By Gary Fulcher and Mihail Vladimirov.
The pressure on Brendan Rodgers was cranked up a notch following the 1-3 defeat against Crystal Palace on Sunday – a fourth consecutive defeat in all competitions – and with the Reds having picked up just three points from the previous four Champions League games this campaign, a victory is imperative against Ludogorets on Wednesday evening – 7.45pm kick off UK time – if we want to qualify for the knockout stages.
With Real Madrid uncatchable as group leaders, they may field a weakened team against 2nd placed Basel – who have three more points than the Reds – when they meet at St Jakob Park at the same time we travel to Sofia to face Ludogorets at the Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski, as the Eagles’ home stadium doesn’t meet UEFA’s requirements.
Liverpool secured a 2-1 victory when the two sides met on Matchday One back in September, with all three goals scored in the final stages of the match. Balotelli opened his Reds account with in the 82nd minute before Dani equalised in the 90th minute. More drama followed with Steven Gerrard scoring a penalty in the 92nd minute to secure all three points for the Reds. Since that meeting, Liverpool have played 13 times, winning four (one via penalties), drawn two and lost seven. Ludogorets in comparison have won 14 of their 28 games played in all competitions prior to this fixture.
A Brief History of Ludogorets
Considering the Eagles are only 13 years old, they’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time, having won three consecutive Bulgarian league championships since their promotion in 2011, two domestic league and cup ‘doubles’ and becoming only the third Bulgarian side to win a domestic treble (which they did in their first season in Bulgaria’s top flight). In 2013/14 Ludogorets competed in the Europa League and topped Group B that was made up of PSV Eidnhoven, Dinamo Zagreb and Odesa, with five wins and one draw. They eliminated Lazio 4-3 on aggregate at round of 32 having secured a 1-0 victory at Lazio before drawing 3-3 at home. They were finally eliminated at Round of 16 to Valencia losing 0-4 over the two legs.
Liverpool’s record against side from Bulgaria in European Competition:
- Total – P: 9 W: 7 D: 0 L: 2 F: 18 A: 8 GD: +10
- Home – P: 5 W: 4 D: 0 L: 1 F: 10 A: 3 GD: +7
- Away – P: 4 W: 3 D: 0 L: 1 F: 8 A: 5 GD: +3
Liverpool’s Champions League record (all rounds):
- P: 102 W: 53 D: 25 L: 24 F: 160 A: 86 GD: +74
Liverpool’s Champions League First Group stage record:
- P: 52 W: 25 D: 14 L: 13 F: 78 A: 43 GD: +35
Liverpool are missing Sturridge (thigh), Balotelli (groin), Henderson (illness), Enrique (knee), Suso (groin), Sakho (thigh) and Flanagan (knee).
Unlike Liverpool’s injury ravaged squad, Ludogorets are only missing Cvorovic (shoulder) through injury.
Goalkeepers: Mignolet, Jones, Ward
Defenders: Johnson, Skrtel, Kolo Toure, Lovren, Manquillo, Moreno
Midfielders: Gerrard (c), Henderson (?), Lucas, Coutinho, Allen, Sterling, Can, Markovic, Lallana
Forwards: Lambert, Borini, Sinclair, Ojo
Goalkeepers: Borjan, Gospodinov,
Defenders: Aleksandrov, Angulo, Minev, Moţi, Kerchev, Terziev (?), Caiçara,
Midfielders: Espinho, Abel, Abalo, Dyakov, Zlatinski, Tsvyatkov, Dimitrov, Kitov, Marcelinho, Wanderson
Forwards: Aleksandrov, Bezjak, Quixadá, Misidjan, Hamza.
Mihail’s Tactical Preview
- Ludogorets are expected to start with the 4-2-3-1.
- Defensively, the team will continue to defend in two banks of four with the front pair getting back to make the side compact when out of possession.
- However, they may decide on a 4-6-0, trying to overload the midfield zone, zonally press, and aim to match Liverpool for control of the game.
- Rodgers needs to decide whether Gerrard starts deep in midfield, and if this happens, who plays to compensate for his defensive frailties.
- If Gerrard starts, Henderson and Can need to stay deeper, protect their captain and the full-backs, and rarely venture forward. This will restrict the Reds in attack, but will provide the stability in defence.
- If Gerrard is on the bench (or further forward), then Lucas and Henderson can patrol the space between the lines, freeing the full-backs to push forward and stretch the Bulgarians.
