“Why fix something that isn’t broken” – it is the go-to rationale when it comes to finding the reason for Liverpool’s unimpressive start to the 2014-15 campaign. Many were eager to witness how the club would evolve from their second-place finish in the preceding season and take it to the next level, but it seems that early signs aren’t as convincing as first imagined.
Liverpool is currently in 7th place in the league, but only less than a handful of points separate them from the highly-coveted Top 4 spot. This, however, does not truly reflect how the club has performed thus far, which can be summarized as underwhelming.
The three games that ended in defeat were against title-holders Manchester City (as expected), lowly Aston Villa (who always seem to have their annual world-class game against Liverpool), and West Ham United who have started the season immensely well. Even excluding the aforementioned games, the Reds have been underperforming in most of their games: from appalling defending, to toothless attacks, to being overrun in midfield, to shocking tactics – you name it.
To add a pinch of salt into the wound, Liverpool’s below-par performance isn’t restricted to the domestic league either. They needed a last-minute penalty to secure a 2-1 win against fourth-seed Ludogorets in the Champions League, and not forgetting that they had to endure a 30-penalty thriller to advance in the Capital One Cup against Championship side Middlesbrough.
With expectations being at an all-time high from last season, the worrying form of the club makes picking out the scapegoats and the individuals to blame relatively easy. The truth is, though, that the problems pertaining to the club are collective ones – from the balance of the squad, to the players, to the tactics, to the transfers, and of course, a hint of bad luck.
An irritatingly-persistent issue in Rodgers’ side has been its defending abilities (or perhaps, a lack of it). Bar the signings of Alberto Moreno and to an extent, Javier Manquillo, it’s highly arguable that we have actually taken a step back defensively, and whether that is down to the system or the personnel is still unclear.
The pairing of Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel has yet to show any promise, with the two being almost carbon copies of each other in terms of how error-prone they are. As individual players, they are pretty much polar opposites of each other – the former having the habit of taking steps forward from the back-line and intercepting the ball higher up the pitch, while the latter prefers to hold his ground and back-track to defend his man.
Here’s an example of how this is detrimental (using the 3-0 loss against Real Madrid, when we conceded the first goal which essentially shifted any momentum we had over to them).
This first picture shows the defensive structure without Glen Johnson (out of frame), keeping a relatively flat, but compact line as seen with the black-coloured line (from left: Skrtel – Lovren – Moreno – Allen). This shape is formed after Moreno tucks in from his left-back spot, while Allen fills that spot from midfield.
This initial positioning is pretty decent considering that the ball is in the centre of the pitch, as Gerrard and Henderson attempts to contain Cristiano Ronaldo (all three in the yellow circle). Both Benzema (left) and James Rodriguez (right) are not in the most goal-threatening position, but are still within sight.
This second frame is literally about a second or two ahead of the first. Three main things that has to be pointed out:
- Black Circles and Line
Indicates the back-line’s shape from the first frame that we saw earlier. Skrtel and Allen are still relatively in the same positions from before. Moreno stepped up as the ball is received by James following a short pass from Cristiano Ronaldo. More on Lovren later, who should be in the black circle that’s connected to Skrtel.
- Dark Blue Circle and Rectangle
Dejan Lovren (in the dark blue rectangle) and his tendency to step ahead and abandon the defensive structure is at work here, as seen when he steps a good few yards ahead of where he is supposed to be despite already having 2 players (Moreno and Gerrard) on James who’s on the ball.
- Lovren stepping up unnecessarily left a huge gap behind him as seen with the dark blue circle. Both Benzema (left) and Cristiano Ronaldo (in the yellow circle) could’ve made a run to this dark blue circle and get in behind the defence. Unfortunately…
- Yellow Circle and Arrow
…Cristiano Ronaldo took this opportunity and capitalised. Immediately after laying off the ball to James Rodriguez, he made the run away from Gerrard (who was jockeying James) and Henderson (ball-watching) into the space behind Lovren which was left by the Croatian.
And finally, this third frame (about 3 seconds ahead of the second frame) is where Cristiano Ronaldo capitalised. Lovren (red box) was caught out of position and couldn’t recover after stepping too high up. The ball fell to Cristiano Ronaldo, and Skrtel had to abandon his position (black circle) to move to cover for Lovren’s spot (dark blue arrow and circle), but his efforts were in vain as the Real Madrid man scored a beauty from that angle.
