Talking today at his press conference on the eve of the Europa League Quarter Final second leg tie against Benfica, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has stated there is a possibility that his side will start with three at the back at Anfield tomorrow tonight:
“We were practising today with three defenders and with different players in different positions, so we will see how we’ll manage tomorrow.”
The tactic seems the sensible choice considering the dearth of options that Liverpool will have at left back tomorrow with Emiliano Insua suspended and Fabio Aurelio still out injured. Options such as Glen Johnson, Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger seem unlikely considering none of them have played the position in recent years while players such as Nabil El Zhar and Chris Mavinga are just too inexperienced for the role.
Although it does certainly make sense for us to change to three at the back, especially when playing at home with a deficit to recover from, is it so wise considering what we will be up against in regards to Benfica? A 3-5-2 formation does certainly have its advantages with five in midfield and two up front, but the position of wing backs will really be a critical area where the game will be won or lost. I am not overstating this point because Angel Di Maria, Benfica’s left winger, is definitely the biggest threat on the counter-attack that the Reds will encounter, and he is a problem that will need to be neutralised if Liverpool are to progress in the competition.
I don’t think many Reds fans will have a problem with Glen Johnson playing on the right hand side. Most of his best play for us so far has been in the attacking third of the pitch, and as a right back by trade he will get back and cover when he needs to. The only concern will be if he gets caught on the ball and he has to recover with both Benfica’s left winger and full back running at goal. The other side of the pitch is of bigger concern though. With Ryan Babel suspended, Maxi ineligible, Riera frozen out and Kuyt required up front to play alongside Torres, the left wing berth could be filled by Yossi Benayoun. The Israeli is great going forward but will he be able to track back to cover Benfica’s right winger and full back? Maybe Rafa will favour Steven Gerrard or Lucas Leiva, I don’t know, but it will be a big problem area if Rafa chooses to go 3-5-2.
Don’t forget too that Di Maria was switched to the right hand side in the second half in Portugal and although he was slightly less effective there, if Rafa doesn’t cover effectively on the left, the young Argentinean will have the freedom of Anfield. Remember also that Benfica’s full backs will get forward at every opportunity. Maxi Pereira and Fabio Coentrao love raiding from the back and it could lead to many dangerous overlaps on counter attacks that the Reds may fail to deal with. To cover for such eventualities, Rafa may opt to pick two defensive midfielders in Mascherano and Lucas despite the need to get a goal, leading to the Reds attack becoming less effective. The big risk then is that we could become impotent going forward and weak at the back, but with the players that Rafa has at his disposal at the moment, the formation looks like the best he can deploy. It is a risk we will just have to take.