After a summer of disruption and instability at Anfield, the first few months of the season began in a potentially disastrous fashion. The tumultuous departure of Luis Suarez for Barcelona combined with an extended lay-off for superstar striker Daniel Sturridge would have put any club on the back foot. Only serving to add to the fans’ frustrations was the amount of money spent on apparent failures during the transfer window.
More recently however, an upturn in both results and performances have been well reported and as a result, Brendan Rodgers’ side has steadily climbed the table. Although arriving during what seems to be a resounding defeat, the turning point in Liverpool’s fortunes came in the 3-0 loss at Old Trafford. Since that point, they enjoyed a run of 10 matches unbeaten before narrowly losing 1-0 in an enthralling semi-final at Stamford Bridge. Several features of The Reds’ play seem to have returned at once, but what exactly are they and how has their impact been directly felt on the field of play?
A change in formation – first by necessity and now by choice
The catalyst for several of the improved areas discussed below can be traced back to Brendan Rodgers changing his formation in quite a drastic manner. As can only be expected, the man at the helm stuck to the tactical shape that had served him and Liverpool so well last year; an interchangeable variation of a 4-3-3 and 4-1-2-1-2. The relentless work rate of Luis Suarez and constant threat in behind provided by Sturridge had created pockets of space when employing these systems. However, with the frightening forward line torn apart, Liverpool’s football in these formations had become stagnant and with a severe lack of penetration.
A ravaging series of injuries to the Reds’ squad at what was already a difficult stage of the season left Rodgers with little choice but to opt for a back three; an idea only briefly flirted with at the fledgling stages of his Anfield stewardship. Soon however, it proved to be the solution to a vast quantity of The Reds’ problems and ushered in a return to the high tempo pressing game that was a feature in the last campaign.
On the field, it is notable how the entire group of outfield players move as a unit, both compact in defence and fluid in attack. The presence of three central defenders on the field gives an added security at the back, thus allowing marauding wing-backs to push forward and join attacks. Legs in the centre of midfield are all but essential; a forte for Jordan Henderson but accommodating Steven Gerrard has proved more of a challenge. The front three can float around the pitch, flitting from space to space. The intelligence of players such as Lallana and Coutinho were not being completely utilised in the previous style. Now though, either side of a central striker, it seems as though areas with time on the ball are far easier to come by. The work rate of the front three is a vital factor, not ignoring their defensive responsibilities but providing a constant threat to the opposition back line too.
Coutinho the Brazilian wizard
Philippe Coutinho has been in the form of his life for the past 10 games or so, and has become a fixture on the team sheet. Liverpool fans were naturally excited when he first arrived from Inter Milan and the little Brazilian has now grown into the player he always had the potential to become.
Keen observers of the beautiful game would always have been aware that he possessed almost unrivalled natural ability on the ball and fantastic vision to spot the run of a teammate. However, decision making would often let him down which was a great frustration for all fans at Anfield. Always seeming capable of pulling off the impossible before attempting the most improbable of final passes where a more simple option was available. Recently, this area of his game has come on leaps and bounds. However tightly marked he might be, all of Coutinho’s teammates have the confidence in firing a pass into his feet, knowing that he will most probably beat his markers with apparent ease before slipping in a cutting pass whilst defenders’ attentions are fixated on his dazzling feet. It is said that the diminutive figure could find a yard of space in a phone box, and I see no reason to doubt that notion.
Furthermore, Philippe Coutinho has significantly improved his overall fitness and running power. It was seemingly always the case that Rodgers would feel the need to substitute him on the hour mark for fresher legs as the Brazilian began to tire. Consistently high levels of intensity now go hand in hand with levels of performance for the entire ninety minutes, even finding the stamina to pick up the ball in his own half to launch attacks and keep pace with the break-away. If his finishing of chances can improve even to half the level of these other traits, then Liverpool really will have a world-class player on their hands.
Simon Mignolet knuckles down
Once the Belgian goalkeeper had been ‘dropped indefinitely’ by Brendan Rodgers following a string of nervy and error-strewn performances, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Simon Mignolet’s career at Anfield had effectively come to a close. Despite clear areas for improvement which had existed; although not as prominently, last season too, lessons appeared not to have been learnt.
