Welcome back to The Liverpool Word’s four-part feature, taking a tactical and pragmatical view of Liverpool’s entire squad and assessing which players and positions will need the most attention under Brendan Rodgers.
Four writers from TLW will each take one area of the team to look at and decide where Liverpool need to spend, have strength in depth or could do with upgrading.
Last week, Michael Luscombe had a look at the goalkeepers at Anfield and Stuart Quigley followed that up with an assessment of the defenders on the books of Liverpool FC. Most recently, David Hendrick tackled the midfield of Liverpool and now Karl Matchett looks at the forward line, including the wide players.
Goals. Goals win games.
Last season, Liverpool didn’t quite get enough of those to make the most of what were a large number of good chances to turn draws into wins, which would have seen Kenny Dalglish’s side end a few places further up the league.
In fact, “didn’t quite get enough” doesn’t really cover it; Liverpool scored 47 last season in the Premier League. The two Manchester clubs scored 93 (City) and 89 (United).
Brendan Rodgers will have his work cut out to help his forwards play in a manner which will create a better quality of goalscoring chance on a regular basis, while also ensuring that the rest of the team know their role well enough to be able to break forward and chip in with goals at opportune moments.
Forwards remain the most important asset to the club in terms of creating and scoring those goals though, so it’s on forwards we focus now, with the notable exclusion of the recently-departed Dirk Kuyt.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll be including the wide players at the club as forwards too; whether Liverpool opt for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 on a regular basis in 2012-13 it is likely that the wider players will be deployed in highly advanced positions on the pitch with the ball, and will also be required to press hard and fast as close to the opposition’s goal as possible—playing as forwards, in other words.
Maxi Rodriguez is the first name we’ll look at. Maxi is something of a conundrum for this Liverpool team, being older than the age of the squad that the owners and successive managers have wanted to put in place, but being a far better footballer than those who have arrived more recently. For better, read cleverer and more technically proficient—obviously those aren’t the only attributes by which to mark one player as better than another, but they certainly matter, especially in the attacking third.
One of several experienced players at the Reds on high wages, Maxi was thought to be on his way out last summer before staying on another season, and he did well again when he played…but did he play enough? A wave to the crowd as he departed Anfield against Chelsea seemed to signify the end of his time at the club, but will Rodgers persuade, or even want, him to stay on?
Strengths: Excellent short passer of the ball. Maxi knows what football is about and he’s as happy to keep possession with a short pass infield or backwards as he is to try and step infield with the ball at his feet and commit a defender. Goalscoring was a big problem for the Reds last term which makes you wonder why Maxi didn’t get more time on the field; over the last 18 months he has been as reliable as anybody in the box.
Maxi’s biggest asset though is his movement. He sees the game ahead of other players, knows when to stay wide and when to come infield to offer support. Few wide players attack the far post with such a knack of good timing and his finishing has, shall we say, improved somewhat since his early days at the club.
Weaknesses: Pace is not one of his attributes. Maxi has great movement, but he does it almost exclusively at jogging speed, aside from those quick bursts to get to the far post unnoticed. He does have something of a tendency to flit in and out of games sometimes too, but this can be partially attribute to something of a lack of cohesion in attack over the past three years at the club.
Role under Rodgers: Hard one to call. Maxi might have already come to an agreement with Newell’s, his club back in Argentina, or he might have his eye on one last fling with the Champions League—he could certainly get a game at some of Europe’s lesser lights who will nonetheless compete at the elite level. It’s easy to see how he could become an important component of Brendan Rodgers’ early teams though; his ball retention awareness is exceedingly good and he will work hard and press high up the field.
Being able to play on either flank is also a bonus, but perhaps Maxi could also fill in as the link player behind the forward? Certainly a different option to the more dynamic Steven Gerrard, but it’s a possibility.
Maxi could stay and play a lot in his final season at the club—or he could be on his way out in the next three weeks or so.
