside to drive at the goal) then it is imperative that both full backs get forward and overload Stoke’s wide areas. This is where Johnson will be missed, as he would be very useful in getting Stoke to open up space for the creative players in the middle.
The 4-3-3. Theoretically this is the least suitable framework of the three I have described. With one less forward, Stoke’s defensive wall may find it easier to suffocate Liverpool’s front three in the final third. However, there are options available which could work if Liverpool need to use it based on the players they have available or the preferences of the coaching staff.
First, if the front players are going to be outnumbered it is vital that they are as fluid as possible. They need a great deal of support from the midfielders. Suarez would roam up front, with Bellamy (or Maxi if the Welshman is unavailable) cutting in from the left and Kuyt sneaking in field from the right. They should be able to move in and out of each other and provide fluidity. This leaves the midfield. If we assume it will play in a triangle of “1-2” (i.e. a deeper midfielder behind two more-advanced players), then the most suitable setup will be Adam as the deep man and Henderson and Gerrard just in front of him. In theory these three men have enough ball-playing skills to move the ball around, hold onto possession and bypass Stoke’s closing down system. This will be made easier if Stoke only play with two central midfielders. By recycling possession they can drag Stoke out of their compact lines and play the right pass to the forwards.
It will be important, once the team has got forward as a unit into Stoke’s half, for Henderson and Gerrard to push on and give Liverpool more bodies in attacking positions. This will stretch Stoke vertically, while the full backs will do the same horizontally.
It’s not just the starting eleven and formation that matters. Liverpool need to be able to adapt during the game, too, especially if their initial plans don’t work as intended.
No matter which of these three approaches the management use (or, of course, if they chose something completely different), they need to make sure the motivation is there and that the team is tactically balanced. If they do so, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be one step closer to their second cup final of the season.