By Mark Chrystal (follow him on twitter: @mkjchrystal)
Liverpool has just concluded a week that clearly benchmarks their current capabilities. They won away to QPR, but on the back of a disjointed performance that relied on two own-goals to get the victory. At Anfield, they failed to score against Hull, despite dominating possession and shots and they could only muster 20 minutes of sustained pressure on Real Madrid. All long-time Liverpool supporters knew that the team overachieved a little last season and that it would be tougher without Suarez this season. This season the team has taken a much larger step backwards, from last year’s form, than we could have anticipated. In my opinion there are three specific reasons for this decline: cohesiveness, tactics and comparative quality.
Liverpool’s march up the table last season was not due to them having a large number of the best players in the League. They clearly did not, with the exception of Suarez and Sturridge, and with strong mention’s for Gerrard and Sterling. In reality, their outstanding team performance levels were achieved based on a togetherness of purpose and a commitment to a common cause. Each player knew their role, and how to interchange those roles to keep the team operating fluidly together. They knew that each player would give their all, and support the team’s objectives above their own. Armed with this belief in each other, and the fluid team’s tactical system, came a cohesiveness of approach that made them fearless, and ultimately feared by all.
This cohesiveness is not present this year. Liverpool is yet to put in a fluid team performance for 90 minutes, with the exception of the Spurs match. Against Spurs, they started the game with the fewest number of new players on the pitch of any match this season so far. In fact, this is a point that highlights a major reason behind their lack of cohesiveness so far. There are clearly too many new players, and these players clearly do not have an understanding with, or trust of, last season’s players. The new signings are showing a lack of understanding about the tactical system and what is expected of them. In my opinion, there are only two paths to remedy this cohesiveness issue: 1. Give the new team time to gel or, 2. Limit the number of new players to just 2 or 3 on the pitch at any one time. Recognition of the need for this limitation would move reliance back onto 8 or 9 players from last season as a means of creating a cohesive group into which the others can integrate.
Brendan Rodgers was able to adjust the tactics of the team fluidly last season because of the cohesiveness of the team. This cohesiveness allowed the team to trust in each other and to adapt as and when required. Last season, such adjustments took many games from the brink of dropped points on to the achievement of victory. It should be clearly noted that Rodgers did not lose his tactical nous over the summer. It is the lack of team cohesion that is clearly impeding the implementation of his tactical ideas this season. Rodgers may not yet fully recognize these cohesion issues and, as a result, he may not recognize that his tactical adjustments may even be hurting performance levels. It seems apparent that the group becomes confused and positionally entangled following any meaningful tactical adjustments. In my opinion, Liverpool hasn’t been able to perform a single set of tactical instructions as a cohesive team yet. Let alone have the capacity to take on new tactical approaches match-to-match, or even mid-match as they did so fluently last season.
In addition to these tactical implementation issues comes the over-reliance on players who seem to be in the team on reputation not form. For example, Balotelli – a player that I like – is clearly not in good form. In order to play him into form, perhaps he should be on the left or right wing (as he was at the end of the Hull match), and not relied upon to be the main goal scorer. Lovren has also been poor and, perhaps like Balotelli, he needs to lose his place in the team, at least for a week or two as a kick up the backside. The other player that should be dropped is – I hate to say it – Gerrard. The team needs more energy in the middle of the park than he can provide right now, and he can’t be picked just because of what he has accomplished at Liverpool. I think it is time to see him transition into a different role, and one that is less central to Liverpool’s success on the field. The team needs to learn to play without him, and that transition should start now. Liverpool has little to lose and much to gain from the added energy and dynamism a change to the center of the park could bring. It is time to challenge others to step up and fill Gerrard’s legendary boots.
On this basis, I think the team needs to start to shape up as shown in the following formation diagram. In this formation, the starting front four should be interchangeable as they were last season. The ‘central midfield 3’ should be setup to pivot, where Henderson or Allen drop back to receive the ball (or defend) with Coutinho dropping into the vacated central midfield role. This would also require that the two wide players drop back in order to make the defensive formation a 4-1-4-1. In possession of the ball this then transitions to a 4-1-2-2-1 and then to a 2-4-1-3, with the full backs pushing into the wide midfield roles, and the two wide attackers joining the striker in an attacking 3, with an attacking midfielder filling the hole behind them.
Unfortunately, Liverpool currently lacks the same standard and depth of quality across each of these positions as their main EPL and ECL competitors do. If you consider the current Liverpool squad, how many would get into this season’s eventual Champion’s League semi-finalists on current form (assuming Liverpool do not make it to that point)? If you think about these teams as being Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and one of either Chelsea, PSG or Dortmund, how does Liverpool compare? In my opinion, only Sturridge, Sterling or Coutinho would be reasonable choices for a starting XI berth. As a practical matter, I don’t think any of them would do better than the bench, on any of these teams, with Sterling the only possible exception. Compare that to Chelsea, Manchester City, and even grudgingly Manchester United or Arsenal. These teams all have players capable of getting into any first eleven from those top teams (for example, Courtois, Hazard, Fabregas, Costa, Aguero, Kompany, Silva, Toure, Di Maria, Falcao, Van Persie, and Alexis Sanchez).
Sterling will one day be considered amongst the best and most productive players in the world, but let’s remember that he is still young. He is not yet ready to carry the team to victory as Suarez and Gerrard used to do. Unfortunately, Sturridge lacks the physical consistency and Balotelli the mental consistency to do so either. Liverpool possesses promise in their young players, but Coutinho, Lallana, Markovic, Can, Henderson, Moreno and Manquillo are a few years from being at the level of the players currently holding down positions in the top teams in Europe at the moment, if they ever reach that standard at all.
As with the case of the current team cohesiveness issue, there are two possible remedies here: 1. Accelerate and rely on the development of the younger players like Arsenal does (and include the likes of Suso, Ibe, Rossiter, Sinclair, Chirivella more often) by getting them in first the team more consistently (this means limiting older generation players such as, Gerrard, Johnson, Lambert, Lucas, and Toure, etc.), or 2. Go out and acquire top talent (like the rest of those top teams I mentioned earlier), such that the team always has a world class performer out on the field at all times, regardless of injuries. Right now, Liverpool seems to be caught in the middle of these two strategies and is spending big money on prospects (or suspects, like Balotelli) that may or may not make the grade, rather than on players who are clearly already at the right standard.