- In midfield, with Lucas and Henderson helped by Coutinho, Liverpool should be able to quickly settle down and establish possession control over the game.
- When out of possession, the front quartet and the full-backs can still press to at least delay Ludogorets’ counter-attacks; furthermore, they could regain the ball quickly to then organise a quick break forward.
For both teams this game is of imperative importance. At this stage, a win won’t guarantee them automatic progress but will go a long way to give the winner the highest available chance to pursue that aim. A defeat for either team, combined with Basel managing a draw or more against Real Madrid, will mean elimination. Then given both teams’ negative goal difference, a draw might not be enough either, especially if Basel win points off the group leaders.
Unsurprisingly, in the days before the game, all from the Bulgarian club said they will their best to try to win the game to keep the hopes of getting out of the group stage alive. At the very least, winning the game will almost surely guarantee the team European football during the spring (in the Europa League) which for a Bulgarian club is important for both financial and strategical (continue to establish the team in Europe, gaining extra recognition, prestige etc.) reasons.
To aid that aim Ludogorets do not have any injury problems to key players. The only player missing is the forward Bezjak (who started at Anfield and hit the post in the second half) but given his poor goal scoring form (four goals in 21 games in all competitions), it will not be much of a loss. The other doubtful player is the left-back Angulo but with the first-choice player in that position Minev back from suspension this should not be too much of a problem.
In the past month, the team’s other first-choice centre-back Terziev has come back from injury. His presence alongside Moti helped further strengthens the team’s backline, which is perhaps the main difference between now, and how Ludogorets looked in the game at Anfield.
For Liverpool, Balotelli is still injured and didn’t travel with the team but it was reported Henderson is back fit and should be ready to feature if selected by the manager.
Although Ludogorets’ owner, manager and players all promised to do their best in the pursuit of the win in this game, it’s hard to believe the team will throw caution to the wind and attack en masse right from the start. The manager Dermendjiev hinted that despite Liverpool’s current poor form, his players are fully concentrated and know the size of the task and how hard it’ll be to beat the English team. He also added that he prepared his team not so much tactically but psychologically, which could be taken as a hint that there won’t be too much difference to the team’s usual approach in Europe and the main aim will be to stay fully focussed and committed throughout the game, waiting for suitable chances to score goals instead of forcing the play and leaving themselves too open at the back.
With Bezjak injured, the main dilemma ahead of Dermendjiev is who to start in attack. In the absence of the Slovenian forward, the team’s big summer signing Younes Hamza played as the centre-forward in the last two domestic games but failed to impress, scoring one goal from penalty, and not looking like improving on his dreadful form. Still, his hard-working style and pace might be enough to convince the manager to give another chance in what is the most important game of the group stage for the Bulgarians.
If Hamza continues up front then the other question is who will start on the flanks. Neither of the three players who regularly play there – M. Aleksandrov, Misidjan and Abalo – are currently at their best in terms of form, which is why they are constantly rotated and regularly subbed off for each other during the games. Still, with Ludogorets playing a very tough game on Saturday against CSKA (Sofia), the manager might base his decision mainly on fitness and which two of them are fresher. In that game Misidjan and Abalo started but the former was quickly sent-off in the 14th minute, while the latter was replaced by M. Aleksandrov on the hour mark. Therefore, it might be case of Misidjan and the Bulgarian winger Aleksandrov preferred for the Liverpool game.
In midfield and defence, everything should be the same. Minev, Moti, Terziev and Caicara are expected to be the back four while the captain Dyakov is expected to be once again partnered by the Portuguese midfielder Espinho.
Tactically, the formation is expected to remain 4-2-3-1 with Marcelinho just-off Hamza. In terms of their starting approach, it is hard to think of anything different Ludogorets might decide on than looking to calm the play, stay tight at the back but use every opportunity to get on the ball and attack in their usual cultured and technical way. No matter which two start on the flanks, the team will have pacey and tricky wide man capable to beat their man and cross dangerously or just cut infield and influence the play from between the lines. Add to this Marcelinho’s roaming style, his vision and flair, and the team will have enough technical resource and quality to be dangerous going forward.
