Trying to evaluate where Liverpool Football Club are, on the pitch, has been somewhat tricky so far this season. Saturday’s resounding victory over Fulham though, poor as the Cottagers were, along with the last two league results and performances (including defeat at Arsenal), have gone some way to shedding some light on the matter.
It’s been a season of different styles and results for LFC far. From dogged performances at the beginning of the campaign – three hard fought 1-0 victories in a row – to chaotic away days (Newcastle and Swansea particularly spring to mind). Comfortable victories at home to West Brom and Fulham, and a couple of lacklustre performances in defeat against Southampton and Arsenal.
With the absence of Luis Suarez for the opening six games, the varying form of new signings, the plethora of injuries which have afflicted the squad, and the pool of talent available to him, Brendan Rodgers has employed several different formations thus far too. After beginning the season with a 4-2-3-1 (in the absence of Suarez), Rodgers adapted to a 3-5-2 upon the Uruguayan’s return.
This seemed a great fit, given the players at Rodgers’s disposal- an abundance of good centre backs for example – and it is a good option, particularly if Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique are fit to play the wing back roles. However, without those two stretching the play and providing options, the midfield can become overrun, leaving the defence vulnerable. This is borne out by the fact the the side failed to keep a clean sheet whilst employing three centre backs.
As mentioned already, it’s a good option to have, and it’s good that Rodgers is keen to have different methods of playing, to be employed as and when required. However, it’s no coincidence, for me, that the Reds best team performance of the season came with a switch back to a 4-3-3 cum 4-1-2-1-2. With Coutinho back in the side, a player who contibutes hugely to Liverpool playing well, not just through his individual ability but also because of the partnerships he forms with others around him (notably Jordan Henderson), this is surely the Reds’ best formation.
Much has been made of the problem in central midfield at times for LFC this season. As mentioned above, the 3-5-2 can highlight shortcomings in this area, however some have been quick to point accusatory fingers at Lucas and Gerrard, even calling for one or other to be dropped/replaced. Saturday highlighted, for me, that a slight shift in formation and the addition of Coutinho along with Henderson, makes all the difference to Liverpool’s central area.
With Lucas allowed to sit as the one real defensive midfielder, he can drop in and cover when the full-backs push on and the centre-backs split, this is a role he relishes, and there are few better at it in the league. Jordan Henderson’s pressing, in tandem with Coutinho pressing at the apex, allows Gerrard more time on the ball, and the freedom to pick passes – which he does better than anyone. Coutinho and Henderson, as alluded to above, work fantastically well as a pair, affording opposition players no time to settle. Each knows where the other is and where he will be, they inspire each other with confidence, and both play better for having the other in the side.
With that midfield quartet, operating in a somewhat flexible sort of narrow diamond (as they did vs Fulham), Enrique supporting on the left, Johnson on the right, doing what only he can in his position, Suarez and Sturridge up front, and the strength in depth the club now has at the back, the Reds look like the real deal. The formation and personnel (along with the poor quality of the opposition) allowed Liverpool to utterly dominate possession, and therefore totally control the game at the weekend. A fact shown up only to clearly by looking at the stats – 32 attempts (more than any other team this season), 10 on target, 68% possession, 722 passes – 260 of which were in the final third.
The other advantage that the switch to 4-1-2-1-2 brings is on the bench. Whilst the idea behind LFC playing 3-5-2 is to get all the best players on the pitch, it often means not playing players in their preferred positions, and (earlier in the season in any case) led to the bench being made up of players unlikely to change a game. 4-1-2-1-2 allows for players to play in their best positions, whilst maintaining a strong bench – if Skrtel and Agger play, Toure and Sakho will be on the bench, along with Moses, Luis Alberto, Sterling and Joe Allen, all players who can come into a game and have an effect on it.
Regardless of formation, Liverpool have started the season well. Being clear in second place after almost a third of the season, should have met the expectations of even those with the most exacting of standards. There are those who will say that the toughest tests are still to come, and they may be right, however this season has shown us already that even those who’ve topped the league for the last few years, and longer, are not to be feared in 2013/14.
Where the Reds can go from here is largely up to them. Liverpool may not yet be good enough to go to the Emirates and win, but truth be told, to win the league, that isn’t necessary. There are plenty of points to be gained from beating the bottom twelve or thirteen sides home and away, and Liverpool’s record at Anfield against the top sides is formidable. The spirit within the camp is better than it has been in years, the squad has largely returned to full fitness, and with FSG seemingly likely to invest again in January, there should be no limit to Liverpool’s ambition this season.
Shankly statue image by Ben Sutherland