Brendan Rodgers implemented the rarely used midfield diamond with great success during the closing stages of the 2013-2014 season. With the substitution of Javier Manquillo for Mamadou Sakho in the 22nd minute of Saturday’s loss to West Ham, Rodgers scrapped the diamond for a 3-5-2. Does this signal the beginning of the end of the diamond or was it just a tactical switch in the face of an early deficit?
Loss Against West Ham
The starting formation cannot be the sole blame for Liverpool’s lacklustre showing against the Hammers on Saturday. West Ham opened the match by pressing and challenging Liverpool for every ball, while the Reds’ sluggish start and continued mental lapses at the back saw them 2-0 down after only seven minutes.
A key component of West Ham’s play was Stewart Downing taking Steven Gerrard out of the game. There is perhaps no more important position in the midfield diamond than the player at the base and Downing pressed Gerrard into several mistakes both before and after the formation switch. While Liverpool had the ball, Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho did an excellent job of pinning back Manquillo and Moreno with their aggressive play out wide. This effectively forced Skrtel and Lovren into riskier passes up the field to Lucas, Henderson or Sterling as opposed to using the safety valve that is Steven Gerrard or either of the fullbacks.
The poor or forced passes (especially from Lovren) paved the way for West Ham to attack at pace and Liverpool was seen constantly retreating, which only served to isolate the attacking players more from the midfield. This lead to very little fluidity in the Reds’ passing play.
A few key components were missing from the 11 on Saturday as both Joe Allen and Daniel Sturridge were sidelined with injuries for the second straight week. Those injuries coupled with Philippe Coutinho being left out proved to be too much for the Reds to handle. As opposed to playing a 4-2-3-1 as Liverpool did against Aston Villa the week before at Anfield, Rodgers opted to move Fabio Borini up front with Mario Balotelli. This left Liverpool a little more exposed in the midfield and West Ham took full advantage from the early going by pressing the Reds into multiple mistakes.
Sturridge brings an extra dimension to the Reds’ forward line that neither of our Italian strikers can offer. His pace and trickiness on the ball helps to keep defenses honest and his familiarity in our quick linking passing play is miles ahead of Borini or Balotelli. His importance to the team is highlighted by the fact that of the 11 league games Liverpool has lost since his arrival in January 2013, Daniel either was not involved at all or was only used as a second half sub in eight of those losses. In other words, Liverpool have only lost three times in the league with Sturridge in the starting lineup.
Joe Allen has been somewhat of a bright spot for Liverpool in the early stages of the 2014-2015 season. He put in a solid performance against Spurs at White Hart Lane back in August and even won a penalty to help seal the victory. With Coutinho left out, one has to wonder if Rodgers would have selected the Welshman over Lucas, whose sole appearance this season was 63 minutes against Southampton, before being replaced by Allen. Lucas did leave the field at halftime against West Ham to make way for Adam Lallana, who had a good showing in the second half.
Lallana has yet to be deployed in the sides of diamond for Brendan Rodgers and it will be very interesting to see if he is given the opportunity to assert himself in that role. Lallana is not the gritty ball-winning player that Lucas or even Emre Can can be for Liverpool, but his ability to open himself up to link passes and contribute in the attack is of a much higher quality than that of Lucas or Can.
To play in a diamond, it appears Liverpool are lacking another fleet footed forward for when Sturridge is inevitably out injured again. Borini is quick, but his open field speed will not frighten any Premier League defences. Balotelli is excellent on the ball and his prowess in the box is top notch, however like Borini, he’s not going to scare defences into sitting back with his pace. Markovic or Sterling could be used alongside Balotelli, but their unfamiliarity with the position and lack of game time teaming up with the big Italian would cause delays in productivity.
As seen in the first half against West Ham, Gerrard is not always at his best in the holding role. Some teams are going to overrun him with his aging legs unable to keep up, especially after a mid-week Champions League game. The key for Liverpool, should they want to continue with this formation on a consistent basis will be to identify a stand in for Gerrard.
As our squad stands now, the only player I see able to fill th role is Jordan Henderson. He certainly has the legs to cover the position and he’s not afraid to get stuck in challenging the opposition. His distribution and passing has come on leaps and bounds as evidenced by critical passes in the build up to Raheem Sterling’s goals against both Southampton and Tottenham.
Unfortunately, Henderson is probably better suited on the side of the diamond where he has so proficiently served since the formation was adopted last season. This leaves only Lucas or Can to play at the base, neither of which have anywhere the ball playing ability of a Gerrard, but both can at least bring a tough approach to breaking up the oppositions play in the counter attack.
A lot of talk has been made about Mario Balotelli or Rickie Lambert being a replacement for losing Suarez, but it is really Sturridge who has to fill the role left behind by Luis. Balotelli and Sturridge looked dangerous together against Tottenham and Liverpool will be hopeful of seeing that partnership blossom once Daniel is back to full fitness. Until then, or when Sturridge is out injured in the future, the diamond is not a viable option for Liverpool. The pace and work ethic of the forwards is lacking with any other combination of strikers currently on the Reds’ payroll.
Rodgers had great success deploying a variety of formations last season. 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and even variations of three at the back all seemed to work for the Reds. The ability to be flexible week in and week out made preparing for Liverpool a difficult endeavor for almost every team in the Premier League. The challenge for Brendan this season, on top of the extra demands of Champions League football, will be to implement several new signings into the multiple styles of plays Liverpool so eloquently moved in and out of last season. How long that process takes will determine how the rest of the 2014-2015 season is remembered on Merseyside.