Following on from part 1 of our look at the entire Liverpool squad where we examined the goalkeeper, full backs, centre backs and defensive midfield positions, The Liverpool Word now turns its attention to the final five positions in the team.
In the 4-3-3 system Brendan Rodgers elects to use, these five are comprised of the second “controlling” central midfielder, the more advanced and attacking central midfielder, the two wide forwards and the centre forward.
Since part 1 was written Liverpool have added two more numbers to their ranks and one has left—though helpfully all have been in the more advanced part of the pitch, meaning all can be looked at in this article.
Craig Bellamy left for Cardiff City, Joe Allen arrived from Swansea City—both as expected—and utterly out of the blue, Oussama Assaidi arrived on Thursday from Dutch club Herenveen.
To help break down the functions of Brendan Rodgers’ three centre midfielders, we can describe one—the Lucas role—as the holding or defensive midfielder; the next one as the “real” central midfielder, the controller, the one who will construct moves, keep the ball and help get the ball from back to front by working from box to box; and finally the attacking or advanced central midfielder who will look to get involved in the final third, link up with the three forwards and even get beyond the striker into the penalty box.
This second controlling central midfield player is vital in Rodgers’ plan and for this reason he has gone for what he knows in the transfer market with the signing of Joe Allen.
Liverpool already had good depth in this position with Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson established first team players last season, while it is also Jay Spearing’s more natural position even though he will barely play there for the Reds. Jonjo Shelvey has also impressed in that role in pre-season and in the Europa League qualifier against Gomel.
Allen however offers experience in playing the system, unrelenting control and retention of the ball in the middle of the pitch and a step up in quality for the first squad.
Henderson has similar talents to Allen though is maybe capable of more higher up the pitch than he has shown yet, and seems to lack confidence to impose himself on the game yet. Allen will go right ahead and do that for the Reds from his first game as he already knows his job and his boss.
This likely signals the end of the road at Anfield for Charlie Adam.
He is not as good on the ball as either Henderson or Allen in terms of constructing patient moves and his decision making leaves a lot to be desired. Adam’s quick cross-field balls are a great game-changer when they come off, but all too often the ball goes sailing over a team mate’s head resulting in Liverpool losing the ball.
Attacking central midfielder
Depending on who plays this particular role, Liverpool’s approach to attacking from midfield could well change from game to game.
Steven Gerrard is of course the first pick to play there and when fit he is one of the world’s best at doing so. His ability to move into space and have a direct effect on the game when he picks up the ball makes him a huge asset for the Reds despite his advancing age.
Gerrard could quite conceivably hit 20 goals again this season, something he hasn’t done since 2008-09. He might not play quite as many games as he did that year (44), but if Liverpool can see him in 35-40 fixtures then his ability to link with the forwards—and, more importantly, take up their spaces on the pitch when they drift infield or deeper—will see him have many quality shooting opportunities.
Being the very good finisher he is, Gerrard should then be looking at easily surpassing the double-figures mark and, in all competitions, look towards a heist of 20.
As well as the Reds’ captain, Liverpool have Shelvey who can play that role very well though he has neither the decision-making experience nor the finishing composure of Gerrard. Over the coming 10 months Shelvey will likely play in both centre midfield positions according to need and availability. He is arguably better in the more advanced one at present, but could longer-term go on to be a fantastic match-dominating player from the very centre of the pitch.
Wide forward, right side
Stewart Downing is in prime position for this role early on in the season having shown plenty of ambition, drive and no shortage of technical ability in pre season and Europa League fixtures.
He is very likely to start on the right of the front three against West Brom (tomorrow, Premier League opener) and it is really down to him whether or not he keeps his place.
Downing struggled to make a regularly positive impact last season, but some of that can be put down to the team’s tactics and his position. In a 4-3-3 such as Liverpool are playing this season, he will receiving the ball a good 20-30 metres further up the pitch and closer to the goal, rather than on the halfway line and being expected to run down the whole length of the pitch before delivering a cross.
From the right side, and Downing being a left footer, he can quickly turn inside the defender and with just a short amount of movement he is already at the corner of the penalty box, enticing shooting or dangerous crossing opportunities. Already he has also shown ambition to go on the outside and cross right footed.
More recently, Liverpool signed Morocco international Oussama Assaidi from Heerenveen, whose primary position is arguably the right flank.
Another tricky and fast wide attacker, Assaidi will battle for either wide forward role and provide better competition and quality for the team. TLW’s article posted yesterday on the newest Red gives a good source of information on the player who became Rodgers’ third signing of the summer.
Wide forward, left side
Fabio Borini seems the immediate choice to start on the left of Liverpool’s front three, having played there under Rodgers for Swansea City and making his Anfield debut in that position against Gomel.
