Know Your Opponent: Liverpool F.C.

Julian Finney

Hey, did you guys know that Luis Suarez is pretty good at football? I KNOW!!

What do you get the guy at the SB Nation Liverpool blog who has everything?  No, not that Liverpool blog, the other one.  I suppose since gifting them three points this weekend is out of the question, you instead strike up a conversation with your counterpart, trying to get a handle on the giant existential question that surrounds Liverpool F.C. -- if you see a Liverpool supporter by himself, is he walking alone or not?

I don't have an answer to that, and neither, probably, does Noel, manager of SB Nation's The Liverpool Offside.  I caught up with Noel on a chilly Tuesday evening at a beach-side tiki bar in the British Virgin Islands, and we exchanged platitudes, questions, and cannibalism jokes while getting massages and sipping mudslides as the sun set over the spectacular white sand beaches of Virgin Gorda. It was a gorgeous winter evening in the Caribbean. Bromance was in the air. †

† – True fact: I answered his questions via e-mail from my laptop while not wearing pants.

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Uncle Menno:  Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge are on the long-term injury list for Liverpool now, which has to be a blow for you in this away fixture. Now that you can no longer scare the pee out of Spurs fans by starting both Suarez and Sturridge up top, how do you expect Liverpool to line up against Tottenham? Does Jordan Henderson move to the center with Joe Allen? Does Lucas move up into a double pivot formation?

Noel:  In some ways it may actually simplify things for a match like away to Spurs. The problem with having a Daniel Sturridge, as good as he has been for the club, is finding a way to play him alongside Luis Suarez. As far as problems go, it's a good one to have, but it's still a problem when the manager-and most of the fans-are rather fond of winning the midfield battle, playing a pressing and possession game, and generally being all screw you Barcelona we invented pass and move football* even if nobody remembers it because that was back before there was a Premier League and anybody watching football today was either, A) not alive at the time, B) alive bit barely cognizant at the time, or C) doing lots and lots of cocaine at the time.

The problem with having a Daniel Sturridge... is finding a way to play him alongside Luis Suarez.

As for Gerrard, it can't be ignored that he no longer has the stamina to pull off the Captain Fantastic routine every week. Against Arsenal earlier this season stands as one of the worst games he has ever had, as an already overplayed Gerrard tried to step up for a "big match" and instead ran himself into the ground inside 20 minutes. As a player nearing the end of his career who has always relied on physical talent more than the tactical or technical, he's reached a stage where his minutes need managing. They haven't been, and that he pulled up injured after 230-odd minutes in seven days is nearly as shocking as going out in the rain and getting wet, and doubts over how he would have performed against Tottenham were he fit are the sort of thing most Liverpool fans would rather not think too much about.

Still, even if the struggles to fit Sturridge, Suarez, and a functioning midfield into a single starting eleven have remained an open question for Liverpool this season, and even if it's been clear Gerrard's time on the pitch needs to be managed far better than it has been, it's hard not to wonder if trying to find a silver lining in their absence has any basis in reality and isn't just hopeful delusion. And it'll probably be Lucas in a single-pivot behind Henderson and Allen with both expected to provide support.

Menno:  There's no real secret as to how to beat Tottenham this season: put men behind the ball, soak up pressure, put long balls over Michael Dawson's head, and hit them on the counter. That or just score on a set piece, because we suck at that. What do you expect from Liverpool tactically for the match at White Hart Lane? Will we see Rodgers park the bus, or will they try and go straight at Spurs? Possession or counter-attacking?

The goal, though, will certainly be to spring Suarez quickly.

Noel:  With Gerrard and Sturridge in the lineup, Liverpool have been far more prone to playing on the counter than Rodgers' manifesto would lead one to believe. Without either, on the road and likely with three midfielders all comfortable playing a short passing game, a more patient approach wouldn't be a shock. The goal, though, will certainly be to spring Suarez quickly any time Lucas, Allen, and Henderson aren't trying to play keep-away, and Philippe Coutinho at his magical unicorn best is especially fond of sending chipped through balls over the heads of puzzled defenders. Plus, you know, Luis Suarez. Who's bound to do something or other worth talking about come Monday morning.

Menno:  Clearly Luis Suarez is hungry for goals, and he's tasted a lot of success since his return from suspension this season. With Jan Vertonghen, Spurs' best defender, out again this week, can the high line provide some meaty resistance or is Suarez smacking his lips anticipating himself feasting upon what will likely be a makeshift back four for Tottenham?  Will he make a meal of it?  Also, did you know Suarez bit a dude last year?

