What’s happened at Liverpool this season and what can Rodgers do to improve?
Losing a player of Luis Suarez’s quality was inevitably going to have negative implications for a team of Liverpool’s calibre- just look at Tottenham this time last season in their immediate-post-Bale-slump.
Of course, in recent weeks, the loss of Daniel Sturridge has accentuated the collective sense of stagnation with Mario Balotelli failing to compensate for their attacking loss. He should not be held accountable for Liverpool’s shortcomings though. Similar to Roberto Soldado, the Spanish poacher who bagged 30 goals for Valencia before migrating to North London, Balotelli has been labelled the counter weight to the sinking Mersyside ship. While his return of no premier league goals and plenty of controversy has not helped matters, the problems at Liverpool are far more profound.
The key to their almighty run last season related to their ability to outscore everybody they played, which often papered over the cracks of their compromised defence. Rodgers clearly tried to rescue that predicament with the pricey Mamadou Sahko (£18m)-Dejan Lovren (£20m) acquisition, but the high tempo, dogmatic style that he aspires to, means his team will concede goals. That predicament demands a potent attack to make the system work- last season Liverpool were the first team in Premier League history to score over a 100 goals and not win the title; correspondingly, had they won the league, a team would never have conceded more.
Gerrard in the quarterback role
Playing Steven Gerrard in the quarterback role aptly summarises Rodgers’ attack-defence dilemma. An outstanding reader of the game, a leader, with the creativity to launch quick attacks with outstanding passes, Gerrard is fantastic for contributing further up the field (be it in open play, or via set pieces), but negligible to protecting those behind him. It isn’t for a lack of experience, but more for a lack of pace. His weaknesses can be masked against teams too shy to put him under pressure, but in the big games, he can soon be found out with disastrous consequences. How ironic that Suarez dealt that striking blow so quickly in England’s crunch match in Group D. There is of course, the remedy to the Gerrard defensive pathogen, which is to play him alongside a lateral shuttler (the commendable Jordan Henderson), who can clean up for him and basically do-a-dog-job around him. While that has its merits, you still wouldn’t depend on it. A defensive central bloc of Lovren-Skrtel-Henderson-Gerrard does not have an impenetrable ring to it. Prior to their 0-0 home draw against Hull (a highly unorthodox Liverpool scoreline) they had only kept one clean sheet in their last 18.
Attacking combination conundrum
Hence, if Rodgers sticks to his attacking ideals (which he will), there seems a certain acceptance that his teams will concede goals. This places an overwhelming pressure on his attacking players to deliver consistently. Replacing Suarez’s goals (which Liverpool aren’t doing anyway) isn’t their only objective- replacing his final third creative contributions is vital too. Last season he bagged 12 assists (one less than Gerrard), and made on average 2.7 key passes per game- 0.7 more than any other Liverpool player. This is where Balotelli deserves sympathy- he’s never been a creative type and he is not particularly good at playing up front on his own- there’s a demand of him that is unrealistic. Raheem Sterling- who often is placed closest to him- does not boast the creative arsenal (at the moment) to drive Liverpool’s midfield forward and adequately supply Balotelli simultaneously. He needs, in truth, a secondary striker to help him, and Rickie Lambert really could be the solution to that problem. Given that Lambert operated primarily as a deep-lying counterpart to Jay Rodriguez last season and picked up 10 assists (only behind Gerrard and Suarez in the league) he clearly possesses the credentials to do this. Lambert also has a decent telepathy with Adam Lallana and both were integral cogs in Maurico Pochettino’s dynamic, heavy pressing Southampton team last season- a style not dissimilar to Rodgers’.
The other stark change has been the change in tempo. A defining- in fact, perhaps the defining- feature of Liverpool last season was their lightening quick tempo and intensity. They were championed for their devastating pace on the counter which reaped hordes of goals, but also their ability to start games with the energy of a hyperactive cockerspaniel. They blew teams away in the opening 30 minutes before opposition managers could even gather their thoughts and react. When they played a Gerrard-Coutinho-Henderson-Sterling diamond topped by Sturridge and Suarez, there was an unbelievable degree of energy and pace in their movements. A word must go to Suarez on this, who is absolutely explosive over 5 yards and deceptively quick. Lazor Markovic, Lallana and Balotelli are all a different breed of player. Essentially, Rodgers’ squad personnel has traded high tempo intensity for a mix of attacking midfield guile and technique. The slower start and the loss of personnel has also had some other consequences. Liverpool look far more blunt from set pieces (Skrtle scored a staggering seven goals last season), while they’ve also won less penalties per game, too. Set pieces, while insignificant as a major factor for a change in performance, do add up over a season, and can be vital against more defensively solid opponents.
For the time being, though, Rodgers has several options. He can stick with his current attacking formula and hope to outscore opponents- that being of playing either Balotelli or Lambert up front alone with either a diamond or attacking midfield trio behind. If he sticks with that, he needs to be patient while has new players adapt, and adapt his defence accordingly. Alternatively, he could brave starting Lambert and Balotelli together in an attacking 4-4-2; that would get the best out of both of Liverpool’s under-firing strikers and simultaneously help mask their defensive fragility. Liverpool’s best performance of the season? Their 3-0 victory over Spurs at White Hart Lane. It was there that Rodgers partnered Balotelli with Sturridge in front of his traditional diamond. If Rodgers refuses to adapt he risks letting the Balotelli storm escalate into an overriding failure and dooming his squad to Europa-league-mediocrity. With the top 4 currently occupied by teams likely to slow down in time, he still has plenty of time to fix his predicament.