P7 W3 D1 L3 GF10 GA10 GD0 Pts:10. 1 clean sheet in the last 15 (all competitions).
Not the stuff of legend.
Another terrible season following a second place finish in the league was definitely not what Liverpool supporters were hoping for, but this start makes it seem like history is repeating itself. Again.
But is it? What has changed, and what needs changing?
Everyone will immediately attribute our struggles as: “No Suarez”. But I don’t think that is true. It has an element of truth to it, of course, but I do not think that is the key issue for Liverpool. “No Sturridge” is much closer to the heart of the matter. It’s not just about the goals we lose without the league’s top striker from last season, though everyone will harp on about it as though Liverpool will score a maximum of 70 goals this season simply because Suarez’s 31 must be discounted. It simply doesn’t work that way.
What has changed about this Liverpool side is that Brendan Rodgers has opted to play a lone striker system, rather than the 4-diamond-2 that was so deadly last season. This is partially due to the absence of Suarez, though the manner of the rout at White Hart Lane earlier this season does not suggest that Sturridge and Balotelli cannot work together. The change is mainly due to the way opposing teams changed their approach by targeting Gerrard. The deep-lying playmaker role needs time to make the right decisions of how to distribute the ball, and without it Liverpool’s incisive and rapid forward play disintegrates. Now we pass it around more like Rodgers’ Swansea, giving the opposition time to arrange their defensive lines and in so doing immediately eliminate the threat of quick players like Sturridge, Sterling and the newly arrived Markovic and Lallana. The diamond simply wasn’t working and in Sturridge’s absence Rodgers was forced to abandon it rather than persist with an untried striker combination like Balotelli and Borini (B&B rather than the SAS, a somewhat different context). Additionally, Gerrard was being targeted when the opposition had the ball by overloading his zone and giving players a free run at a centre back partnership low on confidence. Something had to give.
As a result the team’s play has been patchy, mirroring the other times when we have had a lone striker, including Suarez. In Rodgers’ first year, Suarez led the line for the first 21 games of the season prior to the arrival of Sturridge. While it is true that a radical change of style contributed to significant difficulty over this period, Liverpool could only manage 31 points over that period despite Suarez scoring 15 times. Yes, Liverpool would have been significantly worse off without him, but the record with him in the side was nothing remarkable despite his goals.
In the 13 games that followed (ending with that bite on Ivanovic) Liverpool scored 20 points. This represents a minor improvement of 0.06 points per game; something merely in line with the progression to that point. But then Suarez missed 10 games, and Liverpool’s record shot to W7 D2 L1. That’s almost twelve times the improvement in points per game (0.7 vs 0.06), and Suarez was NOT in the side. Something else clicked, and that something else created the platform for the rest of last season.
Once Suarez returned he was a different player, not only because his focus became purely football but also because in Sturridge he had a partner with whom he could wreak havoc. While it cannot be denied that Suarez is the more capable player, without Sturridge alongside him Liverpool could only maintain 2 points per game over the rest of the season. Were Suarez the destroyer most media outlets chose to label him after Liverpool sold him, then Liverpool would have won the title.
The bottom line is that the enforced change of system this season and the loss of BOTH Sturridge and Suarez have caused Liverpool considerable trouble since Roy Hodgson decided that listening to medical advice was beneath him. Up to that point Liverpool were 3 points better off than in the corresponding fixtures the previous season, despite changing fully half the starting XI. Liverpool need to clone Sturridge so that they can switch them when one gets inevitably injured.
People also say that Liverpool’s defence continues to be poor, especially in the light of that damning clean sheets statistic mentioned earlier. And yet there is something Liverpool are doing now they didn’t do last season; concede only 1. Last season in the league Liverpool conceded twice in 16 of 38 games – in fact coming into this season they had conceded at least 2 in 4 of their previous 5 league fixtures. So far this season it’s 2 from 7, a 15% improvement. While the results haven’t similarly improved, due to a paucity of goals at the other end, there is room for some encouragement.
When taking into consideration that in these exact 7 fixtures last season Liverpool scored 13 points, the “hole” into which we have dug ourselves is hardly deep at this stage. An improving defence will go a long way towards getting those 3 points back later – perhaps in the shape of beating a relegation candidate on their ground rather than being thrashed by Hull. Besides, the last 3 goals Liverpool have conceded were a penalty for a foul outside the box, a “best goal of his career” wonder strike from a centre back 25 yards away (yes, read that again for context), and an unfortunate double deflection from a set piece leading to a tap-in against the Swiss champions on their turf. These are not the same kind of defensive error as Kolo Toure passing to the opposing striker at the edge of the area, for example. Defensive errors leading to goals were an aspect of Liverpool’s play last season as reliable as SAS scoring first. This is not to say the defence is sound at this time (it’s still 1 clean sheet in 15!) but given that 3 of the back 4 have changed it’s just possible that it may become so.
Brendan Rodgers also revealed a tantalizing something in the just past game against West Brom; the position of Coutinho. In an interview prior to the start of the season, Coutinho said that Rodgers claimed he was perfect as a volante, a number 8, rather than the number 10 role he has occupied for much of his Liverpool career. At the time I thought it a curious development; Coutinho is no Alonso, nor is he a box-to-box player like Gerrard or Henderson. He’s crafty with excellent ball control and vision; he should be further forward. And yet against West Brom he looked much more comfortable than he has been for some time, when perhaps he was guilty of trying too much and therefore being dispossessed, over-hitting his passes or just giving it away cheaply. With him deeper and Henderson further forward, but both able to drop back and help Gerrard, the Liverpool midfield looked much more dynamic. With Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana both impressing both wide and centrally, Brendan Rodgers will have a difficult task dropping one of these players when Sturridge is fit (assuming he wants to revert to the 4-diamond-2 with Balotelli and Sturridge as strikers). But it almost seems as though Balotelli himself will be cut, leaving something like this as the ‘best XI’:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Gerrard Coutinho
This is an evolution of the diamond aiming to overload central midfield with overlapping wingbacks to keep the opposition back line honest. It can mutate to 3-4-3 with Gerrard dropping back between the centre backs as well, similar to the job Mascherano does for his Spanish club. Regardless of the final formation, with Coutinho able to have that little bit more time on the ball than he had as a number 10 he can control play more, especially since alongside him Gerrard is the master of the 40-yard pass and one can’t conceivably mark BOTH of them out of the game without some risk. The tricksy one-two players in Sterling, Lallana and Henderson then dominate the forward line, with pace to burn among their number and in the form of Sturridge as a through-ball outlet.
Although Liverpool had to scrap to beat West Brom, in truth the game seemed fairly straight-forward to my eyes, with the visitors not presenting much threat. The late switch of bringing on Lucas and pushing Gerrard forward was also a pleasant change that WBA simply couldn’t handle, ensuring an untroubled last half hour and hinting that Gerrard as an attacking midfielder/deep-lying forward is not yet done.
It all seems rather exciting. It’s much too early for despair anyway; Liverpool fans were laughing at Manchester United just after the start of the season, but it is they who sit 4th on the table while we languish in 9th (albeit only 1 point adrift). Besides, if establishing a working system costs the team 8-10 points over the course of the season, well, 74 points is still comfortable enough for 4th. And that’s all we are looking for anyway.