Stopping the Slump - What can Liverpool do?
The opening three matches of the 2015/16 Premier League season left Liverpool fans with reasons to be quietly optimistic of a positive campaign to come. The defence was looking more solid than in recent times, Philippe Coutinho and Christian Benteke had already formed a close relationship on the pitch, and the majority of the summer signings had settled well into first team affairs. However, results and performances since then have dropped off dramatically, conceding six goals in two games. A 3-0 drubbing at Anfield at the hands of West Ham United was a shock to the system and losing 3-1 to Manchester United after the international break has only compounded the growing feeling of dismay. Individual players rather than the group as a whole are taking much of the criticism currently, though it is Brendan Rodgers who is coming under the most intense pressure from fans and media alike. Despite the apparent gulf between the current levels of performance and those required to achieve Liverpool’s ambitions this season, I believe that if some key areas are addressed as early as possible, these objectives remain attainable.
It is not easy to determine which issue is the more integral to tackle first, with Liverpool’s play lacking in both creativity and defensive solidity in recent matches. However, a stable base is certainly essential for any side to be successful and so Liverpool must look to rectify their defensive frailties immediately. We need to look no further than the contrast between Chelsea’s struggles and Manchester City’s success this campaign to see how essential it is to possess a reliable back line.
When a team is struggling, what they cannot afford is for individual errors to be made in defensive areas that breed nervousness and; all too frequently, result in the concession of a goal. These mistakes blighted Liverpool last season and to a certain extent, even when they went so close to winning the Premier League title. They have returned in the last couple of games in dramatic fashion, leaving fans of The Reds wondering where the gritty and organised displays have gone that were so evident in the opening weeks. They held out well against Stoke City in their first game and failed to buckle under serious pressure from an Arsenal onslaught at The Emirates. Now though, defensive lapses of concentration plague the back line and were typified by Mignolet’s inexplicable attempted throw out of his hands that hit Juan Mata’s ankles only a few yards away. The Belgian and Liverpool were fortunate that the consequence was not a goal, as only Fellaini’s lack of composure prevented Manchester United from taking the lead. Before the international break, Dejan Lovren; who had started on the long road to recovery in the eyes of Liverpool fans, thrust himself into the grateful arms of the critics by a bumbling mishap against West Ham United. The Croatian now effectively finds himself back at square one, needing to start all over again to win the hearts of The Kop.
Is it time therefore to bring Mamadou Sakho back into the fold in the place of Dejan Lovren. The former PSG defender is certainly the favoured choice for the majority of Liverpool fans and it is easy to see why – commanding in the air, uncompromising in the tackle and a dominant character as part of the back line. Whilst I am not at all averse to this way of thinking, I also do not think that this solves all of Liverpool’s defensive woes. Far from it. The lion-hearted Frenchman is if anything more of a hazard on the ball than Lovren so it is in fact a change in philosophy that is required. It appeared as though this message had got through to the central defenders and goalkeeper in the opening weeks. The idea of possession through the midfield had not been abandoned but when in dangerous circumstances without an obvious option, they utilised the aerial prowess of Christian Benteke by launching a longer pass forward. A return to the dithering is deeply frustrating and it is quite simple – the basic principles of not giving the opposition possession near your goal still apply in modern day football. Whether it is a directive from Rodgers or a false belief in their own ability on behalf of Skrtel, Lovren and Mignolet, this needs to disappear from Liverpool’s game at the earliest possible opportunity.
The next main point to improve on is improving the variation in formation and the system applied to each game. I have praised Brendan Rodgers in the past for excelling in this area; indeed seeing it as one of the main strengths behind the squad of players he possesses, but now he seems to avoid change like the plague. This does not have to be over-complicated, although there are some more drastic changes which I feel could work.
