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Tactical Analysis: Liverpool Must Target Arsenal Midfield to Win Key Match

It won't be easy, but a win over the Gunners is still very possible despite an unfortunate string of injuries and suspensions.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

After a tough loss to Manchester United, injury questions hover over a host of Liverpool players such as Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana, and suspensions for Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel further deplete the team's depth. With a must-win encounter against Arsenal rapidly approaching, Brendan Rodgers will have to make some difficult tactical decisions when he selects his starting eleven against the Gunners.

Here are some of the key questions that he faces:

Who Leads the Attack?

Will Rodgers continue to line up with a single striker flanked by support on either side or will he change to a dual striker approach? This is the important question within the question, and it will be a big talking point in the run up to the match against Arsenal, as its answer will dramatically affect how Liverpool play in that game.

The decision comes down to the health of Sterling and Rodgers' faith in Mario Balotelli. We saw Sterling lead the attack in the 3-4-3 formation in December, and this could be a natural choice for Rodgers if he is fit. However, without Lallana there is an empty spot in the attacking midfield when Sterling plays as a lone striker, and Lazar Markovic could be the one asked to fill this gap as he's had some success in his limited time as a forward this year.

The diamond set up with both Sterling and Balotelli up top could also prove effective. Paired with Sterling's pace and natural ability to make incisive runs behind defenses, Balotelli would be able to drop back into the attacking midfield (where he is often most effective) whenever Arsenal gets stretched vertically by his speedy partner.

Other options in the attack include Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert, but given their lack of recent playing time and generally underwhelming play this season, it would be a surprise to see either player in the starting eleven.

How Does the Midfield Shape Up?

When Liverpool and Arsenal last met -- a 2-2 draw that could have gone either way -- the Reds dominated the midfield. Sure, that Arsenal midfield included a deep lying Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and an off-the-pace Mathieu Flamini, but the feat was still impressive. And it can be repeated.

In Liverpool's first encounter with Arsenal, Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana successfully filtered through the attacking midfield to pressure Flamini, who was isolated whenever Oxlade-Chamberlain pushed upfield.

This highlighted Liverpool's fluency in the central midfield -- the team's creative players caused problems as they darted in and out of the space in front of Arsenal's defense.

Even with improved health, the defensive midfield remains a weakness for Arsenal and an area that the Reds can exploit once again. In their last match Arsene Wenger asked Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin (and later Flamini) to protect his defense, which barely succeeded against a Newcastle side that is 17th in the league over its last six matches.

The issue for Arsenal is not just personnel based. Like Liverpool, Arsene Wenger's side enjoys positive football with attack-minded midfielders, and this mindset sometimes leaves the back line exposed.

Rodgers cannot perfectly replicate his tactics to take advantage of Arsenal's weakness -- injuries have removed this possibility -- so he will have to be creative. Last time around, he used a two-man defensive midfield of Gerrard and Lucas to free up Coutinho and Lallana in the attacking midfield. Henderson will likely be the one to replace Gerrard next Saturday, and if Rodgers continues to utilize the same midfield set up, then a protective duo of Henderson and Lucas could provide excellent cover for a back line missing Skrtel while still supporting the attack.

Lucas' positioning will dictate the shape of Liverpool's midfield against Arsenal. While the two-man defensive midfield that was used in the reverse fixture presents one option for Rodgers, he could easily shift to the diamond with Lucas playing as the deepest midfielder and Henderson and Joe Allen (or even Emre Can) in front of him in an attempt to further flood the center of the pitch.

The return of Lucas comes at a perfect time for Liverpool, and he'll play an essential role in the match against Arsenal whether he operates in a partnership with Henderson or as a lone midfield anchor. He adds strength and defensive awareness to the midfield, and his presence should allow his teammates to press more aggressively.

Four in the Back?

Martin Skrtel's suspension presents another headache for Rodgers, as the Slovak center back has been extremely effective in recent months as the deepest man in Liverpool's back line.

There are many possibilities for Rodgers even within the three-man defense. If he continues to use three in the back, he must choose between Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren to replace Skrtel in the starting eleven, and then he has to decide which player to play in the deep role that Skrtel has occupied.

There's also a slight chance that Rodgers rolls with a back four (which could happen if he uses the diamond). In such a situation, the manager would have to consider whether Emre Can is able to play as part of center back partnership with Mamadou Sakho, or if he would be better suited to move up to the midfield, opening up a whole new can of juicy tactical worms.

Possible Formations:

Here are two possible set ups that encapsulate the above points (created on OOTB):

3-4-3 v Arsenal

Diamond v Arsenal (thinktank)

Liverpool's injuries and suspensions threaten to derail a season teetering on the edge, but the string of bad luck doesn't have to be this team's Grim Reaper. With the right tactical selections, Brendan Rodgers can give his team a real shot at beating Arsenal and put Liverpool right back into the thick of the top four race. With so many possible choices for him to make and with the stakes so high, the results should be fascinating.

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