Defensively, the team will surely continue to defend in two banks of four with the front pair getting back to make the side compact when out of possession. The main feature of Ludogorets’ defensive play at Anfield was how tight they stuck to their opponents, looking to close down as soon as Liverpool passed the central line and be aggressive in the tackle. In addition, the full-backs Minev and Caicara remained man-oriented towards Lallana and Sterling, respectively, not giving them too much free time and space on the ball. Something similar could be replicated here.
With Espinho on the pitch, Ludogorets will gain extra midfield solidity but will simultaneously look less fluid going forward. This is because in contrast to Anicet (who played alongside Dyakov at Anfield), the Portuguese player is very much a deep-lying recycler, who patrols the space between the lines when out of possession and is good at spraying the ball quickly and accurately, but doesn’t venture forward too much to provide extra diversity from within the double pivot. This, then, could be used to further free the full-backs to bomb forward and combine with the wide men while Marcelinho is burdened with extra responsibility to link-up the play through the middle.
However, if the manager Dermendjiev decides not to call upon Hamza, the alternative approach could be to put Marcelinho as a false 9 up front and put another midfielder on the pitch. This is something the previous manager of the team Stoev did a few times last season to great effect – especially away from home – and while Dermendjiev is yet to use that variant, this game and the current state of his forward options, might tip him towards it.
This will make Ludogorets’ formation more like a 4-6-0, which will naturally flood the midfield zone. The effect will be that the Bulgarians will gain extra bodies in that zone, capable to press hard out of possession and pass the ball around sharply to at least rival Liverpool for control over the game.
With Marcelinho expected to constantly drop deep and pull wide from his advanced position, the emphasis will be on the team to provide enough bodies to run beyond him, taking advantage of his intelligent movement on and off the ball that is bound to create gaps in Liverpool’s backline. Any two of the possible wide options could provide the required darting runs, while either Anicet or Wanderson (another very technical, tricky, and creative attacking midfielder) could be pushed in the hole to provide that third body around Marcelinho. With the double pivot staying deep to provide the cover and hold the fort, the full-backs and the front four could end up with enough freedom to constantly roam around, interplay and cause huge damage to Liverpool and their shaky backline.
Obviously, for Liverpool, the ultimate aim is to win this game but given their poor form, hugely decreased moral and fragile mentality, primarily they need to ensure they will not concede goals. Add to this the freedom Ludogorets will play with – as they don’t have anything to lose and any success will be simply a bonus for them – and the Reds need to approach this game in a very different mind-set and approach than simply trying to ‘impose themselves and look to dominate the game’.
From a defensive point of view, Liverpool have plenty of issues and combined with how Ludogorets’ strengths might align with them, Rodgers needs to build his team from the back. This means minimising his team’s weaknesses and having the suitable shape and personnel to stifle any potential danger coming from Ludogorets. Succeed in this and control over the game will naturally follow, meaning Liverpool will have plenty of opportunities to use their individual quality going forward.
As ever, however, much depends on whether or not Gerrard starts, where he is used and in what formation to then think about the most tactically suitable way to balance the side in a way to achieve the required defensive stability and offensive efficiency.
The importance of the game just means the question is not whether Gerrard will be starting but where exactly he will be placed on the pitch.
Once again the 4-diamond-2 formation left Liverpool to0 exposed through the middle and down the flanks in the last league game and given this happened every time the formation was used (this also happened in the second half of the reverse game against Ludogorets) it’s perhaps safe to conclude Rodgers won’t be as keen to give it a go yet again. This means the two variants ahead of him are to go back to the 4-1-2-3 shape or use a double pivot in either a 4-2-1-3 or a 4-2-3-1.
If Gerrard is to play as the sole deep-lying midfielder in a 1-2 midfield triangle, then there is the need to protect him with mobile, energetic, and powerful players from ahead. However, there will always be the danger of Marcelinho giving Gerrard a nightmare, something that already happened at Anfield when the Brazilian’s constant roaming drifting wide or dropping deep to link the team on the break was too much for Liverpool’s captain to deal with on his own. Add to this the possibility of seeing Ludogorets’ wide men drift infield and it is hard to imagine Gerrard – with all his defensive shortcomings – managing to patrol the space between the lines well enough to offer any kind of protection to his centre-backs.
