Liverpool begin their Premier League campaign with an away trip to Vicarage Road to take on Marco Silva’s Watford.
The Portuguese joined the Hornets from Hull City over the summer after his attempts to keep the Tigers in the Premier League greatly enhanced his blossoming reputation. Joining him at Vicarage Road are Richarlison, Andre Gray, Will Hughes, Nathaniel Chalobah and Tom Cleverley as he sets about constructing a side capable of finishing in the top half.
For the Reds, it’s a big afternoon for new club record signing Mohamed Salah, whilst Dominic Solanke might also feature from the bench.
RealSport picks out three battles on the pitch that could prove crucial in determining the outcome of the game.
Andre Gray & Troy Deeney vs Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren
The Achilles heel of Liverpool’s 2016/17 season and perhaps their greatest issue yet to be resolved over the summer is their defence. Andrew Robertson was brought in from Silva’s former club to replace James Milner at left back, but it does little to improve the centre of defence.
Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren had a somewhat torrid time, not helped by Jurgen Klopp’s extremely expansive style of football that consequently leaves them highly exposed to quick counter-attacks, especially as the wing backs venture forwards to join the attack.
Liverpool don’t have a pure defensive midfielder in the side to protect the centre-backs, making their job even harder and it’s no surprise the duo made a combined three defensive errors last season, one of which led to a goal. Gigi Wijnaldum, often the deepest of three central midfielders, made four, the most of any Liverpool player.
Against new £18m man Andre Gray and Troy Deeney, they’ll find it tough. Deeney is a strong, physical and aggressive presence up front, capable of holding the ball up for his teammates to join the attack. This is where Liverpool struggled.
Watford will look to play direct, route one balls into Deeney on the counter-attack as Liverpool lack numbers on the back, with the Englishman playing knockdowns for Gray to chase into the box. Using his speed, Gray can give the centre-backs a very tough afternoon.
The wide battle
It’s clear what Klopp is trying to do with his current Liverpool team. Perhaps preparing for the expected departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona, the German has moved away from a possession-orientated game to a direct one through the wings, using the pace and power of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane.
Hence, the wide battle will prove decisive in Saturday’s fixture.
As in pre-season, Liverpool will look to play balls over the top of defences, or splitting through balls to give Mane and Salah something to chase. Perhaps even balls to feet to isolate their wingers with lesser quality defenders in one-on-one situations.
Therefore, Jose Holebas and Daryl Janmaat will have a huge influence in the game. They must effectively marshal Mane and Salah to quell the Reds. Stop them and perhaps you stop Liverpool scoring.
Gini Wijnaldum vs Nathaniel Chalobah
Despite a move to a more direct style of play, Liverpool will still look to control the game against a Watford side set up to defend in a deep, low block system. It puts extra emphasis on Wijnaldum to attempt to dictate play, especially as both Adam Lallana and Coutinho are out with injuries.
Wijnaldum perhaps isn’t the most assertive of presences in that sense, as he’s more of a box-to-box midfielder as opposed to a deep-lying controller that pulls the strings. It’s a role he’ll need to adapt to fast, however.
Trying to stifle his influence will be new Watford signing Nathaniel Chalobah, a £5m acquisition from Chelsea.
The former Blue is a strong presence in the centre of the park and provides a tough defensive shield in front of the defence, adept at breaking up opposition attacks and releasing Watford on the counter. If Chalobah can do his job well, it will unlock Gray and Deeney in the final third, whilst shutting down the Reds’ primary supply line.
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