However, following a much earlier than expected return to the spotlight in Liverpool’s first team after Brad Jones picked up a leg muscle strain, it seems that Mignolet has finally got the message. During his period away from the action, the idea of dominating the penalty area and imposing yourself on the opposition attackers has been drilled into him.
Although not solely down to Mignolet’s upturn in form, the Liverpool’s defensive unit have looked much more secure as their confidence in the former Sunderland stopper began to build. Prior to his return, conceding goals was an inevitability. In fact, he has already bettered his tally of four clean sheets in the opening 23 matches of the season within 10 games after his recall.
With Thibaut Courtois’ brilliance across both legs of the Capital One Cup semi-final taking much of the attention, it is easy to disregard the fantastic display that his countryman also supplied in the opposing goal. Mignolet came for crosses with a determination and resolution that have been so rare in the past, in addition to pulling off the terrific reaction saves that probably earned him the Liverpool move in the first place. With a dependable goalkeeper behind them, Brendan Rodgers’ side look so much more stable and no longer fear that they need to score 3 or more to guarantee the victory.
Hapless and Hopeless – Balotelli has thrown one too many sulks
It finally seems that Brendan Rodgers has lost patience with his summer signing from Serie A. A promising enough start to his Liverpool career has since crumbled into nothing more than a joke, showing none of the power and skill that impressed the world on the international stage at tournaments for his country.
In what turned out to be a rather fortunate string of niggling injuries, Rodgers’ hand was forced a little earlier than could have been predicted and had to turn to a first eleven without the infamous Italian. Being afforded to employ an option that was not the £16 million flop from Milan was a blessing and proved to all onlookers that closing down and putting in a shift at the pinnacle of Liverpool’s attack does bear fruit. For such a physically imposing specimen, it is laughable at times when you observe the lack of effort he applies to fight for the ball. High clearances in his vicinity should be a potential platform to spring an attack from, but Balotelli seems intent on only a cursory flick towards the oncoming ball at every opportunity. A sustained run out of the side now that his injury has subsided is essential for Liverpool to continue their solid run of form.
Striker Sterling usurps the former SAS
With so much focus around Liverpool during last season, it was perhaps Raheem Sterling whose stature grew higher than all others. While the majority of headlines may well have been stolen by Suarez, Sturridge, and Gerrard, Sterling’s efforts did not go unnoticed of course. His summer on the international stage may have been an abysmal one from a team perspective, but to break into England’s plans at the age of 19 was a fabulous personal achievement. To only add to his personal accolades, the Jamaican-born speedster was awarded the European Golden Boy; a prestigious trophy reserved for the most promising youngsters in Europe. You only have to look at the previous winners to realise the poignancy of this prize; Messi, Aguero and Pogba to name but a few.
If anything, the weight of expectation on his shoulders has only grown in magnitude as a result of the absence of both Sturridge and Suarez. Having initially struggled to make the kind of impact on matches that had shot him to stardom, Brendan Rodgers saw reason for moving him to a more prominent position. The diminutive forward; known previously almost entirely for wide play, was handed the responsibility of leading Liverpool’s attack.
He has leapt to the challenge, placing his own stamp on the position. Obviously, Sterling does not possess the size and strength to play as a lone front-man in the typical sense, so he has applied other areas of the game to pose an even greater danger to defences. Constantly on the move and never giving the opposition a moment’s peace, he can expose any space left in behind or between the lines. The number 31 employs his phenomenal acceleration and balance to escape the clutches of prospective tacklers before attacking the goal as directly as possible.
As can only be expected, moving a winger to striker did have its immediate limitations, most notably being his finishing ability. This however seems to have been worked on and after spurning several chances against Manchester United, he has begun to be a consistent goal threat. Two very composed finishes on his weaker left foot against Burnley and Chelsea show his rate of progression. The fact that these both came after sprinting under pressure just serves to show how complete a player he is becoming. His most recent effort against West Ham was dispatched in the manner of the game’s great poachers. It is a simply frightening prospect for the Premier League when Sturridge and Sterling revive their partnership at their pinnacle of Liverpool’s offence.