That is why the midfielders ahead of Gerrard should be tasked with mainly defensive duties, looking to drop deep and narrower and plug the gaps either side of their captain. If Ludogorets’ wide men stay wide, Can and Henderson can leave them to the full-backs. Nevertheless, as soon as one or both of the wingers move infield, it will be responsibility of Liverpool’s midfielder to pick them up and stifle their threat. Then to limit the danger of Marcelinho pulling the strings for Ludogorets, Liverpool will need to apply a high defensive line, designed to squeeze the space between the lines and push back their opponents, making Marcelinho work as far away from their goal as possible. In addition, Gerrard will need to remain very disciplined with his positioning, sticking closer to the centre-backs and not venturing away from that spot – otherwise he will risk leaving space in behind to be easily exploited by a penetrative pass or a decisive run off the ball.
At full-back, Moreno and Manquillo will have to be preferred as they are both mobile enough and aggressive in their defending. When out of possession they will need to stay tight on Ludogorets’ wingers and pass them over to Can and Henderson only when they move infield. In attack, the emphasis will be on Moreno and Manquillo to support the attacking moves as Can and Henderson will be burdened mainly with defensive duties to compensate for Gerrard’s presence at the base of the midfield triangle.
Further forward, the emphasis will be on the front three to largely play on their own, as the midfielders will only be able to occasionally help them out. This means the attacking players will have to offer the required fluidity and complement each other. With Balotelli injured and his good showing at Crystal Palace (added to his other good display when he started against WBA), Lambert could continue as the forward. Then it will be a case of how best to complement him.
With the midfield three lacking a true creator, Coutinho will be needed in the front three. However, he is neither defensive responsible nor he is capable to press as well as Lallana, so he might not be the best choice from an overall point of view. In addition, Lallana already has that understanding with Lambert in such a formation, which is another reason for him to start.
There will also be the need to have a player who is capable to get in behind and make the required off-ball runs to supplement Lambert and Lallana. While Sterling is in theory capable of that, his current dip in form and the need to sooner or later start and rotate him (to give him a breather and a chance to recuperate and return to his previous high) means he might not be the best choice for that role in the moment. The other player capable to provide that is Borini. The added bonus is that Borini is fresher and equally hard-working, so will be able to track back with Caicara.
Overall, with that formation and personnel, Liverpool will have to be defensively responsible and use their supreme qualities to threaten going forward. There is no need to rush the play and search for an early goal, to then risk actually conceding a goal or two. The important thing will be to prevent conceding the first goal and gradually settle into the game, nullify Ludogorets’ threat and take it from there later in the first half or even during the second half.
However, the above 4-1-2-3 might not be the most sensible option for Liverpool in that to compensate for Gerrard’s presence the team will be inhibited offensively. Not only will the midfield pair have to be hugely restricted, but also then the full-backs will have to be constantly looking around and deciding whether to push forward, which will largely leave the front three on their own.
Instead, using 4-2-1-3 might be the better option as it could allow a solid enough platform defensively but extra support going forward. This will be achieved by simply having a partner next to Gerrard, someone who can compensate for his lack of mobility and energy to patrol the space between the lines. Henderson seems the natural choice for that role and playing deep will mean Liverpool will have greater defensive cover. Not only this will free the full-backs a bit more but also with another player pushed forward the team will have an extra body to interplay on and off the ball in attack.
With Gerrard and Henderson staying deep, there is the need to have someone who is capable to drop deep and link-up the play through the middle. For this Coutinho seems a good fit, as he is also able to provide greater pace and dribbling skills on the break. Around him Lallana, Borini and Lambert will have to play as in the above 4-1-2-3 variant. The added bonus is that after the initial phase where Coutinho will have to drop deep and pick up the ball to initiate the next wave of passing moves, the Brazilian will be free to push on and support the front three. His advanced presence alone will keep Dyakov and Espinho on their toes, which should help create a few more gaps for the front three to exploit with their roaming and complementing runs on and off the ball.
The final alternative with Gerrard on the pitch seems to be most suitable one. By pushing him higher up the pitch, Liverpool will have the option to bring on Lucas to partner Henderson. Between the two of them, Liverpool will have a solid enough double pivot, which is able to offer both the required natural defensive awareness, mobility and energy to simply shut down the space through the middle and minimise Ludogorets’ threat in that zone. This will help liberate the full-backs to push forward more often, which combined with Gerrard’s presence higher up, should be enough to make Liverpool much more dangerous going forward.
