Why Benteke at Stoke could set the tone for his campaign
With 13 new additions between them, it's particularly difficult to accurately predict the tactical set-up of either Stoke or Liverpool this weekend.
In fact, the ghost of May's 6-1 will be felt by only half of the players, in what should be an intriguing contest won or lost by the narrowest of margins; it is for matches such as these – gritty, punishing away trips – that Brendan Rodgers spent big money on Belgian striker Christian Benteke.
Despite evolving significantly away from the Pulis-era style (Stoke were 9th in overall possession and scored only 6 set-piece goals last season), Stoke remain aerially dominant, winning 24.4 duels per match (the 2nd highest in the division). Their defensive strategy relies upon deep-lying, stand-off banks that close off space in the centre of the park and rely upon height and power to remove danger.
Even at home, the vast majority of Stoke’s defensive actions occur deep in their own half.
In 2014/15, Liverpool were frequently accused of lacking variation, with attacks invariably built via low-tempo passing triangles and overly intricate play in the final third. It is no surprise when these tactics fail against highly organised, deep-line teams such as Stoke, Crystal Palace, and Hull (all of whom beat Liverpool in the final six matches of last season).
Note how infrequently Liverpool attempted passes, crosses, or longer balls into the box.
In Benteke, Liverpool now possess a new, more direct dimension. The Belgian won an average of 6.5 aerial challenges last season, making him the most dominant header of the ball in the league by some distance – second-placed Federico Fazio was back on 4.8 per match. His commanding presence among the Stoke back four should help Liverpool retain possession in the final third, and provide a passing option inside the box that they desperately lack.
Liverpool’s opening seven away games see them face Stoke, Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea, and Man City. If Rodgers is to retain his job past Christmas, he could do with a winning start at Stoke - and when looking to grind out victory on the road, sometimes the simplest tactic is the most pertinent.