The 2015/16 season is going to be massive for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, who will strive to play to potential, compete better than they did last season against the fellow big boys of the Barclays Premier League and also achieve a better league finish than what they managed (sixth) in 2014/15. The Reds, however, have made a statement of intent by already completing two quality signings in Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Clyne, while the prospective deals for Danny Ings and James Milner – two other major signings – are yet to be announced by the club.
Rodgers, you could say, is rather fortunate to still be the Reds’ manager after a tenuous finish to last season, which ended with the 1-6 annihilation at the hands of Mark Hughes’ Stoke City. In a season spanning close to 10 months, the Merseysiders played close to their best only for three odd months – during which they went on a 13-game unbeaten run in the league. This unbeaten run coincided with a major tactical switch from Rodgers, who, therefore, has to be credited for engineering a turnaround in his side’s fortunes.
They started off the season playing the archetype 4-3-3 system, which tended to resemble the 4-1-2-1-2. In their first big game of the campaign, against the then defending champions, Manchester City, they lined up in 4-3-3, which had Daniel Sturridge leading the line and Raheem Sterling joining him to make a two-pronged attack when Liverpool had possession; Philippe Coutinho would cut inside and play in the hole, with Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen combining to make up the midfield diamond. Such a system looked good on paper, but it never produced the desired results – the reason for which shall be seen later on in the article – and Rodgers’ side leaked a lot of goals – 48 in the league. And, unlike in the season before last, their attack wasn’t incisive enough to win games by outscoring the opposition.
Rodgers shifted to a back three midway through the season, and though they experienced a couple of tough results – none more so than the 0-3 thumping at the hands of Manchester United at Old Trafford, in December – early on, the players soon adapted to their manager’s call and started delivering the goods. The defence stopped hemorrhaging goals, the highlight of Rodgers’ 3-4-2-1 system, and the attack, with Coutinho and one amongst the likes of Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic or Sterling playing behind the lone striker, flourished, too.
Looking ahead to the next season, what is the blueprint that will guarantee Rodgers and Liverpool a successful campaign? Can the Northern Irishman accommodate all his flair players in the starting lineup?
Read on… to know more.
Last season and in the one before that, Liverpool’s troubles at the back proved detrimental to them not going on to clinch the title in 2013/14 and in 14/15, experiencing a disastrous start to the campaign. They have conceded a whopping 98 goals in their last two league campaigns, a tally surpassed only by Tottenham Hotspur (104) of the top six teams in the league last season, and if I was Rodgers, defensive organization is the first thing I would prioritise before the upcoming season begins.
Given the expansive brand of football Rodgers likes his side to play, the fullbacks will always make overlapping runs, in trying to contribute as much in an attacking sense as they do defensively. From that point of view, Liverpool’s backline will most times be exposed against teams playing on the counterattack. Now, every system has its own pros and cons, and it is up to the players to make it work and more importantly, produce results. While the five-man backline – when Liverpool were out of possession – proved quite efficient during the second half of last season, I don’t think the Merseyside club can thrive on it: they just don’t have good 1v1 defenders who are extremely crucial in the make-up of the defence. With a good defender in Clyne signing for the club and hopefully an improved Alberto Moreno on the opposite flank, Rodgers has to play four at the back, with the trio of Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren vying for the two centre-back positions.
Going back to the reason for Liverpool’s 4-3-3 not rendering the desired results, I think Gerrard, in a way, contributed to his side’s defensive woes. He simply didn’t have the speed to track back and neither was he astute with his positional intelligence. The talismanic Liverpool man played rather high up the pitch for a defensive midfielder and tended to leave oceans of space for an opponent to exploit and his defensive line exposed. Going into the new season, Rodgers has to have a good, hard look at which of his midfielders – Henderson, Emre Can, Lucas Leiva, Allen, or even Milner – is tailor-made to play that No.4 role. Of the aforementioned quintet of Liverpool players, Henderson, who scored six goals and created 66 (the second-most for Liverpool, behind Sterling’s 75) chances in the 14/15 campaign, enjoyed a good season and was one of the standout players at Anfield. He is expected to lead the side this season and the Englishman sees himself as the direct heir to Gerrard. Henderson has got the range of passing and a reasonable defensive game to fulfil the duties of a defensive midfielder, and in my opinion, Henderson would be more suited to play in the defensive midfield role than any other midfielder Rodgers has at his disposal.
Ahead of the Englishman, Coutinho, last season, looked more devastating when played in a central attacking role compared to when he was played on the flanks. He has got the dribbling, passing and goal-scoring skills to thrive in a central role and if I was Rodgers, I would harness the Brazilian’s flair and technical ability by playing him at central midfield. Alongside him, Can has got most of Marouane Fellaini’s qualities – aerial threat, pace and ball-winning ability – and the German midfielder will be the ideal foil for the Henderson-Coutinho duo. Such a midfield trio could see Liverpool enjoy defensive security, attacking impetus and even goals being scored from the engine room.
In the middle-third of the pitch, there can be no cynicism concerning who will feature for the Reds: Firmino has thrived playing in the hole for Hoffenheim over the last couple of seasons, and has completed the move to Liverpool after enjoying a great 14/15 season for the German club, creating 69 chances, registering 10 assists and scoring seven goals in 33 league appearances. Rodgers likes his players to be versatile and have tactical discipline, but I don’t think he will fiddle with Firmino’s best position and therefore, just allow him to continue playing behind the striker. To the right or left of the 23-year old Brazilian, Lallana has the game necessary to play as an inside forward. He showed glimpses of good form towards the end of last season, much of which was hampered by injuries, but I think there is a good chance that Rodgers will utilise the Englishman much more this season. Not to forget that he also has Markovic, who, like many other newcomers at Anfield last season, didn’t enjoy a good first season and will be looking to revive his career.
Upfront, the Liverpool boss should go with just one striker, and rotate the personnel for this position from one competition to another, as Liverpool will also be involved in the UEFA Europa League. According to a report on the DailyMail, Sturridge is expected to be out of action until the beginning of October, meaning Divock Origi will lead the line for the first couple of months, with Ings playing second fiddle to him.
In short, here is the formation Rodgers should adopt next season:
What are the disadvantages of Liverpool lining up this way?
Having got three potent strikers, in the hope that Ings completes his move, at his disposal, Rodgers could be tempted to play two upfront and recreate the ‘SAS’ days. However, with the number of attacking midfielders – Lallana, Markovic, Jordan Ibe, Coutinho – he has, the 42-year old will not be able to fully harness them if he goes with two upfront.
Also, Henderson, who this article suggests as Rodgers’ best bet for a No. 4, needs to be utilised carefully by his manager, who might also have to look at playing the likes of Allen and Leiva as his midfield pivot. Being one of the key players in the side, Henderson needs to be protected, and with his side also involved in the Europa League, it could be asking too much from him if he plays the same role (No.4) in every one of his side’s games. Will Milner play there, letting Henderson play further forward? I very much doubt it, though the former City man is versatile and will be keen to play in his desired midfield position.
Yes, the transfer window has just opened, and we don’t know what Rodgers and the Liverpool hierarchy make of Mario Balotelli and Sterling, whose futures are increasingly uncertain at the club. There could also be more incoming transfers before the beginning of next season, and that could see a change to the best possible Liverpool formation suggested here. However, as things stand, 4-3-2-1 looks the best possible system that Brendan Rodgers could utilise and subsequently get his side back fighting for a top four finish, at least. As aforementioned, the Reds have no shortage of attacking talent and will continue to be a beautiful side to watch when going forward, but it is at the back, that they need to get tight as a unit and given the set of defenders they have currently, the four-man backline is the way to go.