When Liverpool line-up at Old Trafford, what faces them is an abundance of world-class talent and a relentless, old Scot who has been haunting the club for decades. However, they do not intimidate the reds, anymore. Neither do the billionares at the Eastlands, or the multi-millionaires at Chelsea, or the men carving geometric shapes at the Emirates.
But the stubborn Potters have been doing so in the recent past at the Britannia Stadium; a place where the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo are often reduced to lashing out at the opposition, where Arsenal’s physios are always in for overtime, where even the mighty Barcelona is expected to struggle, and where opposition strikers spend more time in their defensive box than the attacking one.
Intimidation is not an additional weapon at the Britannia, it is the primary one. Stoke City’s style of play is often like a ninety minute version of the ‘haka’ – an intimidation ritual performed by the New Zealand rugby team before matches.
For a team often labeled a “basketball” team or a “wrestling” contingent, Stoke City have done well football-wise and become the envy of many clubs who have struggled to stay in the top flight. There criticism is unfounded since they basically do what every club does – play to a plan and play to their strengths. Stoke City, today, have the look and feel of a well-established Premier League club and it is easy to forget that it has only been three seasons since they returned to the top flight; especially if you consider their European conquests.
Liverpool have certainly been bearing the brunt of Stoke City’s unique regime. The Merseyside club have drawn twice and lost once on their visits to face Tony Pulis’ men, having produced pathetic, lifeless performances on all three occasions. In fact, if Stoke City followers were to judge Liverpool’s status in English football solely on the display in head-to-head matches at the Britannia Stadium, they would consider the Merseyside club to be relegation battlers.
The real question, though, is whether today’s Liverpool can handle the variation that Stoke brings with them, especially considering that Stoke City themselves have improved in leaps and bounds?
Although the mood around Liverpool is buoyant and their display against Bolton was majestic, the quick pass-and-move style of play is extremely difficult to play at the Britannia; mainly due to the start-stop and physical nature of the game. Matches against Sunderland, Arsenal and Bolton did not pose much of a threat to Liverpool’s fluency, but the same cannot be said about Stoke.
Stoke’s aerial bombardment and desire has seen them through many matches in the top flight. Treating every throw-in like a corner – due to Rory Delap’s extraordinary arm strength – enables Stoke to push the whole opposition deep into their own half, thereby distorting the opposition’s shape and disabling their rhythm. In addition to this – and this is what people tend to ignore – they do have enough quality with the ball at their feet to beat teams. Quite often, it turns out to be a perfect mix of tactics. Currently, with players like Jonathan Woodgate in defence, Matthew Etherington in midfield and new signings in Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Matthew Upson waiting in the wings, this is the strongest Stoke City side that Liverpool will face.
In Liverpool’s last three encounters at the Britannia, the Merseyside club gave far too much respect to Stoke. There is no harm in respecting your opposition, but not to a point where you enter the game in a defensive mindset with the sole purpose of “battling it out” rather than playing your own game.
When Liverpool drew Stoke in the 2009-10 season, Rafa Benitez put out a Liverpool team with an astonishing six defenders, along with two more defensive-minded midfielders. It was the most incredible signal of non-intent for any manager. ‘Safety first’ was the plan, hoping to exploit the defensive and attacking capabilities of Degen and Aurelio, while Aquilani and Riera were left on the bench. Ironically, though, that match is the closest Liverpool have come to a win at the Britannia, after being pegged back by a last-minute equaliser by Robert Huth.
A season before this, Liverpool had played out a dull, goalless draw at the same venue. Apart from a brilliant Steven Gerrard going close on a couple of occasions, the reds had nothing to write home about. In fact, Liverpool – the league leaders at the time – were fortunate to gain even a point from their travels.
Lucas and Mascherano were the central midfield pairing on both occasions; simply too lightweight and devoid of creativity for this specific contest. Both matches were crying out for some spark from a Liverpool point-of-view. Eventually, the matches became set-piece duels, energy-sapping wrestling contests and all about in-box scrambles that Liverpool struggled to cope with.
