On their return to Champions League football after a five year absence, Liverpool made hard work of a home fixture against Ludogorets Razgrad – the so-called minnows of group B. Next week they embark on a trip to the home of perennial Swiss champions, FC Basel, who have a history of troubling English sides in European competition.
Last season the RotBlau beat Chelsea home and away in the Champions League group stages, but failed to qualify for the knock-out round after disappointing results against Schalke and Steaua Bucharest. In the 2011/12 competition they qualified as group runners up ahead of Manchester United, having drawn 3-3 with Alex Ferguson’s side at Old Trafford and beaten them 2-1 at home.
Liverpool will have to up their game if they’re to get anything from St. Jakob-Park, and what follows should give you an idea of the obstacle they’ll have to overcome.
FC Basel are managed by former Swansea boss Paulo Sousa, who managed The Swans for one year before moving to Leicester City. He was replaced at the helm of the South Wales club by current Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
At Swansea, Sousa continued the work done by Roberto Martinez before him, playing a brand of football based on smooth passing play with a mind on defensive solidity.
This style is very much evident in the way Basel play under his watch and, as with Ludogorets in the previous round, Liverpool will face a team who have adapted well to the modern game despite being from one of the less fashionable European football nations.
They also press high from the front and did so even against Real Madrid, with the front three working hard for periods of the game then leaving the midfield behind them to pick up any pieces. It’s not relentless, and they will take breaks from this, but they’ve the potential to spring an unexpected press on an unsuspecting opposition player.
The space left in behind after the press might also have contributed to their downfall in this game (a weakness which is also evident in Liverpool’s play without the ball, and maybe even Madrid’s, but that’s another story). Their defence struggled to cope with through balls from Modric and Rodriguez to the pacey duo of Bale and Ronaldo, but whose defence wouldn’t? Even so, it might be a game for Markovic, Sturridge, and Sterling to play in front of Coutinho and Henderson.
Despite the attempts at defensive solidity mentioned above, Basel have only kept one clean sheet in their opening nine league games, and their dominance in attack against weaker opposition is rarely replicated in defence.
Paulo Sousa has used several formations already this season, switching between variations on 4-3-3 and 3-4-3. They played three/five at the back in their 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Real Madrid in their first Champions League match, and it’ll be interesting to see whether they view this as a lesson learned, or just an inevitable defeat regardless of system.
FC Basel line-up and formation at Real Madrid
Another similarity to Ludogorets, is the gulf in the standard of opposition when you compare their domestic and European matches. FC Basel have dominated the Swiss league having won it in each of the past five seasons, so they’re likely to execute a slightly different plan when coming up against Liverpool, to the one they use against FC Vaduz or FC Thun.
We could see them stick with three at the back, or they could see this home game as their opportunity to cause an upset against a team who are in the midst of a bad run of form. Their disorganisation at the back against Real could have been a case of too many cooks spoiling the back-line.
In Taulant Xhaka they have a versatile player who can fill positions in midfield or on the right side of defence, whether this be on the right of a back three or at right full-back. Below are a few more players to watch, and some hints at what they might provide on a tactical level.
Players to Watch
9 – Marco Streller – Centre Forward
The 33-year-old left-footed striker is the type of player who’ll cause problems for the current incarnation of the Liverpool defence. The Swiss will hold the ball up in general play using a combination of skill and experience, and then wait for delivery into the box either from a set piece or cross, where he’ll look to use his 6 ft 5” frame to cause problems for the opposition.
19 – Behrang Safari – Left-Back / Left Wing Back
Safari is Basel’s preferred left sided player for either system. He’ll get up and down the left hand side with varying degrees of effectiveness, but as we saw with Ludogorets’ Júnior Caiçara, dynamic full-backs tend to be more hit than miss against Liverpool.
4 – Philipp Degen – Right-Back
An ex-Liverpool player, so if he gets on the pitch (he’s unlikely to start) he’ll have the game of his life.
17 – Marek Suchy – Central Defender
The once highly regarded Czech defender is still capable of a classy performance, but these can be interspersed with the odd error strewn display. Was the Czech Republic’s “Revelation Of The Year” in 2006 but now, aged 26, he’ll be looking for a solid Champions League campaign to at least keep a place in the national team.
Suchy could be supported in central defence by wily Argentine Walter Samuel, or 22-year-old Swiss international Fabian Schär.