The shambolic 3-0 defeat this weekend at the hands of West Ham, a side who had previously conceded 6 goals in two home fixtures to Leicester and Bournemouth, was a harsh reality check this Liverpool side. There was a sense of cautious optimism after picking up 7 points from 9 without conceding a single goal, despite the performances being largely underwhelming except for the first half against Arsenal. Yet the manner of this defeat was all too familiar- an unwelcome throw back to the old problems of last season. The defence was back to its calamitous worst, whilst our only shot on target despite having 64% possession was a hopeless 40 yard effort from Dejan Lovren. All of a sudden the mood among Liverpool fans is drastically darker and doubts have resurfaced about the quality of our players and perhaps most significantly, the tactical decisions and personnel selected by Brendan Rodgers- and that is where I will focus in this article.
Whilst I was content with two wins and a draw from our opening three fixtures, I was still unconvinced by our level of performance, and the emphatic loss to West Ham justified my doubts. If we’re being honest, Elphick’s header for Bournemouth should have stood. Benteke’s goal should have been disallowed. Aaron Ramsey’s goal was wrongly ruled offside. Of course, these things happen in football- you take your luck when you can. But the point I’m making is that we have had a significant slice of good fortune to even be in the position we are in, and this first loss of the season as brought us back down to earth and exposed the cracks which had been temporarily papered-over.
When you look at why we conceded three goals to West Ham, it was a relapse of avoidable, individual defensive errors which were all too frequent last season. Lovren and Skrtel were disastrous. The reintroduction of Mamadou Sakho would certainly be a step in the right direction, although I suspect Rodgers’ stubborn backing of Lovren will continue. The most worrying aspect of this defeat, however, was the complete lack of attacking cohesion and chance creation. Other than Firmino’s 30 yard strike which hit the post in the first half, we didn’t come close to scoring throughout the entire match. West Ham’s reserve keeper was not forced into a single save of note. Between our entire midfield and front line, not a single Liverpool player had a shot on target. Therein lies a major problem. four games into the new season and we have scored just twice- one individual long range strike from Coutinho, and the other an offside goal by Benteke. We are simply not creating opportunities to score, other than in a brief first half spell against Arsenal. If we struggle to find the back of the net against sides like Bournemouth and West Ham at home, with the caliber of players we have, then surely it is down to the system they are deployed in.
Rodgers seems decided on a 4-3-3 formation this season, and yet with the individuals we have, the current set up fails to maximise our player’s best attributes. Benteke has shown he is more than a target man, but nonetheless he is a major threat in the air and thrives off delivery from wide areas. Logically, this requires wingers who can send in good quality crosses for Benteke to feed off. The issue is that we simply do not have that. At the moment, Coutinho and Firmino occupy the wide forward positions, but neither are natural wingers and neither are particular quick. The two Brazilians are creative, technical attacking midfielders who are best used in central positions where they can play through balls and dictate the play. They do not sprint down the wing and whip crosses into the box, and therefore when played in this formation, their natural inclination is to drift infield, depriving the team of balance and width.
The worrying fact of the matter is that we do not actually have any wingers at the club who can deliver crosses into the box or get into goal scoring positions themselves. The only natural winger we have is Jordon Ibe, who although a promising talent, has not started the season well and lacks consistent end product. Raheem Sterling has left but has not been properly replaced (no, Firmino is not a direct replacement), whilst the decision to loan out Lazar Markovic to Fenerbahce seems illogical. Given our involvement in the Europa League, and the lack of depth in wide areas, surely Markovic would’ve had a role to play this season following Sterling’s departure. But given that the club felt it necessary to send him on loan, the lack of any attempt to sign another winger this transfer window is, in my opinion, a big mistake, especially when you consider our net spend is now only around £20 million for the summer. The likes of Heung Min-Son, Yehven Konoplyanka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Andre Ayew have all been snapped up by smaller clubs, when we should’ve been looking to bring one of them in given the departures of Sterling and Markovic.
Another key area which was exposed against West Ham was the left back position. Joe Gomez has made a fantastic start to his Liverpool career with three solid performances to start the season. However, the West Hame game exposed his attacking limitations. In tough away games to Stoke and Arsenal, Gomez was a good option to have as he naturally stayed back and helped keep the defence tight and compact, preventing space opening up for the opposition. However, in a home game like this, when we had the majority of the possession, given Coutinho’s natural tendency to drift infield, we needed our left back to burst up the wing to provide width. As Gomez is naturally a right footed centre back, he was much more comfortable cutting infield on to his stronger foot. The introduction of Moreno at half time helped, but by then it was too late. In these situations, the Spaniard is far better suited to the role as he is comfortable attacking down the wing and crossing with his left foot.
The player suffering most from these tactical deficiencies happens to be our £32.5 million marquee summer signing. I have been encouraged by Benteke’s performances early on- his touch, hold up play and work rate have been very good. However, he was totally isolated in this game and was completely starved of service. Rodgers has to ensure that Benteke is a successful signing and he will need to find a way to make better use of the Belgian. A player of his ability cannot be left feeding off scraps. Benteke needs players running beyond him, collecting his knock-downs and playing one-twos. He also needs accurate delivery from out wide. Liverpool have averaged the fewest crosses in the league so far this season. Given that Benteke’s physical presence and ability to score from crosses are key attributes, it is a waste not to utilise this. Instead, what we’ve been seeing so far is players aimlessly lumping it from deep positions for Benteke to win headers, only for the opposition to collect the ball unchallenged.
Personally I would like to see the return of the 4-4-2 diamond which brought the most exciting brand of football we’ve seen in recent years. Benteke would benefit from a quick, energetic striker to play alongside him- either Divock Origi or Danny Ings, whilst this system would allow Roberto Firmino to play centrally behind the two forwards which is his strongest position. Coutinho can dictate the play from a deeper position on the left point of the diamond, whilst still playing more centrally than in a 4-3-3, whilst Emre Can could anchor the midfield with support from Milner or Henderson on the right. Alternatively, Firmino could join Benteke up top with Coutinho in behind, allowing all three of Milner, Henderson and Can to dominate the midfield. Either way, this formation would ensure that our best players are used in their best positions, rather than wasting them out wide. Benteke would have players in and around him, whilst the onus would be on Clyne and Moreno to provide width and deliver balls into the box.
The crux of the matter is that something needs changing fast. Rodgers will know that his job depends on success this season, and he will need his side to start scoring goals sooner rather than later in order to achieve this success. The return of Sturridge will be a massive boost, if and when he is finally fully fit again, but as we’ve learned in the past, he cannot be relied upon. Rodgers must find a way to get the best out of our current options because right now, 4-3-3 is not working for any of our attacking players. Of course, the individual errors at the back need to stop, but we will not win games unless we can find a way of consistently creating chances and scoring goals. Next up in two weeks is a trip to Old Trafford. Coutinho is suspended, whilst Henderson is still an injury doubt. There needs to be a big response after the West Ham defeat. Rodgers simply cannot afford to get it wrong again.