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Three Questions with Noel C. From The Liverpool Offside

This week's email exchange is with Noel C. from The Liverpool Offside. I ask the usual three questions, where as they had me participate in a fairly fun thing they call Tea and Crumpets.

Clive Brunskill

This is game is the second in a tough stretch. Even though the loss last week looks bad, there was at least a glimmer of hope in the performance. Can Fulham build on that going forward? Perhaps. But I doubt playing at Anfield is the time or place to do it. This is going to be a tough test, and I'm not sure how Fulham will approach it. I think that was reflected in my questions. Be sure to stop by their site for the less serious, but probably more fun, Q&A.

CC: Liverpool are currently tied for second on points, but by my estimation have played one of the easier schedules so far. The only away wins were against a pretty awful Sunderland side and an uninspiring performance against Aston Villa. They were only able to draw with Newcastle away even being up a man for a larger portion of the match and last weekend seemed thoroughly outplayed by Arsenal. Just how good are Liverpool? Is Fulham walking into the home of a long sleeping giant that is just awakening, or are you still just a club in the top 10 who's played an easy schedule and had a few good results so far?

Noel C: Liverpool's rather drab win against Villa did come the week after they had beaten Arsenal 3-1, and since then the Villains have dispatched Manchester City, showing that as poor as their season has been on the whole, they can still find it in themselves to come up with the odd performance against a top side. Newcastle, meanwhile, shut out Chelsea last weekend. Which isn't to suggest Liverpool's had an especially tough go of it, but outside of stumbling against Southampton they've done all they can do by beating the sides they should.

That's something Liverpool hasn't done in recent seasons, and stumbling against sides in the bottom half of the table is what has stopped the club from at least challenging for the top four ever since the wheels came off during Rafa Benitez' final year in charge. As for being outplayed by Arsenal, it certainly showed Liverpool have some way to go to compete in midfield with a side on pace to break 90 points and who have made themselves early favourites to win the league, but I'm not sure how much hope Fulham should take from that heading to Anfield.

CC: Stephen Gerrard looked pretty awful last week against Arsenal. I wasn't sure whether it was age catching up to him or if he's just not suited to the deeper midfield role in the 3-5-2 that Brendan Rodgers employs. Was this just an aberration, or is his time with Liverpool about to come to an end?

NC: He's never had a deep lying playmaker's tools despite what some like to imagine, and his best seasons at the club level came either playing off the main striker or on the right—which is to say, his best seasons have come when he's been largely freed of any defensive responsibilities. The bigger problem, though, is age. For all the physical talent Gerrard has, he's never been the most tactical player. In the past, he could overcome that through force of will and endless reserves of stamina, but now, when the legs start to go, he becomes a passenger, giving the ball away too easily and failing to share the defensive load when he does.

Certainly the talent and desire are still there, but both player and manager have to accept he's reached a stage in his career where he's not physically able to pay 90 minutes every week. Continuing to try to play him as though he's 23 and not 33 has hurt Liverpool's game this season, and perhaps even worse than that given his standing at the club, it's hurt Gerrard's. Managing his minutes—allowing him to be effective as the player he knows how to be rather than trying to force him to become something else in order to keep him on the pitch every minute of every match—is the only answer, and it's a change that needs to happen soon.

CC: The 3-5-2 (or do you prefer 3-4-1-2?) is not something you see very often in English Football. If you could, would you describe the strengths it brings to the squad and how you would attack it if you were an opponent?

NC: Its main strength for Liverpool was to find a way to play an extra player at the club's deepest position—centre half—and put two strikers on the pitch while still utilizing a compact, three-man midfield. In theory at least it's the answer to what to do with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge if, as Brendan Rodgers does, you still want to keep an extra man in the middle for pressing and passing. Against Arsenal, that midfield simply didn't perform. Gerrard ran out of gas before the first half was half way through, Jordan Henderson had his worst game of the season, and a largely isolated Lucas wasn't able to raise his game enough to compensate.

Fulham could always go with a three man midfield and hope Liverpool's fails to show up again, but the sounder strategy against the 3-5-2 is always to attack the flanks. It's a formation that piles all the pressure on the wingbacks, and if they can be pinned back it almost completely negates a side's attacking threat. Wingback was also a point of concern for Liverpool against Arsenal, as without Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, the squad simply lacked the talent to make the formation work—though from here on out, whether Rodgers even considers deploying the 3-5-2 may come down to if his two starters are available.

Key players, projected lineup, and score prediction

NC: With Gerrard a doubt for the match, both Johnson and Enrique expected back, and Philippe Coutinho healthy again, how Liverpool will line up is harder to guess. About the only certainty would seem to be that Rodgers will find a way to start both Suarez and Sturridge in striker roles, and though the 3-5-2 has been the answer to that need in recent weeks, it wouldn't be entirely surprising to see something of a 4-4-2 diamond that allows Lucas, Henderson, and Joe Allen to all start in midfield with Coutinho playing off the two strikers while Johnson and Enrique are left largely to their own devices on the flanks.

As for who to watch, when he's in the lineup the answer is usually Philippe Coutinho, and the score is likely to be something to something else, with something and something else almost certain to each be a natural number or zero.