But Kenny Dalglish is proving that he is a quality manager, helping Liverpool erase their long standing no-win records such as the one at the Emirates. And due to his intelligent squad re-building, he has much better options to play with than his predecessors.
On Saturday, he will take the strongest Liverpool team to have visited the Britannia Stadium in four seasons, with an aim to dictate the game; a mindset that is unheard of, from a visiting Liverpool contingent. He is also expected to bring with him – for the first time – a more adventurous, attacking style of management in contrast to the cagey, cautious styles that Rafael Benitez and Roy Hodgson deployed at the Britannia.
Kenny Dalglish will have to decide, though, whether to stick with the same team he played against Bolton or modify the playing eleven. This match seems to be made for Andy Carroll’s strength and height, which can be used in the attacking as well as the defensive half. Although this would result in Liverpool compromising with their fluidity, this fixture has shown in the past that set-pieces are decisive.
Dalglish also has Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy at his disposal. The Uruguayan striker will be Liverpool’s major weapon, once again. Fernando Torres showed on the opening weekend of this season that there is enough space to find at the Britannia, if you are ready to be kicked about. Earlier teams to the Britannia consisted of strikers like David Ngog, Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard in a supporting role. There is no surprise Liverpool have scored only one goal – through Kyrgiakos – in their past three visits to Stoke.
Lucas of today is twice the player he was, when he was out-muscled in these fixtures a few seasons ago. His dominance in midfield and handling of Kevin Davies against Bolton showed that the Brazilian has come of age in the centre of the park. Playing two similar players – Mascherano and Lucas, a downgraded version of Mascherano back then – hurt Liverpool badly in this fixture. But with Lucas turning in Mascherano-like performances and Charlie Adam showing glimpses of Xabi Alonso in him, the reds will be a new force to reckon with.
However, Liverpool’s key to winning this match still lies in their defense. Stoke City’s aerial threat in the form of Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross and Jonathan Woodgate is bound to cause havoc in the Liverpool penalty box, even without the presence of injured Delap’s throws. Add to this, the newly-acquired towering presence of Peter Crouch and Dalglish would know where Liverpool’s major problems are likely to lie.
Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos led a fine performance from the back during Liverpool’s heartbreaking draw, two seasons back. Now playing for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, he is the only Liverpool defender to have commanded the box in a fixture at the Britannia. The likes of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel have struggled in the past, while Saturday is going to be Daniel Agger’s first visit to the ‘Land of the Giants’.
Rewinding back to the Sunderland game, Steve Bruce’s side had exposed some of the defensive frailties in Liverpool’s ability to deal with set pieces. It is not incorrect to say that in the couple of matches that followed against Arsenal and Bolton, Liverpool were not tested in this domain. Arsenal are not the ones to bank on their set pieces, while Bolton never got a look-in due to Liverpool’s exceptional attacking prowess. But Stoke City is all set to compensate this in the next match and test Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel’s aerial competency.
The presence and importance of Daniel Agger in defense is not to be under-estimated. His handling of Didier Drogba at Anfield in the return leg of the Champions League semi-final in 2007 marked him down as a defender with immense potential. After being troubled with injuries, Agger seems to have found his rhythm once again. Although he is yet to return to his best, his ability in the air and the confidence to pass the ball out of defence will be of great benefit to Liverpool, especially at a place like Stoke City where both, keeping the ball in play and keeping the ball in possession, are crucial.
Overall, there are many aspects of Liverpool that will be different from the previous visits to the Britannia – a more potent and variable strike-force, better use of width in midfield, a central midfield pairing that complements each other better, a potentially reassuring defence and a team full of self-belief.
Traveling to Stoke City may not be one of the eye-catching, big fixtures in Liverpool’s season, but it is of vital importance if only to test the physical and mental strength of this squad of players in dealing with whatever is thrown at them.
Saturday could mark another major landmark in Kenny Dalglish’s revolution – as big as any, thus far – and that is, conquering Stoke City.
Follow us on twitter @TheHardTackle
Follow the author on twitter @Akarsh_LFC