The 2014-15 season for Liverpool felt like some kind of nightmare hallucination brought on by the euphoric rush that was experienced the year prior. A large part of this nightmare hallucination was that despite all the willing of the fans, and the support of medical staff between two continents and indeed two sports (football and baseball) Daniel Sturridge could not find his way back onto a pitch in playing condition. The argument that was put forth by Liverpool fans in pubs, offices, schools and streets worldwide was, “If Sturridge were healthy, this season would be completely different.” This mentality has bled over into the current campaign, with Liverpool failing to make any kind of statement offensively in its first four games. However, this nightmare appears to be ending and so we will look at how Liverpool’s front line will line up with Sturridge in the lineup.
Firstly, it is important to understand how Liverpool has looked this season with the new signings they have brought on board. In each of the games so far this season, Brendan Rodgers has put out a 4-3-3 lineup. Christian Benteke has trotted out as the lone striker with Phillipe Coutinho playing on the left and either Jordon Ibe or Roberto Firmino on the right. The most immediate and recognizable change that will happen is that Rodgers will employ two strikers. There is no way that Benteke is benched to maintain a single striker system. So first we have Benteke and Sturridge as the front two. From there, the situation becomes very complicated due to the amount of attacking midfielders that LFC have signed in recent years.
There are only a few ways to solve this puzzle as I see both Coutinho and Firmino as vital pieces of this set up. How can both players fit into a two-striker system though? With Sturridge and Benteke up front, I see Firmino playing directly behind them in almost a shadow striker or number 10 role. This will put Firmino is the positions where he is most dangerous. He needs to be near the goal and have the support around him, which would come in the form of the two strikers, to create space for shots or passes in and around the 18-yard box. Slightly deeper than him would sit the maestro of Liverpool’s attack, Phillipe Coutinho. His would be a deeper role that let him dictate play but still be involved in the attack. This more central midfield role will let Coutinho be the focal point when Liverpool are looking to start attacks and his location will put him in a position to find the right through ball or sprayed pass to launch Liverpool forward. Behind him would sit Henderson in the box-to-box role we have become accustomed to seeing him in and deeper than that Emre Can or Lucas Leiva in a defensive role.
As you can tell, this solution does not include any wingers. The argument could be made that without the wingers, there will not be any width in the attack and the problems of the first few games will show because the play becomes very narrow and restricted. This problem has a solution born in how Liverpool played with Sturridge and Suarez in 2013-14. That season, there were not natural wingers in the side, so a lot of width was provided by either Suarez or Sturridge moving wide while the other stayed central and this movement created a lot of space for both players. With Benteke and Sturridge, the same is possible. Clearly, with the amount of aerial duels won by Benteke, Sturridge would be preferred to get wide but Big Ben has proven he is good with the ball at his feet and if Firmino and Sturridge are both able to make runs once the ball makes its way wide, he’ll have plenty of options for either a cross or a through ball.
This solution is not the only one available, but it is the boldest and the way to get the most out of the attacking talent present in the side. Playing with Firmino that far forward really puts three strikers up top for all intents and purposes. This formation keeps five players regularly engaged in the attack, with Henderson able to transition between attack and defense, while also giving Emre Can the ability to get forward as needed. This is obviously important as much of the league will try to frustrate Liverpool’s attack and hit on the counter.
These players being involved in the attack is important but it is more about putting them in the positions where they will be the most dangerous. With Sturridge and Benteke, it is obvious they need to be getting the ball in the box, either on their head or feet. Firmino has been marginalized to a certain extent playing wide and would benefit hugely from starting central and then running off of the two strikers. Coutinho being pushed further forward and left has isolated him at times as well and often forces him to cut inside and shoot. While spectacular, being deeper will give him more opportunities centrally as well as open more passing lanes for him to find that killer ball. This setup also plays to the strengths of the central midfielders, with Emre Can able to play defensively but still make a run or two, and Henderson to use his industry in both attack and defense.
Liverpool will have to do a lot of work to get back to the days when Sturridge and Suarez were terrorizing defenders across the Premier League. However, with Sturridge looking healthy enough to return to action, there is no reason why Liverpool cannot have one of the most frightening attacks once again. Maybe, just maybe, the nightmare can finally be over.
Written by Phil Baki
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