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Cole does poorly, but there’s probably still hope for him. August 16, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in English soccer, Tactics.
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Joe Cole pretty much flopped against Arsenal Sunday. I have reason to believe he will still come good though. Zonal Marking, the nets’ premier footy tactics site, asks whether Cole’s three-game suspension will be the end for him. “If [Liverpool] reshape [to Hodgson’s preferred 4-4-2] and find success under a different shape,” the site’s author writes, “then Cole’s much-hyped central playmaker role may have lasted only 45 unhappy minutes.”

I’m more skeptical. For one thing, it’s far from certain Hodgson will revert to 4-4-2. The system he used at Fulham was, at best, a modified 4-4-2, but probably closer to a 4-4-1-1, in which Zoltan Gera, in the hole, dropped into midfield. And anyway, as Jonathan Wilson argues here, 4-4-2 still has immense utility as a defensive system for use in ties where a side needs to get men behind the ball, as Fulham did often in their European games.

One way or the other, the next three games, for which the Reds will be without Cole, do not suggest a reversion to a straight 4-4-2. The first is against Manchester City. Though Tottenham’s performance Saturday suggests a 4-4-2 can gain headway against City, it’s likely Hodgson will look to match City’s three men in the center of midfield, and even if he doesn’t, playing against an arguably stronger side in Manchester City doesn’t necessarily suggest that any deviation from the current 4-2-3-1 should be considered the norm.

The next two games will be against West Brom and Birmingham, probably not ones in which Liverpool will need to defend deep (although, to me, that seems like just the kind of strategy against which Birmingham would struggle).

Hodgson’s short record with Liverpool also doesn’t suggest he’ll adjust his formation. In the only game he’s had to play without Cole, against Rabotnicki in the first Champions League qualifier, he used 4-2-3-1 with Alberto Aquilani in the center of the attacking three, replacing him with Lauri Dalla Valle, also a deeper-lying player.

Using Aquilani seems the likeliest move to me, and if not him, then probably another attacking midfielder (Steven Gerrard, Maxi Rodriguez or Dani Pacheco). In part, I think, that’s because Liverpool does not appear, as yet, to have two reliable, fully fit, center forwards. Fernando Torres’ performances haven’t suggested he’s ready to start just yet. Taking precautions with his fitness is probably a wise move considering his injury history. Behind him is David Ngog, who despite scoring against Arsenal, didn’t really convince, and may be too similar to Torres in style anyway. I do admit, though, that Hodgson could well turn to Dirk Kuyt.

So the system seems likely to remain intact, and even Cole’s limp performance doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a failure in it. David Pleat argues convincingly in a recent Guardian column (and Zonal Marking also suggests) that Cole’s problems were in part caused by how high Arsenal played. “With Arsenal’s defence playing a high line – they caught David Ngog offside three times early on – the space was more squeezed and Cole was lost in the clutter of bodies,” Pleat writes.

Manchester United, the first team Liverpool will play once Cole returns, might well do the same, and you could see Darren Fletcher stifling Cole just as Abou Diaby did for Arsenal. In the longer run, though, teams are likely to play deeper against Liverpool, allowing Cole room to play through balls.

Aquilani, rather than a change in shape, could be the biggest threat to Cole’s place. The Italian midfielder is at least as good a passer as anyone at Liverpool and his experience dropping deep suggests he will cope better when players such as Diaby and Fletcher get in his face. It’ll be interesting, just like all of Liverpool’s season if you can get past the degree to which hacks will patronize Hodgson at every turn.

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