Another thing to point out is that as Skrtel leaves his spot to cover for Lovren, it left Benzema (yellow rectangle) unmarked, and had the opportunity to run into the empty area left by Skrtel (outer black circle). Glen Johnson (far left) managed to tuck in just a little bit, but whether or not he was able to track down Benzema is arguable (but nah, probably wouldn’t have!).
There was only a 4-5 second interval between the first and third frame, which is a testament to just how quickly a defensive error could lead to a goal, and Liverpool cannot afford errors like these. But it seems inevitable with Lovren and Skrtel being polar opposites in their defensive tendencies. Whether or not the issue with Lovren and Skrtel can be rectified by allowing them more time to gel is yet to be seen, but something has to be done if Liverpool are to improve defensively.
Final Third Issues
The imminent departure of Luis Suarez in the summer left a massive 31-goal void in the Liverpool squad, and if they are to ever emulate their title-challenging performance from last season, this void had to be filled.
With almost no goals coming from the midfielders, a lot of the goal-scoring burden (unfortunately) falls on the shoulders of the more attacking players. Daniel Sturridge who along with Suarez, set the Premier League alight last season has been plagued with injuries this season, essentially taking out our best striker and one of the players we highly depend on.
And with that in mind, the onus of scoring goals suddenly fell to 19-year old Raheem Sterling, who has undoubtedly been our most consistent performer this season, scoring 3 goals and assisting 2 more in 8 appearances thus far in the Premier League. His constant tenacity and intensity really sets him apart from most players in the league, and he has been a bright spark in a poor Liverpool squad.
However, there are signs of him starting to burn out a little after being utilised for what seems to be an excessive amount of minutes so far this season. This applies to both Brendan Rodgers and Roy Hodgson (for England), with the game against Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup being the most prominent one, where he started, and played the full-length of the game which went into extra time.
It also doesn’t help that the trio of new signings of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli have only racked up two goals between them in all competitions, while Fabio Borini has yet to make his mark at Liverpool since arriving three years ago.
Even worse still, goals from the club’s midfielders are even rarer, as most are more defensive-oriented players. Both Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen are known for their work-rate and pressing abilities, but their finishing and scoring capabilities are never highlighted, and rightfully so.
But here’s the frustrating thing – Liverpool are creating chances, but seldom good ones; and seldom finishing them. 109 chances have been created thus far, but in 9 league games, the Reds have scored only 13 times – including 1 penalty, 1 from a direct free-kick and 3 own goals, which in total equates to a little over 1 goal per game. This is coming from a side that scored over a 100 league goals from the immediate preceding season, mind you!
If Liverpool are to see success this season, they have to start putting away their chances. Mario Balotelli has to pick up the pace if he is to deputise for Daniel Sturridge whenever he is absent, which he is slowly getting into the groove of. The other midfielders have to also start getting more aggressive and be smarter in getting into position that allows them to be goal-scoring threats.
Some Lack Consistency…
Inconsistency has been such a bitc…. I mean a pain in the neck for Liverpool, in all aspects, and it really is unfortunate because we are blessed with some of the most talented players we’ve seen in recent times, but their fluctuating form and performances have limited them a tad bit. Inconsistency doesn’t only affect the players though; it looms around our young, philosophical manager too.
As mentioned above, one thing that Liverpool has lacked is midfielders who can contribute in final-third areas – to add creativity to a squad that has no real issues keeping possession, to thread the key passes in between defenders, to open up the pitch with flair and smart running, and ultimately, to create something out of nothing. There is one who does all of the above though, and that’s Philippe Coutinho.
The Brazilian had an outstanding pre-season this time around, having some excellent games where he easily stood out as our star performer which reminds us why we love the little magician who arrived from Inter Milan in January 2013. He has an almost-endless amount of talent as well as confidence, but his inability to maintain his performances at consistent levels has been his downfall.
The same can be said for Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson as well, both of whom have had great starts to their 2014-15 campaign at Liverpool, but have both dropped off rather severely since the two linked-up brilliantly, which led to the former scoring his first-ever Liverpool goal against West Brom in a 2-1 win. Even Sterling has had spells where he was ineffective, but a lot of it can be attributed to him being over-utilised by both his managers at club-level and for country.
…While Others Can’t Even Kick-Off!
Then there are those who can’t even hit the ground running. Mario Balotelli had an excellent start against Tottenham in the Reds’ 3-0 win when he had to chance to play with Daniel Sturridge up-top, but with the absence of the latter due to injury, the Italian has struggled to find peace in this Liverpool squad.
Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini who are deputies to the aforementioned strike-duo have failed to find the back of the net in their combined 9 appearances so far this season, being relatively ineffective even in general play.
Lazar Markovic is another player who’s been under the microscope and has been subject to rather heavy criticism by many fans, especially with the £20-million the club paid for him. However, he did show what he is made of during his introduction against Manchester City, where he came off the bench and was a bright spark in a defeated Liverpool side.
Since then, it has been relatively hard for the Serbian to continue his fine display against the title-holders, as he has been played out-wide on the right side, where he isn’t the most effective at. Once he is played back in the centre of the forward line (be it as an attacking midfielder, a second-striker, a centre-forward, or even in a free-role), expect his performances to justify his price tag.
Dejan Lovren, another highly-priced signing, as mentioned above, is yet to show that he is a true upgrade on any left-sided centre-backs we have (Mamadou Sakho) or had (Daniel Agger). While always being touted as a ‘leader’, he has yet to show that he is able to organise the back-line and command the defensive unit as a whole, and more so when many of Liverpool’s conceded goals were at the very least, indirectly due to an error made by the Croatian.
Are We Still Liverpool… Trala-la-la-la?
Liverpool – The Runners Up: exciting attacking football, fluid movements and interchanging runs, ‘Death By Football’, Tiki-taka, quick 1-2’s and passes – the list goes on and on about marvellous Brendan Rodgers has transformed Liverpool from a possession-heavy team to an astounding attacking-side that has the potential to instil fear in any team in the world.
This all stemmed from his decision to switch to a diamond midfield, leading to many driving forces to arise – the rejuvenation of Steven Gerrard as a regista, the rise of Raheem Sterling, the Suarez factor and the reinvention of Coutinho as a central playmaker than as a ‘10’, among other things.
However, since the start of this season, Rodgers has scraped the system from last season and started over on a clean slate. He’s employed various formations and line-ups in an effort to accommodate different players, and it has not always been for the better of the squad as a whole.
We’ve (thus far) seen:-
- A 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard being part of the double-pivot where he’s least effective at, or Lazar Markovic out on the right-wing where his best abilities are being restricted and withheld.
- A 4-3-3 with Coutinho as the ‘8’ against Ludogorets in the Champions League which saw him being actively involved, but had a bad game as a whole. This coincided with the period where he was seeing a dip in form.
- A 4-3-3 without Coutinho as the ‘8’; two of Allen, Can and Henderson being ahead of Gerrard. These games saw Liverpool being toothless up-top (3-2 win against QPR with 2 own-goals, goalless draw against Hull, 3-1 loss to Manchester City, 1-0 loss to FC Basel). The midfield without Coutinho lacks creativity or final-third contribution.
- A narrow 4-3-2-1 against Real Madrid, with Coutinho and Sterling playing off of Balotelli. Allen and Henderson plays ahead of Gerrard in a 1-2 midfield. This line-up was effective against the Champions League holders for the first 20 minutes or so.
- The 4-1-2-1-2 – being the same shape that Rodgers utilised early in 2014 that saw much success. This was only used twice in this season, however – which saw an outstanding performance by the Reds against Tottenham which ended in a 3-0 win, where Balotelli had a good game partnering Sturridge up-top for the first and only time.However, on the other end of the spectrum, it also faltered against West Ham who mirrored this formation, and had ex-Red Stewart Downing running at Gerrard, with Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia pulling Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren wide.
With Sturridge being ruled out injured, the diamond was never used again as it appears that Rodgers doesn’t see any other strikers at the club who is fitting to partner Balotelli up-top, but there are hopes of seeing it again soon enough once Sturridge makes his return.
- Once Liverpool were down 2-0 after only 7 minutes against West Ham while using the 4-1-2-1-2, Rodgers swapped Javier Manquillo with Mamadou Sakho, and reverted to a 3-4-1-2 which had Lovren sitting in the middle of the back-three, and Lallana at the ‘10’, and this had the two ex-Saints playing a lot better, but it seems to only be a one-off.
With the constant change in formations and systems, Liverpool appears to have lost its identity a touch. Are we a counter-attacking side, or a possession-based one? Do we play ‘hoofball’ and pump in as many crosses into the box as possible? Should the forwards make runs in behind defenders, and if so, who exactly threads the defence-splitting pass into them?
These are all for Rodgers to answer for himself, because once we identify exactly how we want to play again and stick to it, we will start to see a better, clearer sense of direction moving forward.
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