With Lallana and Borini buzzing infield and the full-backs stretching the play down the sides, the lack of mobility in Gerrard and Lambert should not be too much of a problem, more so given their overall attacking intelligence and technical skills to join in sharp passing exchanges and time their runs superbly.
Another benefit is that with Lucas and Henderson as the midfield pair, Liverpool will have the security to push forward and look to dominate over Ludogorets much more. This is because the two of them sitting deep will offer that all-round protection to the centre-backs, which could allow the team to push higher up the pitch. Then when the ball is lost, the front quartet joined by the full-backs could initiate a zonal pressing, safe in the knowledge the centre-backs and the double pivot will be there to cover any potential counter-attack.
Obviously, the majority – if not all – of the defensive issues could be easily rectified if Gerrard is not on the pitch from the start. With Liverpool having four games in 10 days (a game for every two full days for rest) there is obviously a need for rotation, not only for this game but for the next two. Gerrard, given his age, should be the prime candidate to be rotated alongside Johnson and Sterling.
The first possibility is to see Gerrard replaced by Lucas in the 4-1-2-3 variant. Nevertheless, even if the Brazilian is capable to hold the fort and offer the kind of defensive nous Gerrard cannot provide, there is the argument that given Ludogorets’ threat it will be still too risky to leave Lucas on his own between the lines. This means that in a similar vein to Gerrard, the midfield pair will need to be restricted and burdened with specific defensive tasks to help Lucas when out of possession.This makes the whole point of the 4-1-2-3 with Lucas instead of Gerrard rather redundant – as this will still leave the front three largely on their own, unless Rodgers is prepared to gamble and leave his backline poorly protected.
That is why going with a 4-2-1-3 or even the more attack-minded 4-2-2-2 seem to be the more suitable choices.
In a 4-2-1-3, a Lucas-Henderson midfield pair will be enough to offer the solid defensive cover to protect the centre-backs and in turn liberate the full-backs to support the front quartet. With Coutinho roaming through the middle to link-up the play, the team should be able to offer the required passing fluency and movement fluidity. Again, the onus will be on Lallana and Borini to split their duties (the former overloading the space between the lines, the latter getting in behind) and offer the close support to Lambert, leaving the flanks open to the full-backs to exploit with their surging runs from deep.
In midfield, with Lucas and Henderson helped by Coutinho, Liverpool should be able to quickly settle down and establish possession control over the game. This will be imperative to allow the full-backs to join forward and support the front three, also giving possibility for Coutinho to then turn around and head in the final third.
Alternatively, Rodgers could decide to switch Borini and Coutinho and put the Italian in close support to Lambert through the middle. This will make the shape more of a 4-2-2-2 going forward with Coutinho and Lallana drifting infield off the flanks and Borini working the channels to leave more freedom for Lambert to drop in and link-up the play between the lines.
With Lucas and Henderson as the double pivot, Liverpool will still count on the same solid defensive shield ahead of the centre-backs. The main benefit of this variant is that by swapping Borini and Coutinho, Liverpool might prevent their wide men being closely man-marked by Ludogorets’ full-backs. Coutinho and Lallana will have to roam in central positions, and this is bound to put Minev and Caicara in the following dilemma: will they leave them unmarked to completely overload the space between the lines or will they stick tight on them but then risk Moreno and Manquillo causing problems down the flanks? Either variant is bound to benefit Liverpool one way or another.
When out of possession, the front quartet and the full-backs can still press to at least delay Ludogorets’ counter-attacks; furthermore, they could regain the ball quickly to then organise a quick break forward. In addition, with Lucas and Henderson staying deep Liverpool will have enough positional cover to be able to halt any dangerous counter-attack from Ludogorets. Another benefit is that when Ludogorets opt for a more gradual build-up play, Borini could be tasked to drop off the front and help plug the gaps through the middle ahead of Lucas and Henderson.
Ludogorets, as the game at Anfield showed, are a good team but they are not that good to pose Liverpool unsolvable troubles. However, much will depend on Rodgers’ selection, how he balances his side, and how he reacts in-game.
In other words – if Liverpool prevents self-inflicted defensive and/or offensive issues, they should be able to gain what they need from this game. Rodgers has the tools to construct a very balanced team, able to stifle Ludogorets’ threats, gradually impose control over the game, and use the chosen framework and suitable type of player to complement each other going forward to capitalise on their superior individual quality. He just needs to use them properly to be able to extract the required defensive solidity and attacking fluidity.