We all knew that there would be a settling in period at the start of this season, where perhaps performances and results weren’t quite what we’d ideally like whilst players found their feet individually and collectively. But that is a very different thing to looking completely devoid of identity as a team; with no solid system in place, square pegs in round holes, and the same mistakes being made over and over again.
They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Now our hand was slightly forced in that matter in that we lost Luis Suarez, who was a massive reason we ‘weren’t broke’ last season. But we’ve gone from having a good structure that seemed to bring the best out of all of our players, to looking like we’ve completely forgotten how to play football. Obviously we are dealing with Daniel Sturridge and Joe Allen being out injured, and players like Steven Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho struggling for form. And the less said about our defence, the better.
But we seemed to sign players in the summer that implied Brendan Rodgers had a very specific change in style in mind. We went all out to bring Adam Lallana to the club, whilst also spending a big chunk of money on Lazar Markovic. We then brought in Mario Balotelli, who couldn’t be more of a different sort of striker from Suarez if he tried. The signings we didn’t make almost made just as much of a statement; Emre Can was the only midfielder to come in, and as a young player it’s doubtful we are looking to throw him straight into the mix when he’s back fit. Therefore it seems Rodgers is relatively happy with Gerrard, Allen, Jordan Henderson, and Lucas Leiva as our midfield options. Not a lot of depth there though, and we really seem to be lacking a ‘midfield enforcer’. At centre back, we also put all our eggs in one basket in shelling out £20m for Dejan Lovren, who hasn’t made the best of starts.
Against Basel yesterday, we played a 4-2-3-1 system. We tested the water with it in the last couple of games and on paper, looking at the players in the line-up, it might have seemed like the best suited formation to play. But it negated everything that worked for us last season, to the point that the role for pretty much every player in the team was affected. Gerrard wasn’t as deep, therefore the centre backs couldn’t split as far, therefore the full backs couldn’t advance as much, therefore the wingers had to start wider etc, etc. Henderson also had to be more disciplined in midfield, so the only players the change seemed to benefit were Coutinho, who had more space in his favoured number 10 role, and Balotelli, who has been looking very isolated in his games so far, so needed either a strike partner or a link man in behind.
If I had to guess, I’d say we were trying to build the team around Balotelli in the hopes of him getting a goal or two to kick-start his Liverpool career. So far he has been quite poor playing up front alone. It just doesn’t suit him at all. Suarez and Sturridge were/are good at it for us because they can drop deep and link play, drift wide to find space, and dribble well enough to bring the ball forward themselves. Balotelli is very much a ‘box player’. Outside of it, he doesn’t offer much, besides his strength and holding up of the ball. But then he struggles to find the runners in behind him, and usually ends up resorting to an occasionally well struck long shot. And the way we’d been set up, that is pretty much all we’ve seen so far of ‘Super Mario’. He hasn’t set the world alight, but how many decent chances can you say he’s missed? Not many, he just hasn’t had the service. I’m not pointing the finger at the rest of the team, but that’s the sort of player he is and we knew that when we signed him.
So to get Balotelli in the box more, we could either go with two up front, or play a number 10 behind him. Coutinho got the nod, but that meant the 4-2-3-1 beat out the diamond, leading to the effect on the rest of the team as mentioned above. Having puzzled a few people with the signing of Rickie Lambert, I would at least have wanted us to show our trust in him by giving him a game when the circumstances dictated. Completely altering our formation to avoid playing him can’t exactly be a massive confidence boost to the lad.
So the game itself was as disjointed as you would expect after such needless changes. It was a performance of 11 individuals instead of one team. I don’t want to make out that it was all bad, but the positives were minor things like Markovic showing some confidence, Coutinho looking more like himself, and Jose Enrique getting his match fitness up. Our season has moved on from a slow start to genuinely poor form, but nothing is disastrous yet. We can still turn things around, but we need to get a move on.
Ironically, after saying all this, it was yet another set piece that we actually conceded from, so the switch in system wasn’t even directly to blame for the loss. But come the West Brom game on Saturday, I hope to see us go back to basics and show faith in the structure that led us to 2nd in the league last year.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)