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Apr 13, 2014

Tactics Board: Coutinho the right man for Liverpool

ESPN FC's Steve Nicol gives his marks for Liverpool following their 3-2 victory over Man City.


LIVERPOOL 3-2 MANCHESTER CITY Sometimes Brendan Rodgers’ two aims seem mutually exclusive. The Liverpool manager looks to outnumber the opposition in midfield. He also tries to cram in as many attacking players as possible. It requires compromise and Philippe Coutinho started on the right of a midfield diamond, rather than his preferred station as a No. 10. Nevertheless, he had licence to get forward. His touch map is a further illustration of that. What it doesn’t show, too, is that as Raheem Sterling scored Liverpool’s first goal, Coutinho was making an overlapping run on the right, ultimately serving as a decoy. Rodgers allows his players to be fluid in possession and Coutinho was able to roam and rove. Only five outfield players -- the back four and Steven Gerrard -- have anything approaching a fixed position. The downside of the diamond is that the full-backs can be afforded too little protection when the ball is moved quickly to the opposing wingers. At the start, Liverpool’s dominance in midfield caught City out. The comeback came when the visitors -- and James Milner in particular -- were able to use the space on the flanks. While Coutinho’s touch map shows he often shuttled over to the right, he certainly did not hug the touchline or operate directly in front of the full-back. The fact that he made six tackles, more than anyone else, showed his willingness to work, but at 2-2 Rodgers recalibrated Liverpool to give them more of a solid base. Their winner came, indirectly, from the introduction of a more orthodox midfield player, Joe Allen. It allowed Coutinho to get further forward, on the left of a 4-3-3. Coming infield from there, he scored the winner. SWANSEA 0-1 CHELSEA Despite Jose Mourinho’s suggestions that he has no strikers, his Plan B for the last week has involved having two or three on the pitch. The Chelsea manager tends to start with a 4-2-3-1 formation but ended the Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain with Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba on the pitch. He began with just Ba against Swansea but brought Eto’o on at half-time and switched to 4-4-2. When Ba scored the only goal, however, he reverted back to 4-2-3-1, meaning that Eto’o went to play on the right, the role he occupied for Mourinho’s 2010 Champions League-winning Inter side. And then when Ba was substituted, Eto’o went to lead the line, so that, including his time in a strike partnership, when he played just off the Senegalese, he did three different jobs in his 45 minutes on the pitch. His touch map shows his varied duties. Eto’o tracked back when Chelsea were ahead -- indeed, some of the cluster of dots near the halfway line are because one of the great strikers of his generation was nowhere near the penalty area for a Chelsea corner and he ended up preventing a counterattack. He also had five attempts at goal, though the fact that he only hit the target once illustrated why Chelsea struggled to break through. ARSENAL 1-1 WIGAN Wigan manager Uwe Rosler admitted to borrowing from his predecessor Roberto Martinez’s blueprint for beating Manchester City when Wigan won at the Etihad Stadium in the sixth round. For Saturday’s semifinal, he was again influenced by the Spaniard, whose Everton team defeated Arsenal last week. The principal difference was that Everton played two centre-backs and Wigan, as they did at City, with three. Yet what made their shape unique was the combination of Callum McManaman’s deployment high up the field as a right winger, a ploy of Martinez’s in last year’s FA Cup final, and the use of a central quartet who comprised a diamond, a tactic Everton used last week. Wigan were lop-sided, fielding a back three, two wing-backs, McManaman and a diamond of James McArthur, who was anchoring the midfield, Jordi Gomez and Josh McEachran on the sides, and striker Marc-Antoine Fortune, who dropped in to occupy the area patrolled by Arsenal’s captain Mikel Arteta. Fortune is a genuine No. 9 and Everton’s Steven Naismith was a false nine last week, but they had similar duties. McManaman’s role was reminiscent of Romelu Lukaku’s last Sunday. Because he rarely came back, he prevented Arsenal left-back Nacho Monreal going forward. The Wigan goal, when a penalty was awarded following his diagonal run infield, had some similarities with Lukaku’s strike at Goodison Park. With Arsenal stymied on their left and crowded out in the centre, there were two possible routes open to them: a pass through or over the back three, who played a high defensive line, which was an approach they tried occasionally, or to outnumber Wigan’s left wing-back Jean Beausejour with the right-sided pair of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bacary Sagna. It was something they should have done more before Arsenal trailed. Arsene Wenger’s eventual answer was to revert to a system he rarely uses these days: 4-4-2. He paired two tall strikers, Yaya Sanogo and substitute Olivier Giroud. The dynamic on Arsenal’s left flank changed, too, as Wenger brought on Kieran Gibbs, who, unlike Monreal, was a factor going forward, and Rosler removed McManaman, whose station in attack had nullified the Spaniard as an attacking force. With Sagna also coming forward, Arsenal delivered more crosses and showed the way to play against a team with wing-backs is to use the full width of the pitch. WEST BROMWICH ALBION 3-3 TOTTENHAM Harry Kane has only started two league games for Tottenham but they have been the last two and he has scored on both occasions. However, the question of how and where to use the 20-year-old has been an issue for a while. He was a surprise selection in the Europa League game at home to Benfica and struggled as a No. 10. His return to the team has come slightly further up the field. Kane has operated as a second striker, playing just off Emmanuel Adebayor, but often up against the centre-backs rather than being charged with working between the lines. His touch map shows that Kane was often on Adebayor’s left but he also got into the penalty area -- tellingly, his goal was a header from a right-wing cross. Kane had five attempts at goal, a sign of his threat, and while the statistics may have been distorted by a remarkable game and by Spurs’ need to come back from 3-0 down, he also had eight in Monday’s 5-1 thrashing of Sunderland.