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On Holding Midfielders and Conventional Wisdom

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Conventional wisdom says to play a more defensive lineup against strong opponents and a more attacking lineup against weaker ones. The return of Lucas Leiva gives Brendan Rodgers a chance to turn that on its head.

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Michael Dodge

With ten games to go and an outside chance at winning the title for the first time in the Premier League era, Liverpool face their most important run of games in years. After a season made difficult at time by injuries, the squad is also rather fortuitously nearing full fitness at just the right time. Every first team player bar Jose Enrique is likely to be in contention over the season's final stretch, and for the first time in a long time, Brendan Rodgers is going to have some difficult choices to make.

"It was really good for me to get going again and try to improve my fitness," said Lucas, who along with Mamadou Sakho will available on Sunday when Liverpool face Manchester United. "I was lucky that I wasn't out for a long time and I'm now looking forward to first-team action. Hopefully I'll be able to help the team again for the next 10 games because we know how important they are. I felt really good after the [reserves] game and I'm looking forward to the next two months."

It would be surprising to see either Lucas or Sakho start against United given Liverpool's good form and that the pair are only just returning from injury, but Cardiff at Anfield the following week could lead to a few selection headaches—particularly in the case of Lucas. Gerrard's best games as the deepest midfielder have come against Liverpool's best opponents, and Manchester United are likely to give him another chance to shine. Where the questions have come have been against the supposedly easier sides.

When Liverpool faced Everton and Arsenal following Lucas' injury, Rodgers sent out a compact side that limited Gerrard's defensive responsibilities and allowed the captain to shine while relying on his instincts, his quick and aggressive passing fuelling a deadly counter game. Lesser opposition, though, typically sit back to protect against Liverpool's threat on the break, limiting the effectiveness of Gerrard's passing, leaving space his attacking instincts draw him into, and exposing Liverpool on the counter.

Against such opposition, Rodgers will have a choice to make. This week, though, few will expect Lucas to start. Not with the way Liverpool are playing; not with United at home seeming a game set up to get the most out of Gerrard as a holding midfielder whose best qualities are found on the attacking side of the ledger. Against the likes of Cardiff, Sunderland, West Ham, and Norwich, though, there's a strong case for starting a holding player who frees up his teammates to focus entirely on the attack.

Conventional wisdom has it that a team can sacrifice a defensive player for a more attacking one against less dangerous opposition, but that's a wisdom based on a more traditional team balance than Liverpool has shown. Playing a more compact formation against top opposition can disguise it, but in recent months Rodgers has been sending out a side with only two primarily defensive players—and when that side is given space to spread out into against weaker opponents, those two players are left exposed.

Most clubs seek, through some combination of centre halves, fullbacks, and midfielders, to have four players on the pitch whose primary concern is in the defensive end. The most attacking sides will often sacrifice one of those defensive players for a more offensive one. Liverpool, when the opposition allows them to spread out and limits their chances of playing a quick counter game, progressively push up the pitch and leave themselves with only two primarily defensive players.

It's a situation that, contrary to conventional wisdom as it may seem, speaks to a need to add a defensive player against weaker opposition. But not on the road against a Manchester United side that will be desperate for victory and should have little choice but to attack Liverpool. Against that sort of side—bizarrely; counterintuitively—two primarily defensive players and a compact formation seems Liverpool's best chance at taking all three points.