Lucas rolling back the years
As somewhat of a cult hero for the Liverpool faithful, Lucas Leiva has had an intriguing relationship with the fans throughout his seven and a half years at Anfield. Determination and a top work ethic drove him from a laughing stock and target for the ‘boo boys’ in his early years to a main-stay in the side a couple of years ago. Alongside Gerrard and Suarez, the Brazilian holding midfielder was one of the first names on the team sheet and always called upon for the biggest of matches. A series of long-term knee injuries put pay to a consistent run in the side and until recently, it seemed only a matter of time until Lucas moved on.
Having struggled to match his previously seen intensity and aggression in the tackle, coupled with unreliable distribution, what he was offering the side was difficult to see. However, since Liverpool’s elimination from the Champions League at home to F.C. Basel in December, his contribution to The Reds’ success has been without question in my opinion. The game intelligence to anticipate danger and prevent it has returned, along with an unexpected calmness in possession usually reserved for the right boot of Steven Gerrard. As the captain’s role in the centre of midfield has steadily diminished, Lucas has stepped up to the plate and dominated the middle of the park.
While other performances have been more subtle, the second leg of the League Cup semi-final was the stage where the combative midfielder really shone out. In what I can only describe as a monstrous display, he seemed be everywhere on the pitch at once. In the first 70 minutes or so in particular, I cannot remember one Chelsea player getting the better of him in a confrontation and he was also extremely composed on the ball even when The Blues’ glut of attacking talent were snapping at his heels.
Having appeared close to the exit door both in the summer and for much of January, retaining the services of Lucas Leiva may have been one of Rodgers’ more astute decisions and the number 21 is repaying that faith to the maximum.
More made out of Moreno
Liverpool have lacked a completely dependable left-back since John Arne Riise in his pomp. For years, it has been a position that has demanded attention and when Alberto Moreno arrived from Sevilla in the summer, I was fairly confident that the solution had been found.
Still at a formative stage of his career, the Spanish youngster is incredibly quick across the ground, possesses the stamina to maintain a high work rate throughout the game and is deceptively strong. Brushing barrel-chested Branislav Ivanovic to the floor in the League Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge displayed it clearly for all to see.
Whilst a few instances so far this season have shown that sometimes defensive concentration is lacking somewhat, it is something that will surely improve with age and racking up top flight experience. His role in the current 3-4-3 is paramount; needing to be on hand to assist the left-sided centre-back but also pushing back the opposition from the flank.
A pleasant surprise since Moreno’s arrival on Merseyside has been his willingness to break into the opposing penalty area, picking up 2 goals to date. His first followed a lung-busting break from his own half where he carried the ball all the way, while the other was similar to a poacher’s finish inside the six yard box. His versatility on the left side means that he is always an option to supply the ball to and he can play a vital role at Liverpool for years to come.
Emre Can the versatile man
When the German youngster arrived at Anfield in the summer from Bayer Leverkusen, much was made of his potential to become one of the more energetic and complete midfielders in the Premier League. For whatever reason, Brendan Rodgers struggled to supply him with sufficient game time as the season began, despite Liverpool’s obvious troubles. The apparent lack of faith in the former Bayern Munich youth team star was disturbing to many a Liverpool supporter, and eventually it was his versatility which cemented a place in the first team.
Can’s ability to perform in a variety of positions was known since his time in Germany, but this was perhaps seen as a bonus more than anything; being able to fill in across the back-line in desperate situations. It now seems however that some of his best characteristics suit Liverpool’s back three down to the ground.
Never seeming to be hurried in possession regardless of the intense pressure often faced, terrific upper body strength and power for one so young, a deceptive turn of speed that can either provide an escape route from trouble or spring Liverpool on the attack, and finally fantastic close control. Upon his arrival, I certainly foresaw his long-term Anfield future at the centre of midfield, adding yet more aggression and legs to that already provided by Henderson. However, following the more than impressive streak as a right-sided centre half, I may well have to re-evaluate my prediction.
