Make no mistake; yesterday’s win against Stoke was a big win for us, and the sort of game where you’re happy to take three points however they come. It wasn’t glamorous or emphatic, but certain demons were put to bed, and it gave us a great platform for the coming season on a weekend where we saw rival teams fumble at (on paper) lesser challenges.
The debate of Dejan Lovren or Mamdou Sakho to start in defence became a non-issue at the news that the Frenchman had been given some time off due to the birth of his second child. And as luck would have it, Lovren put in a very reassuring performance at the back that gave a throwback to the quality he showed at Lyon and Southampton that made us splash out £20m on him last summer. The signs had been there to imply that the gaffer had already made the decision for Lovren to be our left sided centre back this season, but at least that faith in him looks to have been rewarded for the time being.
Joe Gomez being given his debut at left back in place of Alberto Moreno was another notable decision from Brendan Rodgers, though it wasn’t entirely illogical based on the pre-season form of the two players. It was a bold move to throw the 18 year old straight in to the team, against such notoriously tough opposition too, but his performances in our friendly fixtures had earned him his shot. And he didn’t look out of place at all throughout the ninety minutes, demonstrating the strength, pace, and composure that it seems we’re going to become well accustomed to. Perhaps the only niggle is that we’ve allowed ourselves to get into the position where an 18 year old centre back is our best option at left back, when if we felt that Moreno wasn’t quite up to standard we should’ve been in the transfer market to replace him, instead of potentially heaping pressure on a young player in an unfamiliar position, akin to what happened to Moreno himself last season, as well as Emre Can and Lazar Markovic.
Perhaps the biggest talking point was in midfield, where Jordan Henderson and James Milner started in a two to accommodate Jordon Ibe, Philippe Coutinho, and Adam Lallana in the attacking positions ahead. Joe Allen’s injury and Can’s lack of fitness may have affected this, but it seems unlikely as Lucas Leiva was there to fill in if needed, but found himself excluded from the squad entirely. Henderson and Milner offered the energy you’d expect from them, but without a specialised holding player they were in danger of leaving big gaps in midfield and leaving our defence exposed. Our new captain did his best to remain disciplined and offer some protection, but it restricted his natural game. We looked a far better side when Can came off the bench, who not only anchored the midfield but also pinged a few passes forward of the sort that players like Coutinho and Roberto Firmino thrive on.
Neither Henderson nor Milner act as a typical playmaker, and instead prefer to use their running and movement to break forward into the attack. Yesterday this meant that Coutinho had to drop back to be the player supplying the forward passes, instead of being the one in the hole who you want on the end of them to quickly receive the ball and create something. With Can sitting, the midfield duo could break forward to their heart’s content, and Coutinho could stay in the number ten slot knowing that someone is still withdrawn to supply the passes to him.
Firmino was given a 15 minute cameo in which he looked lively, but had little time to make a real impact. If his fitness allows, there should definitely be a place in the starting 11 v Bournemouth with his name on it. Yesterday Lallana was ineffective, and Ibe was persistent but struggled to have any real effect on the game. Up top, Christian Beneteke provided the outlet we knew he would, and showed a few neat touches and runs. No real goal scoring opportunity came his way, but he certainly made his presence felt.
At home against a newly promoted team, the manager may feel he wants to give the same formation and players another run out to get a better look at how they perform. In the long term though, I think we need to see both Can and Firmino be key parts of the first team as soon as they get their match fitness up. They offer another dimension to our play, and with Can at the base of the midfield it gives us the option to quickly revert to a diamond formation if we feel the need, giving Benteke some support up front with the likes of Danny Ings and Divock Origi waiting in the wings. Not to mention being a system that a certain Daniel Sturridge could then fit right into upon his return.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)