By Stewart Robson (The Telegraph)
Last Updated: 1:02am GMT 30/12/2007
After wins over Portsmouth and Derby, Liverpool have managed to stay in touch with the league leaders.
But if they are to challenge for honours they must be more consistent. Many believe that Rafa Benitez's rotational system is the cause for their inconsistency but I disagree.
With so many games, players cannot continually produce their best if they are chosen every week. However, the mistake he has made is in changing formation too regularly in relation to the opponents.
Before watching Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea you can envisage the style they will attempt to play, whereas Liverpool's game plan seems to change from match to match. United and Arsenal have players who are brilliantly unpredictable in possession and have clever positional rotation in the top third of the pitch, but they perform these from a settled formation. Chelsea, too, are drilled in a certain system.
Yet with Liverpool you are never sure what style of football they will play. There needs to be a degree of surprise in your tactics and, of course, there are times when players need to adapt slightly to the opposition's strengths and weaknesses, but this can still be done from a familiar shape and style. When going to watch Liverpool can anyone really be sure which players, formation or style they will adopt?
One area of consistency over the years has been at the heart of the defence and the benefits have been visible. Until Daniel Agger's introduction, Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher had forged an excellent understanding, enabling them to push up, drop off, press the ball and cover each other in perfect harmony. What is even more important is that they never changed their defensive game plan. With Agger injured, these two have been able to re-form that partnership and add stability to the side's defending. Their mentality, game understanding and ability to read danger is still as good as any defensive pairing, but with Hyypia losing his pace, they aren't as effective as they were two years ago.
However, with Hyypia out of today's clash, Manchester City will look to take advantage of the stand-in centre-half.
Steven Gerrard's role in the team highlights the way Benitez is unpredictable in his selection. He is a wonderfully versatile player and his ability does allow him to be effective in a number of roles but other players need to form an understanding with him, be it when he is on the right, in midfield or a second striker.
Whether it is a full-back knowing how to overlap him, a central midfielder knowing how to combine with him or a centre-forward knowing how he will join him, consistency forges those relationships and it is a luxury Benitez has rarely allowed his players to enjoy.
Benitez will need to be aware of Martin Petrov and Elano. Petrov has pace, power and a dynamic left foot, yet he is most dangerous when City are counter-attacking. Therefore, whether it be Steve Finnan or Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back, they must curtail their forward runs unless they are certain of receiving the ball.
Elano's positioning between the midfield and main striker, allied to his ability to find space, means the opposition must devise ways of nullifying him. Does a centre-half come out to challenge Elano as the ball is played towards him or does a midfielder turn and recover quickly to tackle as the ball is passed beyond him?
Whichever one it is, it can still be done effectively without Benitez changing the shape of his side yet again. Let's hope Fernando Torres plays, because his battle with Richard Dunne and Micah Richards will be an enthralling one which could decide the outcome.