Premier League

Liverpool’s Latest Bogeyman Could Dent Top Four Hopes

 • by Sam McGuire
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Christian Benteke used to be the Bogeyman to Liverpool fans of all ages. While at Aston Villa, he regularly manhandled those in defence for the Reds whenever he came up against them.

His £32million move to Anfield didn’t quell those fears, they intensified them. There’s no way of dressing it up, good team moves came to an end at the feet of the big Belgian.

Yes, he scored a number of key goals in his sole season at Anfield but the lasting memory of him on Merseyside isn’t the spectacular overhead kick he netted against Manchester United, it’s of Benteke, arms out screaming for a pass, camped on the edge of the area instead of following the play in.

The nightmare was far from over when he left to join Crystal Palace. He netted two goals on his return to Anfield during the 2016/17 season, the only loss for Jürgen Klopp’s men in a 12-game run.

However, like many other Scooby Doo villains, when unmasked he doesn’t look quite as scary. This season he’s found the back of the net on just two occasions and looks a shadow of his former self.

Liverpool fans can’t rest easy, though because the Eagles have another player who is more than capable of haunting them this weekend.

Wilfried Zaha.

The former Red Devil, named as a Liverpool transfer target in the past, is in the form of his career. He’s terrorising defenders on a regular basis and with him in the side Palace look like a different team all together. The stats back it up.

With their No.11 starting, Palace have picked up 30 points from 22 Premier League matches this season – Roy Hogdson’s men have won 45.45 per cent of points from those available with the tricky winger in the team from the off.

In the nine matches they’ve played without him they’ve failed to pick up a single point. For context, Palace have picked up a point per game with Benteke in the starting XI. In the six games he missed they won five points – only a slight decrease.

News of Joe Gomez‘s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Liverpool. Trent Alexander-Arnold has a big future on Merseyside but right now, at least when it comes to the defensive side of the game, he has a lot to learn.

He had arguably his worst game for his boyhood club in the defeat at Old Trafford a couple of weeks back. Marcus Rashford’s pace and directness caused him all kinds of problems and, unless Klopp feels Nathaniel Clyne is fit enough to start, Alexander-Arnold tasked will be the player tasked with keeping Zaha in check. It could be a long day for the Liverpudlian and his biggest challenge to date.

What Zaha does well

The fleet-footed attacker is a master of manipulation. He lures players in before racing into the vacated space. Wide forwards these days are intent on getting on the scoresheet but Zaha is more of a traditional winger, eager to get an assist. He’s comfortable on either foot and can beat players on the outside as well as by cutting in, no matter what side of the pitch he’s playing on. 

His end game is an obvious one – he wants to get Palace into dangerous areas. No player in the Premier League wins more fouls than the 25-year-old with the majority of those coming deep in the opposition’s half. If an opponnent doesn’t stop him then he likes to waltz his way into the penalty area and, more often than not, get to the byline before working the ball into the centre.

In the picture above, taken from the draw with Manchester City, he protects the ball from Raheem Sterling and could probably go down there to earn his side a free-kick on the edge of the area. But, with the away side fairly stretched on that side of the pitch, he stays on his feet, wriggling free and into the penalty area.

It’s the faintest of touches but Sterling’s eagerness to get back is enough to put Zaha onto the floor and earn Palace a penalty. Despite being outnumbered, the Ivory Coast international manages to get himself into two positions, with the potential free-kick being the first, in which he gives his team chances to score. It’s what he does.

In the above picture, Zaha is in possession and could drive into the space outside the area before clipping the ball in. But that takes him away from goal. Leicester City have bodies back and the centre of the pitch is already pretty congested but that doesn’t put the winger off doing what he wants to do.

He, somehow, manages to slalom his way past three Leicester players and drags the ball back into the centre. It’s cleared but he is, yet again, close to winning his side a penalty. Zaha should not have been allowed into the penalty area. Not after seeing the position he picks the ball up in.

He completes 59 per cent of his dribbles and he’s attempting, on average, 6.9 per 90 minutes. It’s a number, in terms of dribbles attempted and successful dribbles, that only Eden Hazard and Sofiane Boufal can better.

As expected, the ball doesn’t stick to him and he’s being dispossessed 4.1 times per 90, the second highest amount in the Premier League. He’s not the kind of player to be disheartened if something doesn’t go his way four or five times because all it takes is for it to work once and Palace could benefit from it.

How to stop Zaha

Watford, Crystal Palace, Richarlison, Zaha

It’s not impossible but it’s going to be difficult for Liverpool to completely nullify the Palace forward without changing up their plans, and that’s not something Klopp does. The Liverpool boss respects his opponents but it’s clear he feels his set-up can overcome different systems with little variation.

The Reds, however, might be able to slow him down. In some fixtures in the past, Liverpool’s 4-3-3 has morphed into more of a 4-2-3-1. It’s rare but when Klopp feels his defence need more protection he makes the tweak.

The game against Palace could be one of those times, especially with Gomez ruled out meaning the asymmetrical 3-4-3 shape, with the right-back tucking inside to become a third centre-back, isn’t on the cards.

A midfield pairing containing two of James Milner, Jordan Henderson or Emre Can may be what’s required to ensure Klopp’s men aren’t caught cold by Zaha on the break. There’s no guarantee it would be effective but one thing is for sure, Liverpool are going to have to protect Alexander-Arnold.

It could be a nightmare for the 19-year-old and Selhurst Park doesn’t exactly hold fond memories for fans of the Reds in general after 2013/14.

Combine that with the fact Liverpool pick up, on average, 0.59 fewer points per game after an international break and there may be a few sleepless nights on Friday. It’s been said plenty of times over recent weeks but this is a test of Liverpool’s top four resolve. 

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