Joe Gomez is one of a number of Liverpool defenders Jurgen Klopp must do without
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
A meeting of first against joint-second in the Premier League is a game to relish, but this Sunday’s match between Leicester City and Liverpool has thrown up dilemmas aplenty for both managers, given the injury problems for their sides.
Bidding to set a new club record of 64 home league games unbeaten, Jurgen Klopp – whose side sit one point behind league leaders Leicester – has seen a smattering of injury worries turn into a full defensive crisis in recent weeks.
Centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are both likely out for much of the season, full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Roberston both sat out periods of the recent international break, and Fabinho – who has recently been employed as a makeshift centre-back – has his own fitness concerns. Joel Matip, the club’s only fit senior centre-back, needs to have his workload carefully managed, and Rhys Williams and Neco Williams are doubts.
For the visitors, Brendan Rodgers returns to his old Anfield domain with similar problems at the back. Caglar Soyuncu and Ricardo Pereira are definitely out, while Timothy Castagne and Wesley Fofana are battling to prove themselves ready to start.
Chris Bascombe's Liverpool briefing
The initial concern for Klopp and Rodgers is to find replacements for the injured personnel – step forward the likes of ultra-dependable, Mr Versatile, James Milner. Then comes another issue: how do you protect an under-strength defence?
One option potentially available to the Liverpool manager is to attempt a more possession-based game using the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Georginio Wijnaldum, not only to screen the defence but keep the ball and dictate the pace of the play to the home side’s advantage. Alas, as befitting the way things are currently going for the Premier League champions, Thiago may well miss out through injury. Jordan Henderson definitely will.
Perhaps, then, both sides are best off playing to the strengths they are able to put out on Sunday instead, namely their attacking forces.
Even without Mo Salah, who tested positive for coronavirus, Klopp is likely to field three – Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota – of the four-strong all-out attack who faced Manchester City last time out, with the option to draft Xherdan Sheqiri into the starting line-up if he wants to retain the same system.
For Leicester, their most potent assets are also high up the pitch in chief goalscorer Jamie Vardy, plus any combination of James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Dennis Praet, while Cengiz Under continues to push his quest for a starting spot.
Those personnel are adept at getting in behind what will almost certainly be a largely inexperienced and unfamiliar Liverpool defence, while the absence of the likes of Van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold somewhat removes the threat of pinpoint-accurate long balls, opening the door for a high Leicester press in the knowledge that big switches of play are less likely.
Conversely, Klopp may well instruct his defensive line to sit deeper, preventing the space Vardy and his team-mates can run into, and nullifying the visitors’ most likely threat.
It is a tactic both managers might consider using, telling their attacking players to press hard and high in the hope of exposing the opposition’s defence, while working out how their own defence can halt the danger of pacey attacks.
The big unknown comes from both teams effectively finding themselves in similar situations. If both opt to put pressure on each other’s defence with hard-pressing forward lines and attacking overloads, it could result in goals and mistakes galore. Intriguing and, potentially, exciting.