After being treated to a series of spectacular performances last season, Liverpool supporters and admires alike have been rather disappointed with the below average start to the 2014/15 season. Hamoudi Fayad analyses the reasons for this, also making suggestions for what steps the side can take to ensure they get back to their consistent ways.
Liverpool FC have started off their season poorly, with 3 Premier League wins in 7 and losses to the likes of Basel, Aston Villa and West Ham. The Champions League was always going to be a burden on this young team – especially without cult hero Luis Suarez – but there are more factors to look at besides that. Brendan Rodgers has to deal with the tough task of the Champions League (while also having progressed to the next round of the League Cup) and there is no doubt that this season will be his toughest yet. The experience that he will gain is going to be vital, but can he use that experience to successfully consolidate Liverpool in the top 4 for a second successive season?
Problem #1: Steven Gerrard, where?
Steven was revived last season in the Regista role; dropping in between his centre backs, playing diagonal balls to the full backs, and garnering 13 assists. This shows how good he is while creating, but his mistakes and lack of defensive discipline is something that prevents him from being effective in the last line of defence (when Liverpool are in possession).
Gerrard does not have significant protection as A) Jordan Henderson is much more suited to pressing higher up the pitch, and B) Joe Allen never gets as many starts as Philippe Coutinho does (15 starts for Allen compared to 28 for Coutinho – last season). Allen is a much better protector for Gerrard (alongside Henderson in a 4-3-3/4-1-2-1-2) than Coutinho.
Steven Gerrard had a cameo appearance in the #10 position against West Brom making 2 passes and creating 3 chances in the space of 10 minutes, playing just behind Balotelli. It is a logical move because, the role seems to thrive on the attributes Gerrard has made a name for himself in.
The reason Brendan Rodgers moved him to the defensive midfield role is because the playmaker role has very few players today in Zone 14 (area where the #10 operates). Pirlo, Xabi Alonso, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Sahin, Kroos, Modric, Rakitic, Xavi and even Paul Scholes in his twilight years – all of these players don’t operate in the #10 zone but successfully create from deep (with significant protection from others). Vidal/Pogba; Di Maria/Khedira; Bender/Gundogan are some partnerships that have protected their Registas. Look at Coutinho too, who has had better performances as a #8 in the Diamond formation than as a #10 where he can easily be marked out of a game. Sterling is so good over there because, while he is playing as a #10, he barely stays in the centre! His constant movement puts him in different areas of the pitch.
Hopefully Gerrard will be tried against QPR as a #10, with either Lucas Leiva or even Allen tried in the holding midfield position. Is Gerrard – like Lampard – destined to always be a central midfielder pushing up into attacking positions? Or is he – like Paul Scholes – better in the Regista role when he’s in his twilight years? That’s the question Brendan Rodgers needs to answer, sooner rather than later, as the level of Gerrard’s involvement in games depends on where he’s played an ultimately can have a drastic effect on the team as a whole.
Problem #2: Organisation of the back line, a torrid structure
When Mamadou Sakho was signed, many Liverpool fans – and myself – let out a cry of joy after signing the defender, who was by far Liverpool’s best signing last season in terms of reputation due to his fantastic performances with PSG and the fact that he captained them at such a young age. The signing of Dejan Lovren let out the same cry, a defender who was arguably one of the best in the Premier League last season.
These two, alongside Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure, would lead Liverpool’s back line for the 2014-15 season. An intriguing aspect; former PSG captain and France’s #1 defender (Sakho), Croatia’s #1 defender and just off the back of a mesmeric season (Lovren), two-time veteran Premier League winner (Toure) and an experienced Slovakian who has been at the club for 6 years (Skrtel).
The start of the season hasn’t exactly met the pre-season expectations for the back line, as poor performances are denting their reputation as more than decent defenders. That is not to say these defenders are poor, but the way the backline is organized and especially the defensive midfield, is nothing short of disastrous.
As I mentioned above, Steven Gerrard is not a defence protector – rather he is a creator. Lucas has lost his legs due to injuries and he’s only 27, and Joe Allen is more of a metronome rather than a ball winner. Only Emre Can (who’s positioning whilst defending at Bayer Leverkusen was skeptical) and Jordan Rossiter (who is only 16) are capable of filling that position.
Liverpool faced their best days defensive when Steve Clarke was in charge of the defence under Kenny Dalglish.
As we can see in the little spreadsheet I made above, I researched on Liverpool’s defensive record since the days of Hodgson. A green highlight represents a decrease in goals conceded per game, and a red highlight represents an increase..
Liverpool’s best defensive days have come with Steve Clarke, but then remember the failure of our attack contributed to the bad league standings. Now, with Rodgers, it is the opposite. Also remember the league standing and Goals Conceded per game are in no correlation with each other.
