“What will we do if Sturridge gets injured?” was a question posed by many Liverpool fans over the summer after the inevitable sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona left the 25-year-old Englishman to more or less carry the can by himself up front, even with the addition of Rickie Lambert. Brendan Rodgers’ hand was forced by an injury to Daniel Sturridge in pre-season and he moved to bring in Mario Balotelli from AC Milan just days before the transfer window shut.
Opinion was divided as to the wisdom of signing a player with such a chequered past, but Rodgers’ decision to purchase Balotelli is already looking like a smart one as Sturridge is set to miss most of September after getting injured in England training. With neither of last season’s gloriously prolific SAS duo to call upon for the coming weeks, how does Rodgers set up his stall to get the most out of the attacking options left available to him?
The good news for Liverpool fans is that, after a summer of splurging, the Irishman is spoilt for choice when it comes to his team selection in terms of both personnel and flexibility. The burning question now is what formation and starting 11 Rodgers should opt for. Simon Mignolet is an automatic selection while he is likely to go with a back four of Javier Manquillo, Dejan Lovren, Martin Skrtel/Mamadou Sakho and Alberto Moreno. The identity and setup of his other six players offers a variety of options.
Option 1: 4-3-3 with wide attacking support for Balotelli
While the Suarez and Sturridge combination was conveniently referred to as SAS, in truth Liverpool lined up regularly in the second half of 2013/14 with the front line of SASAS, Raheem Sterling playing on the right and Suarez in the middle, with Sturridge to his left. This setup left them open at times in midfield but was a sure-fire guarantee of goals as the central striker was ably assisted by two roving attackers either side of him.
This would appear to be Rodgers’ most potent option for the games ahead, starting with Aston Villa on Saturday evening. Balotelli will fill the role of central striker and Sterling will buzz around for the entire match to his right. An intriguing choice might be to give Adam Lallana (fitness pending) his competitive Liverpool debut as the leftmost of the attacking trio. He has the distributive ability to do so, he is lively enough to operate effectively in the role and he is not incapable of finding the net himself.
Where does that leave the three in midfield? With two roving wide men in attack and the two wing-backs likely to bomb forward at will, the midfield triumvirate will be kept narrow in comparison. Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson are all but assured of their places, with the other starting berth most likely to be given to either Joe Allen, particularly with Emre Can sidelined for six weeks after picking up an injury on Germanu under 21 duty, or possibly a recall for Philippe Coutinho.
Option 2: 4-2-3-1 with Balotelli as lone striker
Liverpool’s wealth of midfield options appears to make this formation an ideal one for Rodgers. It allows for flexibility, with a smooth transition to 4-3-3 if the situation requires, and has all bases covered in terms of both defensive and attacking functions.
If this is what Rodgers prefers for Saturday, the two ‘sitting’ midfield positions will most likely be taken by Gerrard and Henderson, both of whom will also contribute to the more attack-minded aspects of Liverpool’s play. Sterling and Lallana would probably feature as the wide men in the attacking midfield trio and the ‘number 10’ role could prompt a recall for the very man with that number on his back, Coutinho. The Brazilian was disappointing by his own lofty standards against Southampton and Man City prior to losing his place in the side for the 3-0 win over Tottenham just before the international break.
A rejuvenated Coutinho can only be good news for Liverpool, but the possibly crucial limitation to the 4-2-3-1 could be the sole presence of Balotelli as striker. The Italian international can be sensational but there is equally the prospect of his mind just not being fully tuned into the task at hand, leaving him lethargic and isolated. If the wide attacking midfielders are set up so that they are not alongside Balotelli, it will need him to drop deeper when Liverpool don’t have the ball rather than idly biding his time in the penalty box and waiting for his team-mates to lay it on a plate for him.
Option 3: 4-4-2 diamond with Balotelli partnered by Lambert
Rodgers went for this setup when Liverpool visited White Hart Lane and, even taking into account Tottenham’s vulnerability on the day, it worked a treat for the Reds.
The midfield line-up that afternoon was Gerrard at the base of the diamond, Henderson and Allen in the middle and Sterling operating behind a front two of Balotelli and Sturridge. By playing in a central ‘number 10′ role instead of being named as a nominal winger, Sterling had the freedom to run amok and pretty much torture the Spurs defence to devastating effect. It also gave licence to full-backs Manquillo and Moreno to cover as much ground as they needed on the flanks, something that the latter did masterfully in conjuring up Liverpool’s third goal.
The movement of Sturridge was also key to the success of the 4-4-2 diamond, though, and while Lambert may appear to be a like-for-like replacement as regards bringing in a striker for a striker, he has different attributes to Sturridge. The ex-Southampton target man operates best when prowling the penalty area in readiness to put the finishing touch to a deft attacking play, but he will not move about in the same vein as Sturridge. That would leave Liverpool with two strikers that aren’t known for their tendency to rove around the final third of the pitch and Rodgers’ gameplan depends heavily on the perpetual motion of the men in red.
Conclusion: 4-3-3 is the one for me
Liverpool currently have five strikers on the club’s books, so it would appear strange to champion a setup that will only see one of them starting. Bear in mind, though, that the other four fall under the respective categories of injured (Sturridge), impact substitute (Lambert), out on loan (Divock Origi) and unwanted (Fabio Borini).
However, football in the 21st century is rarely as black as white as simply defining a player as a midfielder or a striker. Energetic players such as Sterling and Lallana give Rodgers a multitude of options when it comes to deciding how to set them up, be it as attackers in a 4-3-3 or wide creators in a 4-2-3-1. It is asking a lot of Balotelli to lead the line on his own having just arrived at Anfield, while it seems counter-productive to start with both him and Lambert, so having two attack-minded operators alongside him in a front three would appear to be the best option. It’s certainly the one I would go with for as long as Sturridge is injured and it has the potential for Liverpool to blow teams out of the water as they did so often last season.
My LFC team for Saturday: Mignolet – Manquillo, Lovren, Skrtel, Moreno – Henderson, Gerrard, Coutinho – Sterling, Balotelli, Lallana