Joe Cole. Liverpool’s last number 10. A Premier League winner, a player capped for his country more than 50 times (though to be fair, so was Phil Neville) and free transfer to boot. Aside from those £90,000 a week wages, of course. Cole is gifted, no doubt about it, but he far from impressed in his sole season at the Reds and spent last season out at Lille on loan. He’s returning to Melwood for pre-season training, but how long will he be there?
Strengths: Good with both feet, not short of self confidence and able to commit defenders when running at goal. Has all the tricks and flicks in the book, and is versatile enough to play centrally or on the flanks, though is far from being a winger.
Weaknesses: Fitness. Fitness. Fitness again. Cole struggles to last half an hour playing at a high tempo without gasping for breath and needing time to recover. “Resting on the ball” as Rodgers likes to describe his way of playing is all well and good, but the players have to go all-out to get it back in the first place. Cole also likes to wander about and do his own thing at times; fine for the maverick performer who’ll produce something from nothing but again, Liverpool didn’t really get that last time around.
His goalscoring record is also poor for such an offensive midfielder.
Role under Rodgers: Cole’s return to Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers’ comments about wanting to see him have led some to assume Cole will be part of Liverpool’s team next season. That could be the case, but Cole will have to impress enormously to justify keeping him at the club on the massive wages he currently earns. To put it in perspective, if he does stay at Anfield, the wages paid out to him over the two seasons he will have played at the club will be greater than the fee Liverpool are expected to pay for Gylfi Sigurdsson—and that doesn’t take into account whatever the club paid him last season whilst out on loan.
Having worked together previously is also not much of an issue; it simply means Rodgers will know him beforehand. That hasn’t stopped Steve Clarke from leaving the club after Rodgers’ arrival and it won’t stop Cole from doing so either. One of the prime candidates to leave this summer, with his wages likely to be a sticking point as to whether it is another loan deal or a permanent one.
Stewart Downing, currently on Euro 2012 duty with England, is another conundrum. He certainly wasn’t as bad all the time last season as his infamous 0/0 statistics make out, but the problem is that a lot of the time he was. He was, in fact, floating between anonymous and noticeably awful for large stretches of the season. At his best Downing is a pacey outlet who can beat players and cross accurately, but at his worst he’s a one-dimensional way to lose the ball in a hurry.
Strengths: Crossing is right up there for Downing. He can cross, no two ways about it, and that’s what he was brought to the club to provide. Unfortunately, statistically speaking crosses are one of the least common ways in which any football club scores goals, so to expect him to be a primary source of points was always unrealistic. Playing from the right he can cut in and shoot, while on the left his ability to burst past static defenders is also a plus point.
Weaknesses: Confidence, consistency and creativity. Three vital ingredients for any worthy final third player, and Downing was seriously lacking in every department last season. Forget the £20 million fee; that wasn’t his choice and it is doubtful it was very many others’ choice either, aside from Randy Lerner, but Downing simply has to do more to justify playing in this team.
His right foot is also absolutely woeful. There is no excuse for a professional footballer to not be anything less than “comfortable” on the ball on their wrong foot, but Downing takes incapable to a whole new level at times when the ball drops to his right.
Role under Rodgers: Might as well just come out with it: with a new wide player almost certain to come in, Downing is the one to take the hit. Liverpool will make a loss on him, maybe as much as £8 million, but if this is “year zero” for the club then they just have to accept that mistakes were made and rectify them as soon as possible. Downing could do well if he was to stay and play regularly, but he could also do exactly the same—and Liverpool no longer have the luxury of waiting to see what certain players will do.
Raheem Sterling, Liverpool’s latest teen prodigy, has all the attributes to be a massive star for the club. For him, there are two important things over the coming season. Firstly, that he continues to get game minutes at the right times, and secondly, that off-field issues do not unduly distract him. This can be the making or the breaking of youngsters these days, and Sterling has not done himself any favours early on but that is not to say he has ruined his career; far from it. There are many ways of growing up and Raheem has the chance to do that on and off the pitch this term.