Jordan Henderson the captain elect
Steven Gerrard’s much discussed and rapidly approaching departure from Liverpool is sure to leave one of the more sizeable footballing vacuums in recent times. Having dragged his beloved Reds from the depths of despair on numerous occasions, Brendan Rodgers needs to find someone to live up to that role. Whilst the evidence of his first 12 months at Anfield would not have filled anybody with the confidence that Jordan Henderson was the man to take up the task, over more recent seasons he has grown into one of the most improved Premier League players.
The England international midfielder has already taken up the position of vice-captain at the club and as a result of Gerrard’s game-time being ‘managed’, Henderson has worn the skipper’s armband on several occasions already this year. Not only have his all-round footballing skills progressed at a remarkable rate, but with that has come a vocal presence on the pitch itself.
Establishing himself as an almost ever-present has done wonders for his confidence and self-belief, and now Henderson feels as though he belongs in one of football’s most famous theatres. Brendan Rodgers has spoken of the energetic enforcer’s leadership qualities behind the scenes and how he is a vibrant part of the dressing room. The passion that Henderson demonstrates when scoring an important goal for Liverpool or at the end of a tight tussle on the field is encouraging and certainly endears him in the hearts of the Anfield faithful. The emotion is raw, and you feel that he genuinely appreciates the magnitude of importance that Liverpool FC holds for so many.
In the first leg of the fiery encounter with Chelsea recently, Jordan Henderson and Diego Costa had something of a disagreement both on the pitch and in the tunnel. Not backing down in either incident, having the self-belief and audacity to go toe to toe with the Premier League’s top goalscorer announced to the world – Jordan Henderson has arrived.
For the midfield powerhouse to truly be classed as a replacement for Steven Gerrard, he must fill his boots as a captain and with direct contribution on the pitch. While his final delivery and goal output is showing signs of improvement, it is here that his focus should lie for the foreseeable future.
Skrtel’s tough exterior but calming influence
Martin Skrtel has always been something of an agricultural defender; always fancying a battle with a forward and using his upper body strength to out-muscle all threats. My favourite comment on the big Slovakian is that “he could bring a knife to a gun fight and still come out victorious”. However factual or not that may be, Liverpool’s number 37 is certainly not someone you would like to cross. At his best last season, he had added a more composed aspect to his play; something which had forsaken him at the beginning of this campaign.
The change to a back three and Skrtel’s location at the centre of it helped to return the Slovak to his aggressive but calming best. Never discount him in any aerial or ground duel, even when apparently second best. Despite not being the best on the ball, he knows his limitations and usually keeps it safe, short, and simple but can occasionally play an incisive pass to the more technical members of the side. While Skrtel looks as comfortable and in control of every situation as he does currently, expect the frequency of Liverpool clean sheets to continue.
Lazar finding his range
One of the very few if not the only positive to take from Liverpool’s defeat at home against F.C. Basel which confirmed their elimination from the Champions League group stages was the brief cameo from Lazar Markovic. The promising Serbian international had not enjoyed a fruitful start to his Anfield career, with first team opportunities a rarity. While it was only a few minutes against the Swiss outfit, he was the brightest spark on the pitch. Despite his chance to shine being unfairly cut short with a harsh straight red card, it has seemed to inspire greater things in the following weeks.
The direct dribbling style was something that Liverpool fans were expecting from the outset and it was a long time coming. Seeming to be an archetypal player who thrives on confidence, consistent starts and indeed useful contributions have followed. Despite his rather slight figure and a clear love for taking defenders on in the final third, the recent alteration in system has not deterred Markovic. A fantastic work-rate, speed across the ground, and comfort in possession on either foot has seen him be employed on either flank as a wing-back. Generally with Emre Can behind him providing cover, it does allow Markovic to venture forward and he can provide a high level of penetration that helps to push the opposition towards their own goal. I do believe that this is only a temporary measure and his longer term aspirations at Anfield lie further up the field.
Who or what do you think has played the primary role in Liverpool FC’s recent recovery? Let us know @TBRFootball.