Brendan Rodgers’ first season with Liverpool was sound defensively – and Liverpool even scored 71 goals – but this was a learning season for Rodgers and Liverpool went on a good run so late in the season, which doesn’t count if you’re poor in the first three quarters. Rodgers also was still working on a possession/passing-based tactic, which meant if you kept the ball more, the less you concede. Towards the end of the season with Coutinho and Sturridge as the new signings they started scoring more. Rodgers also had a good season with Swansea defensively when they finished 11th, conceding only 51 goals. That is one more goal conceded than Liverpool did while they finished second last year.
In the 2013/14 season, they conceded 50 with a blistering high pressing and counter attacking tactic, coming out of the blocks with guns blazing in the first 20 minutes or so of games.
So there are a couple of things to note, things that saved Liverpool from enduring a distant point haul from the top 4 were: a great defensive midfielder in Lucas (pre-injury), the defensive coach in Steve Clarke, and/or a great goalscorer in Luis Suarez.
Right now, does Liverpool have any of them? Sadly, they don’t.
So what will the solution be for Liverpool this season?
- A new defensive coach maybe? Right now Liverpool do not have a designated defensive coach and there is no one besides the manager himself to really carry out defensive drills. Rafael Benitez used to work heavily on set piece training and defending as an organized team. Gone are the days of Liverpool being talked up with the best defensive record in the league.
- Playing Jordan Rossiter in a few games – the youngster will need games like Jack Robinson, Jordon Ibe, Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan.
- Utilizing Emre Can or Joe Allen instead of Gerrard to protect the defence.
- Instill the confidence back into Lucas – Rodgers is a great man manager, and if there is anyone to bring confidence back into Lucas Leiva it is Brendan.
- A back three? Liverpool did try it against West Ham, and it changed the game for them. The only problem was that in the 2nd half, they didn’t need that spare man as West Ham were effectively playing a 6-3-1. Imagine: Skrtel diving into tackles, with Lovren AND Sakho sweeping up behind him. All of those doing what they do best, with Sakho able to join in tackling ahead. It could work against 2 striker formations (Manchester United, Manchester City at times and a few of the lower mid table teams).
Problem #3: Lack of explosiveness, especially up front
Many people saw the move for Rickie Lambert as a poor one, but for a striker who had 13 goals and 13 assists with Southampton last season, 4 million pounds was a bargain. The problem with Rickie Lambert is that he is in his twilight years, offers next to no experience in Europe and isn’t a counter attacking threat like Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling. Rodgers backed this up by saying Liverpool needed a Plan B, which was evident in the game against Chelsea, where neither Luis Suarez nor Daniel Sturridge could affect proceedings with their aerial ability. Lambert proved Rodgers right in the first game of the season – against his former club Southampton – by coming on and influencing the game with his hold up play and presence in the box, which led to Liverpool becoming more direct and scoring the winner.
Liverpool still needed a striker, and they were linked with a plethora of players – even Marco Reus (reportedly) – but in the end they signed the infamous Mario Balotelli for 16 million pounds from AC Milan. Brendan Rodgers’ game plan was evident, one of 2 runners (Sturridge and Borini) and two big men (Balotelli and Lambert) to play in his diamond formation. The injuries of Sturridge and the worrying form of Borini led to Balotelli/Lambert playing as a lone striker, something that has been a problem for Liverpool as a counter attacking team.
Liverpool have mostly played in a 4-2-3-1 without Sturridge, and even though their attacking midfielders – Markovic/Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana – have pace to burn, their attacks were always delayed by Balotelli or Lambert. This was evident in the game against Everton and against West Brom.
Many people have been crying out for the diamond formation to return, even without the injured Sturridge. Here are ways that Liverpool could deal with the potential future loss of Sturridge (he is returning soon, but there’s always the possibility that he won’t be available for every game).
- Sterling, or even Markovic could play up front with Balotelli. Yes, both of these players’ finishing has been poor (Sterling has scored 3 this season, but could have easily scored more against Basel and Spurs had it not been for his poor finishing & composure) but their movement and running could help Balotelli in getting into good positions.
- Fabio Borini was tried against West Ham but wasn’t given an opportunity again; how can we know his full potential up front with Balotelli if he has only played a single game? Borini may not be a top finisher but his work rate in this team is second to only Jordan Henderson.
Although it’s still early days in the season, and there’s plenty of games for the side to recover, there are issues which the management need to deal with to ensure the inconsistency and below average performances don’t continue. It’s something he would have worked on this international break, and with player returning from injury for the next round of fixtures, there certainly is a possibility that we’ll see a different system and drastic changes applied henceforth.
Written by Hamoudi Fayad
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