Strengths: Pace, dribbling ability, fearlessness, able to go both inside and out and a real eye for goal when cutting in from the left flank. Sterling has all of the above in abundance and, if he continues his progression, he can be a match-winner for Liverpool either from the bench or in the first team within 18 months, perhaps sooner.
Weaknesses: Hard to call at this early stage, but clearly he needs to bulk up more. This will happen naturally as he grows, but you don’t fancy him going into a 50-50 with Jonas Olsson or someone similar at this moment. Similarly, his stamina will increase as he continues training and playing at a higher level. He may have a tendency to try and do too much himself at this stage, while you also don’t want him becoming the fans’ first thought every time when the Reds are trailing.
Role under Rodgers: The same as at the back end of last term; Sterling will make the bench in the odd league game perhaps but his best bet is to be involved in cup matches. With the Europa League a dismal competition to partake in until the latter stages, the young flyer could get a few matches under his belt, even starts, in the group stage. Sterling can be a real winner for Liverpool but needs careful nurturing at this crucial stage of his development.
Dani Pacheco, another attacker out on loan last season, is at a crossroads in his career. At present he is still a Liverpool player but having been loaned by Atletico Madrid last season, who in turn shipped him out themselves, he might be deciding to cut his ties with the Premier League and start afresh with a side he can play for on a regular basis. On the other hand, once Rodgers sees him in action he might decide he’ll be a good squad option with his quick one-touch passing, vision and preference for playing in behind the forward.
Strengths: As above really; Pacheco is a good passer of the ball and is a creative player. He’s not ready to be the answer as a first choice, and similarly he didn’t overly impress when getting his few chances under previous managers, but in a slower approach play system his ability to pick a pass and get beyond the forward might be ideal. Set pieces are another strength of Dani’s, and he also knows where the goal is both from inside and outside the box.
Weaknesses: Consistency, as with so many younger players, is an issue. The manager has to have faith in their ability to play, and the youngster has to take his chance when he gets it. Lightweight and sometimes too static off the ball, Pacheco is on occasions too easily picked up. In the classic “number 10″ role which Liverpool might employ, and with a gradual and opportunistic approach to attacking, picking a good position is going to be a huge influence on the effectiveness of a player.
Role under Rodgers: Arguably it is up to Dani himself. If he wants to stay and try and improve, Rodgers could work wonders on him. But he won’t play from the start and will have to really impress to get his chance. Playing from the left and cutting infield might also suit him in the new system. But, similarly, Pacheco might already have offers on the table to be involved with a first team somewhere and decide he has had enough of the Premier League for now. Forced to decide, I’d imagine Pacheco will be off, with the younger Suso, Teixeira and Adorjan all coming up behind him.
Nathan Eccleston is another reserve who, like Pacheco, has had few opportunities to impress in the Liverpool first team and hasn’t perhaps made quite the most of them when given the chance. A real issue for Eccleston appears to be his reluctance, or incompatibility perhaps, to playing from the flank. His early games for Liverpool were in that role and his time on loan at Charlton was largely spent in the same area. Turning 22 years of age around Christmas, this is make or break season for Eccleston who is now in the same position as Stephen Darby and Jay Spearing were a couple of seasons back. One did well for himself and one has just been released. What now for Eccleston?
Strengths: Another one who has pace, and definitely knows where the goal is at reserve level, but the Premier League is a big step up. Eccleston is good at committing defenders, shooting first time and getting across the defender to the near post but isn’t as naturally predatory as you might expect a top young forward to be. He also leans towards being a hard worker and would likely take up the challenge of closing down defenders with gusto.
Weaknesses: Strength is again an issue for someone who would be playing up front alone. Does he have the right mentality? He certainly thrives at reserve team level but has to understand and appreciate that he will not be a first choice player at this time and will have to make an impact off the bench and quite possibly out of his preferred position too. With regards to closing down defenders, obviously he still has some way to go with regards to tactical awareness and would have to work hard to do this in the right areas, at the right times.