Noel:  I think I must have missed that part. A high line and makeshift back four does sound just the thing to whet his whistle, though.

Menno:  Liverpool has been down for a few years, but they seemingly have the tools now to make not only a run for Champions League qualification, but also (sotto voce) maybe even a title push. SHHHH!! Realistically, what's your assessment of Liverpool's chances this year based on what you've seen thus far? What are your minimum expectations?

Given the way the league has played out, [4th place] really does have to be the minimum expectation.

Noel:  A title push is almost certainly beyond the current squad, though with United struggling and Mourinho as yet unable to get Chelsea playing as they did during his last spell in charge, it certainly seems a year for a less obvious title contender to make a push less on their own merits than by the failings of others. If anything, it seems like the year Tottenham really should be able to make a legitimate title challenge, but instead it's Arsenal in first as if by default. Champions League qualification, though, isn't an impossible goal, especially if the club can make the splashy January attacking signing they repeatedly failed to over the summer, and given the way the league has played out so far that really does have to be the minimum expectation at this stage.

Menno: What's the deal with Iago Aspas? Is he going to come good, or is the club already writing him off?

Noel: Wait, who's Iago Aspas?

Menno: We've seen a few Liverpool academy products come through the ranks lately and succeed with the senior team: Raheem Sterling, Martin Kelly, and to a lesser extent, Suso. Are there any current academy players that you hope may crack the first team in the near- to mid-future?

Noel:  Whether or not Kelly has a career at this point is really down to if he can stay fit for more than five minutes at a go, and it's certainly been hard to avoid the-generally deserved-Sterling hype train, but of those three the most exciting prospect has to be Suso. With two goals and five assists in 13 appearances on loan, he's getting the chance to be the man for a largely terrible Almeria side, and if they manage to stay in the Primera it will be largely thanks to his efforts. It may not be the kind of thing that catches the eye of opposing fans, but it's putting the 20-year-old in a position to surprise a lot of people next season.

Beyond those three, the question is how far out one wants to look. Jordon Ibe is a year or two behind Sterling on wing with a little less pace but more power. Meanwhile, most of the Liverpool Offside staff have penciled in Ryan McLaughlin as the future at right back, though he should have plenty of time to develop behind Glen Johnson-or be surpassed by the next next big thing. In midfield, if ex-Sporting playmaker Joao Carlos Teixeira can get on track after missing more than a season with a back injury he could surprise, and Jordan Rossiter is set to become the next great Scouse hope with the potential to become a homegrown Lucas.

Menno:  Explain in detail why Liverpool F.C. will be relegated this season. Please be thorough.

Noel:

Step 1: Tom Hicks and George Gillett's double secret probationary lawsuit filed in the Botswana supreme court leads Liverpool's former owners to be put back in charge of the club they were chased out of with pitchforks and torches in 2010.

Step 2: They hire on Christian Purlsow, the only man confirmed by a three-judge tribunal at The Hague to actually be worse than Hitler, to once again take up the mantle of managing director that had been his during their final days at the club.

Step 3: Christian Purslow finds a way to bring Roy Hodgson and Joe Cole back into the fold since they worked out so well for him last time, then sells Suarez to Arsenal for forty quid plus one pence while whispering his plans for a glorious English revolution to his friends in the press.

Step 4: Relegation

Menno:  Finally, please provide an honest and smartly considered score prediction that doesn't involve Tottenham Hotspur losing, because it's our blog, dammit.

Noel:  Tottenham are likely to score some number of goals with said number of goals almost certain to be a non-negative integer. Liverpool are also likely to score some number of goals with the number of goals similarly almost certain to be a non-negative integer. The number of goals each side scores may or may not be the same non-negative integer, and if they are not the same non-negative integer then it remains possible though far from certain that Tottenham's non-negative integer number of goals will exceed Liverpool's non-negative integer number of goals.

* Liverpool may not have invented pass and move football.

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For the record, I did what I think what might be my favorite interview of the season thus far with Noel over at The Liverpool Offside, and you should check it out as well as the rest of their site.  It's really a fantastic blog and I wish all of them the best.  That's the bloggers, not Liverpool.  Because football.  Big thanks to Noel C. and be sure to follow Liverpool Offside on teh Twitterz.

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