One of the more inexplicable decisions came against Manchester United when; after selecting Danny Ings for his full debut in a Liverpool shirt, he proceeded to deploy him on the left wing. This is by no means where the former Burnley man will be most effective and he had to put in a great deal of defensive work, nullifying an impact on the game. He was a bright spark when coming on against West Ham but this did not seem to be taken into account by the Northern Irish manager. A switch to a 4-1-2-1-2 seemed inevitable given the players selected in the starting line-up, with Firmino operating in the hole behind Liverpool’s new pair of strikers. Not only would this give greater support to Benteke and allow Ings to work in the areas which suit him best, but it would have also signalled an aggressive intent from the outset.
One has to hope that Rodgers has learned from this apparent tactical misjudgement and will correct it in the future. He showed no signs of changing during the match but perhaps O’Driscoll could nudge him in the right direction. With Daniel Sturridge’s imminent return to first team action, the probability of playing with two strikers on a regular basis has increased dramatically. Surely he will not ask Sturridge to play wide, denying him the most direct route to goal and the chance to bag the goals that we know he can? Although the 4-3-3 formation has functioned in the past with Sturridge in the side, it is important to remember that this was when Suarez was still at Anfield. The two of them did not have any particular set of defined jobs in a positional sense, instead able to react to one another and the balance worked very well indeed. Benteke is simply not of the same variety as Suarez and to ask the Belgian to replicate the Uruguayan’s traits would be foolhardy and counter-productive. Sturridge and Benteke need to play as a pair, through the middle, working in tandem and causing defenders constant problems.
Although I imagine that Brendan Rodgers will be reluctant to revive the 3-4-3 / 3-5-2 formation which worked so well for his Liverpool side for a while last campaign, I do not feel that it should be dismissed. The reasons for its success have been well documented and the additions of Gomez, Clyne and Milner to The Reds’ ranks make it an even more viable option in my view. Gomez’s preferred role is at centre half and his pace would be useful in a potential back three comprised of the former Charlton defender, Skrtel and Sakho. Clyne is certainly an upgrade on Glen Johnson and his energy going forward on the right hand side is there for all to see. With a lack of genuine wide players at the club following Markovic’s departure on loan, Jordon Ibe could fill in on either flank at wing-back, though I would give Moreno the nod on the left hand side initially. He is perhaps more suited to this position than a true full-back role and could provide crosses for the starved Benteke.
With midfielders such as Henderson, Milner and Can at his disposal, Rodgers has a wealth of options in the middle of the park where great power and stamina are a significant plus. The freedom of expression could then be given to three forward-thinking players, potentially allowing Liverpool to develop a much needed creative edge. Any combination of Sturridge, Benteke, Coutinho and Firmino would work well here, and it would be the individual opposition that decided the final line-up.
Finally, Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers need to find a way to obtain the best out of their Brazilian stars. Coutinho’s suspension; which meant him missing out against Manchester United, hit the Anfield outfit hard and his absence from the side was acutely obvious. Now that he is eligible to return again, Rodgers needs to realise that his best players need to play in their best positions. There is no doubt that Coutinho is in this bracket and I cannot help but feel that he loses something from his game if he is asked to work from the left hand side.
To reach the required balance for the team, this problem needs to be resolved and at the same time, Firmino’s most beneficial position needs to be determined too. His start in a Liverpool shirt has not been magnificent but the signs are certainly there that he could grow into a star for The Reds in the same manner that Coutinho has done. He is certainly not an archetypal winger, again more suited to plying his trade in an advanced central area. In this early stage of his Anfield career, it may be the case that he does not fit into Liverpool’s strongest eleven while Coutinho is in the side. Despite the significant fee that he commanded in the transfer window, Rodgers cannot be afraid to leave him out for the sake of the team.
With the poisoned chalice of Europa League football back at Anfield once more, Brendan Rodgers certainly does not lack games to tinker with the make-up of his squad. Of course, it is by no means a simple task for new players to gel immediately, but it is the seemingly obvious decisions which he fails to make that frustrate the fans the most. I would personally love to see the former Swansea manager succeed at Liverpool as I admire his intentions for the style of play on the pitch and also the way he conducts himself off it. However, if he does not heed the warnings that are clear for all to see and persists with the current system, hoping that fortunes will improve nonetheless, then he is setting himself up for a fall.
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