Role under Rodgers: Eccleston could be in limbo early on in the campaign, as Rodgers fine-tunes his first team before looking at giving those on the fringe more of a chance. As with Sterling, cup games and Europe might be his best route to first team football at Liverpool but he must have an impact this season if he is to become any kind of Reds player at all. At this stage you’d have to unfortunately suggest he hasn’t shown quite enough to be considered a realistic option for Liverpool’s squad.
Craig Bellamy will seemingly miss the opening games of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure as Liverpool boss as he is set to compete in the Olympic Games. While undoubtedly a great honour, and not one which Reds fans should turn their nose up at, this might have a real impact on Bellamy’s position at the club this term. What it means is that Liverpool will definitely need at least one attacker to be signed to fill the three forward roles, and if it happens to be a big money signing then will Bellamy manage to get back in the team afterwards?
Strengths: Never gives up, works hard, still has a turn of pace and will chip in with around 10 goals a season. Can play right the way across the forward line, doesn’t let defenders settle and will fit in well with the press-first style that Rodgers will implement. Another one of the squad who offers good delivery from set pieces, too. Magnificent attitude which a few of the younger players would do well to emulate.
Weaknesses: The knees, first and foremost. Bellamy has his issues with injuries and will need to be managed carefully, but if he is—and so not being first choice might actually aid him last the entire season unscathed—then he can be a real weapon for Liverpool off the bench. His finishing is sometimes wayward and for that reason he will be unlikely to score more than a dozen goals over the season, perhaps not even into double figures. He doesn’t really have too many other weaknesses; even if his best attributes aren’t at the very highest level he’s still good at most football skills.
Role under Rodgers: Super-sub. Will certainly get games and can really aid Liverpool in the pressing game late on in matches as they bid to outwork tired opponents and strike on goal. There’s no reason to suggest he might leave the club before the end of next season, and indeed with injuries, loss of form and other issues with other players there is a big chance that Bellamy will get a spell of regular starting action for the Reds at some point, probably late in the season. His experience will be important too in a relatively young squad, especially if the side is challenging for cup honours or in the fight for a top four spot.
Luis Suarez, the main man, the one we all want to see back in Red come August. Outrageously talented, skilful, dangerous and important to the team. Liverpool’s new team will be built around a select band of players; Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez being the first names on the sheet whenever possible. After a stunning introduction to the club Suarez had his difficulties last season, but a real rest this summer will do him the world of good and Kopites everywhere should look forward to plenty more scintillating displays during 2012-13.
Strengths: His dribbling, close control and ability to turn a complete 180 in the space of about six inches make Luis Suarez one of the most feared forwards in the Premier League. Suarez can score goals, create goals and put pressure on the opposition defence like few others in England’s top flight. He is the archetypal forward to fit into Brendan Rodgers’ way of thinking, able to press, pass and create when the timing is right. Both footed, able to play centrally, deep or working the channels—there isn’t much Suarez can’t do in the final third.
Weaknesses: A hot-headed temperament will cause him undue bother at times, but without it would he be the same player? The same question was asked of Craig Bellamy for years. Suarez’s finishing was wayward at times last year but he was trying to do an awful lot of Liverpool’s attacking himself, both the creating and the finishing side of things. His set pieces are usually deadly but he struggled with these last season; with other alternatives for the Reds to choose from now he won’t be required to showcase this particular skill too often. Anything else? Not really.
Role under Rodgers: A first pick, little doubt of that, but where? Suarez played the lone centre-forward for large stretches of last season and, with the right service, he could be a huge, huge hit. But he is also capable of providing that service for another forward, perhaps one with a more single-minded approach to scoring goals, leaving Suarez the room to do his best work down the channels and running into the penalty box from deeper areas with the ball at his feet. He’ll play both centrally and from one of the flanks next season at different times, almost certainly. New signings and the form and fitness of team mates may dictate which one is his primary role.
