Liverpool made an impressive start to their 2013/14 season with three priceless 1-0 victories, eclipsing any of their previous opening three results in the last 19 years. Looking at the improvements to the side Brendan Rodgers has made since the January transfer window, there were many speaking of the idea that Liverpool could come into the season quietly confident, and surprise a few people as the year progressed with a much stronger presence in the top 6. However this element of surprise has evaporated almost immediately with the team going straight to the top of the league, taking scrappy wins with the resilience that Manchester United have shown over the last two decades. This has made people take notice, and put Liverpool near the front of their minds when considering top 4 contenders.
There are many reasons for this optimism from Liverpool fans, and feelings of concern from top six rival fans; most of all the amount of quality and depth in all positions now suddenly at their disposal after eight new summer signings. The season has so far seen Daniel Sturridge already on 5 goals (3 in the league) without really hitting top form since returning from injury, the same can be said of Philippe Coutinho who has shouldered much of the burden in terms of creativity, and is likely to thrive on the return of Luis Suarez in three games time. The late addition of Victor Moses now effectively creates a three way battle between himself, Iago Aspas and Raheem Sterling for the final starting spot in the front four – this prompted Rodgers to send out Fabio Borini to Sunderland for a season of first team football in a crucial year in his development.
With that vacant spot now brimming with competition, the only remaining areas of concern at this stage last month were the left back and centre back positions where there was a worrying lack of consistent and reliable defensive quality beyond Johnson, Agger and Kolo Toure. Rodgers has since brought in Aly Cissokho (now injured) at left back to push Jose Enrique for his place, along with the deadline day additions of Mamadou Sakho and Thiago Illori. Looking past Sebastian Coates (now out for six months and likely to be sold on his return to fitness), Liverpool now have massive depth for the long-term future with vice-captain Daniel Agger and Sakho as experienced left centre-backs, Toure and Skrtel (who fought well for his reputation against United) as experienced right centre-backs, while Illori, Martin Kelly and Andre Wisdom (now England U21 captain) as young and capable replacements who will hope to grow into these central positions in the future.
So, lets take a look at what Brendan Rodgers has to work with this season and explore some of the formations, shapes and personnel he may choose to go with and why.
The Liverpool XI So Far
In the first three games of the season so far we have seen Kolo Toure starting ahead of Martin Skrtel, and Lucas and Gerrard start as the midfield two in a slightly different fashion to last season, when Lucas would occupy the space between the centre-backs on a permanent basis. We are now finding him higher up the pitch more frequently as he and Gerrard work as a double-pivot and stagger their positions at the base of the midfield. Coutinho, despite being seen as a ‘number 10’, has been functioning on the left of midfield in these early stages, and will probably be able to thrive in the middle on a regular basis upon the return of Luis Suarez, who Rodgers apparently plans to utilise in a wide right position. Despite Coutinho’s left sided position he still works the centre of the field effectively by drifting in, which is also convenient for Daniel Sturridge, a left-footed player who doesn’t mind drifting wide into the areas vacated by Coutinho to pick up the ball (which drags opposition centre-backs in the process). Jordan Henderson on the right almost provides a twelfth man, as his work-rate and ability both offensively and defensively allows him to be absolutely everywhere; when out of possession he is in line with Gerrard and Lucas in front of a bank of four, in possession he can then be central and help retain the ball, then when attacks are sprung he makes lung-busting runs beyond the forwards which will see him score goals this season and create a selection headache for Rodgers.
The Liverpool XI Going Forwards
So looking at the season as it progresses, there are many combinations which Brendan Rodgers may choose to go with. Perhaps the only certified positions in the starting XI at this point in time are Mignolet in goal, Agger at LCB, Johnson at RB, and Sturridge at CF, for all other positions there could be a lot of variations in the use of each player. At the end of last season for example we saw Suarez playing just behind Sturridge in a creative supporting role, but this season will he feature in the right sided forward position? Will Coutinho play wide or central? Will Gerrard be holding in a 2-1 midfield? Or higher up the pitch in a 1-2 triangle? The formation above is just an example of what we could see, whether Rodgers sees Agger and Sakho compatible as two left sided CB’s will be interesting, and he may choose to go with Skrtel or Toure instead (Toure more likely after his impressive start).
Mixing Things Up
Here we see a further example of how Rodgers can mix things up, a staggered midfield triangle of Joe Allen (awaiting return from injury after an impressive pre-season), Gerrard and Coutinho, who are all capable of rotating positions as a three. Any injury to Glen Johnson as we saw last week will not worry Rodgers, as he has faith in Andre Wisdom who continues to gain valuable experience still at the young age of 20, or Martin Kelly who is also ready to step in and do a job at right back (click for a comparison of Kelly & Wisdom which was also written on this site earlier this week). In the side you see above, the players have bite and creativity, from the midfield three, to the attacking three each one is capable of goals and assists as well as possessing the tactical discipline now required to play for Liverpool, and the burning desire to prove themselves and fight for each other.
Trust In the Youth
Another key feature of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool is his investment in youth and homegrown talent. It is impressive to see the strength of a side he could put out filled with players predominantly 23 and under, and predominantly from the UK – these players are only going to get better. As the example above shows, the manager is going to lengths to provide the club with an identity and local community culture, something which Gary Neville highlighted as hugely important for any clubs looking to dominate the top four:
Alternatively to the line-up above, Thiago Illori at centre-back, Victor Moses and Philippe Coutinho also represent young up and coming talent ready to make a strong impact at the club this season, and there are rumours that Thiago Illori (who is English born) will be encouraged by Roy Hodgson to make the switch from the Portuguese international set up and make himself eligible for England.
Liverpool FC: The Future
So when Brendan Rodgers first joined Liverpool, he argued that he would need at least three or four transfer windows to build the squad that he feels can compete. Upon the closing of his third window, there are many options now open to him, and you could argue that this season will be the first time we truly see ‘Rodgers’ Liverpool’ in action. With the rest of the top six strengthening also it won’t make his job any easier, however with some astute loan deals, permanent signings and retaining the services of Luis Suarez, Rodgers has had a very successful transfer window despite a couple of disappointments along the way. He is now beginning to match his ability to coach with an ability to manage, which may finally bring European football back to Anfield.