Borini has already displayed a fantastic willingness to work hard for the team and fill in those positions where a team mate is out of position, as well as leading from the front with the pressing game that the manager wants to instil in the side.
Allied to his work ethic is an obvious appreciation for space in the final third of the pitch, as he looks to receive the ball in dangerous areas whether in his starting wide role or after drifting infield more centrally. An ability to find the net would be a fantastic bonus from Borini and he has certainly started well enough in that regard.
In truth, Liverpool require around a dozen league goals from their first choice wide forward to help them towards a top four place—Borini should be capable of that.
Joe Cole is, at present, the only real senior back-up for Borini but his role this season is hugely likely to be restricted to a bit-part one, filling in from the start when Borini needs a rest or in the cup matches where the first team is given time off. From the bench, Cole is perhaps not electric enough to have a massive impact when the Reds are in need of it, and nor is he suited to continually pressing the opposition.
Raheem Sterling instead should be the one Liverpool look to give minutes off the bench too, replacing Borini (or another attack, but still playing from the left side himself) to gain further experience in the league after his three cameos last season.
The qualities of the young inside forward are well-recorded; suffice to say he needs more game time and to continue working hard and learning in training if he is to become the match-winner that Kopites hope and expect him to be.
Right now, Liverpool have two: Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.
Suarez is clearly the favourite to start in this role and his blinding ability on the ball, prodigious work-rate and pure skill level make him an indispensable part of the first XI.
Movement is key in the final third and Suarez excels here—and with his first touch—more than most in the Premier League. Capable of working the channels, running in behind defenders or dropping deeper into midfield to pick up the ball and link with his withdrawn team mates, Suarez will be vital to everything the Reds try and construct.
The interplay between Borini, Gerrard and Suarez will be vital to the continued success of this side. Taking each others’ places on the pitch, finding each other quickly with the ball and reading each others’ runs off of it will see the Reds tear through defences when it comes off.
Perhaps unwanted, certainly classed as a saleable asset but still wanting to prove himself; Carroll could grasp the first chance he gets with both hands and power his way into the Reds first team.
He’ll need to show a continued improvement in his in-the-box movement and a vast one in his pressing and closing down. His shot accuracy and conversion rate need big boosts but, like Downing, should benefit immensely from playing far closer to goal.
Starting Andy Carroll in no way relegates Suarez out the team, being so capable of playing in wider roles he could support and bring out the best of the Reds no.9 in a way that others perhaps wouldn’t be able to, but so much depends on how much Carroll is willing to work for his spot and how much faith Brendan Rodgers will put in him.
Liverpool’s front five:
Allen, Gerrard; Downing, Borini, Suarez. Control on the ball, movement off it and a real creative edge which was too rarely apparent last season. This is a top four-capable attack, no question.
Henderson, Shelvey; Assaidi, Sterling, Carroll. Is it too hit-and-miss? Shelvey is hugely promising but raw, Henderson has confidence issues and the front three are all, for various reasons, not yet entirely proven. Factor in Adam, Cole and Dani Pacheco who all remain at the club and there is depth, and exciting depth in its own way, but not reliability.
Is Liverpool’s whole squad good enough to compete on four fronts?
Probably not. There are areas in the squad which lack the experience and strength to be a force in the domestic cups, pass through the gruelling, bloated Europa League campaign and stay sharp and winning games in the Premier League.
This is, however, to be expected given the rebuilding nature of the club and the team.
Each area from goalkeeper to centre forward definitely has plenty of strengths and in terms of depth, the spine of the team—centre backs, central midfielders and centre forwards—certainly have enough cover, which is encouraging.
If the Reds were able to line up “Reina—Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Jose Enrique—Lucas, Allen, Gerrard—Downing, Borini, Suarez” for every Premier League match then you would certainly fancy them to attain a top four spot. It’s a good side, a technical, young and talented side which fits the formation and the tactics of Brendan Rodgers very well.
Should you have to factor in Adam, Cole and Carragher for large stretches of the season to cover injuries then you might be less inclined to think the same of the team, but it is likely that all three will have increasingly peripheral roles over the coming season.
Liverpool are still looking for one or two more names to come in and they could eventually make all the difference, but at present the squad is good enough to reach a top four spot if they take on board the way the manager wants to play, and the new signings settle into the club quicker than those of last season managed.
For the cups, Liverpool will hopefully enjoy another run after last season’s excellent work but it must be seen as a bonus rather than an obsession this year; keeping fringe players fit and giving youngsters a chance must be the order for Europa, Carling and FA Cups alike—at least until the latter stages.
If Liverpool keep the likes of Suarez, Gerrard, Agger and Lucas fit on a regular occurrence, if Pepe Reina finds his best level again and if four players or so can commit to 10 goals over the course of a season—and in Suarez, Gerrard, Borini and one other they should manage it—then yes, Liverpool are a real contender for a top four spot.
Let the games begin.