Andy Carroll is perhaps the greatest challenge facing Brendan Rodgers in the current Liverpool first team squad. Can he manage the big forward effectively to get the best out of him, integrate him into the system to ensure he plays his strengths to the advantage of Liverpool and keep him fit, focussed and scoring goals? Or does Carroll simply not fit in to the Reds’ new way of playing, and to be used only as a vastly different “Plan B”?
Strengths: His strength, obviously. Carroll is a powerhouse, he can knock defenders every which way when he’s in the mood and beat them both on the ground and in the air, with aerial balls or with it at his feet under control. His left foot is a rocket, he can score from anywhere inside 25 yards, and he will draw more than one defender towards him to offer additional space to the likes of Luis Suarez to work in.
Carroll is also young enough to improve significantly and has enough to prove as it is to ensure he works hard every time he steps out onto the pitch. When running forward with the ball he doesn’t have great acceleration but when up to speed he can be unstoppable, at least without the risk of injury to the defender. His link up play has also improved and Carroll holds the ball up well, looking to bring it down on his chest as often as flicking it on with his head.
Weaknesses: When clearly unfit last season, not because of injury but because of not working hard enough away from the pitch, Carroll was lazy, sloppy and ineffective. His first touch bounced away from him, his shooting bobbled wide and he rarely worked the width of the pitch, even as a lone front man. If that kind of form returns, Carroll will be out of the team—and his confidence clearly gets affected easily.
His right foot is on a par with Downing’s and needs plenty of work, and his movement in the box, though improving, still also needs to step up a level, especially getting across to the near post before crosses come in. When running with the ball he can be extremely ungainly, again when unfit or out of sorts, and lose control of the ball too easily. Though his link up play is good, too often he passes it too far backwards, all the way to the central defenders even, which can hamper a counter attack. With a slower build-up, this might not be as much of an issue.
Role under Rodgers: Take your pick, depending on where you sit with Carroll. Fans are split on whether he can be a beast or merely a different option from the bench when things aren’t going well; even writers on this very website aren’t in complete agreement over what the future holds for him at Liverpool FC.
For what it’s worth, I retain full belief that Andy Carroll can be a monster for Liverpool. He has the natural attributes to make him a great, great forward, though key areas need specific improvement. His movement in the box, specifically between the goal line and the penalty spot, needs direction and repetition. If he gets this and can pick up where he left off at the end of the season in terms of his work rate and endeavour, Carroll can be first choice number 9 for the Reds and score a hat-load of goals, as well as letting other players flourish by playing off of him.
Liverpool undoubtedly need another forward anyway, but Carroll can push himself to be the first choice and go-to man for forward play all season long if he gains Rodgers’ trust. To do that, he needs to start fast and start well, and continue that for much of the campaign. There can be no going back to the sluggish, slovenly performances of last winter for Andy Carroll.
So who starts?
Luis Suarez is a definite. He may well start as the centre forward, but with the system Liverpool will look to implement he would be a magnificent asset as an inside forward, playing in from the flanks. His talent would not be wasted there; much of his best work for Liverpool comes from working the channels and he would have a free reign to come infield to plot his mischief, leaving space for the full-back to attack the by-line.
Take your pick for the other two to start the season, but Carroll remains a real chance of Liverpool having something in the Premier League that no other team can boast.
Right forward: Luis Suarez.
Left forward: Maxi Rodriguez if he stays, Craig Bellamy if he plays…but most likely, a new signing.
Centre forward: Andy Carroll.
What do the Reds need?
A wide player, a genuine talent to come in and be a first team player who can create and score in equal amounts. Not easy to find, but there are players out there, players who Liverpool can target, entice and afford.
A centre forward, closer to the ground than Carroll, who knows where the goal is and can play as a one or a two up front. If this player can fill in down one of the flanks, all the better—than player effectively takes Dirk Kuyt’s place in the squad.