As Liverpool head to Villa Park this weekend, the headlines have surrounded their pursuit of a marquee attacking signing, which so far this summer has proved unsuccessful. Brendan Rodgers is clearly irritated by FSG’s failure to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to the shopping at the top end of the transfer market, and it is looking increasingly likely that he will have to make do with the players currently at his disposal – plus Luis Suarez when he returns from his ban - until the January transfer window.
The Liverpool boss is in the market for a winger, which would in turn allow him to deploy Coutinho in a central role, where he feels the Brazilian would be even more effective. Stewart Downing recently joined West Ham, a decision which apparently went over the head of the manager, who wanted him to stay; the departure of another expensive signing from the Comolli/Dalglish era merely serves as a reminder of the costly mistakes made by his predecessors which now impedes Rodgers’ ability to bring in a quality attacker and leaves the Reds short of a first-team regular from last season.
Although Sturridge, Suarez, Coutinho and Aspas are all relatively versatile, they do their best through the middle - whilst given a certain degree of freedom - which creates something of a dilemma for Rodgers. Downing provided valuable width, which helped stretch defences, allowing the likes of Coutinho and Suarez to link up with Sturridge. The full backs get forward at every opportunity to support the attack, but a forward playing out wide is constantly looking to cut inside, and lacks the discipline to stay out wide, as well as being less inclined to perform his defensive duties.
Downing, who was in the team on merit over the second half of last season, was a ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ player; he did a selfless job to provide the more talented players the platform to play in their most effective roles - much in the same way Roberto Mancini used James Milner. The problem, though, is that he was playing as one of the front three, and lacked the attacking quality to make the difference when needed. He wasn’t a difference maker, which is what we need from that position, and what we have in Sturridge, Coutinho and Suarez.
Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem that Downing’s departure created, one that allows us to be bolder in our team selection, and he is the only member of the British contingent signed in 2011 who is still at the club: Jordan Henderson, who Rodgers tried to ship off the Fulham as part of a deal to sign Clint Dempsey, appears to have picked up where he left off last season. The arrival of Sturridge and Coutinho in January gave the team a renewed attacking impetus – but it also coincided with Henderson becoming a regular in the team.
With Lucas and Gerrard playing as the two holding midfielders, Henderson was deployed either as the most advanced of the midfield three, or as the left forward, allowing any of Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge to play centrally. Regardless of which role he played, his discipline, work-rate and energy were a key part of the pressing game. But it wasn’t just his off-the-ball work that made him a valuable asset; he became a real threat in the final third, scoring five goals from January onwards, with all but one of them coming away from home.
Last season Liverpool broke their Premier League record for goals scored away from home in a season (38), which was second only to Manchester United (42), and is more than they scored at Anfield (33). A key reason to that, even with Suarez suspended, is that we were just as capable of playing a team off the park as we were of a swift, devastating counter-attack. Coutinho’s vision and passing ability is up there with anyone in the league, so the constant forward runs of Sturridge and Henderson were often found by our bantam Brazilian to prolific effect (the games at Newcastle and Fulham come to mind).
We’re probably better suited to playing away from home, as most teams that visit Anfield are happy to defend deep and have us try and break them down. In those games, perhaps a player with a bit more guile and creativity would be better suited than Henderson, but he can still be a threat. Last week against Stoke he played out on the right in what appeared to be a 4-4-1-1, but he still had three excellent chances to score; he definitely should’ve scored one that he hit straight at Asmir Begovic when he was one-on-one, but the Bosnian keeper made two outstanding saves to deny him on the other occasions.
The guys over at EPL index compared all the midfield players from Premier League’s top seven clubs and how effective they are in terms of scoring or creating goals (you can read the piece here, it has some insightful stuff on Henderson). Whilst stats can be misleading and are in no way definitive, it was interesting that Henderson had the fourth highest MGI (minutes per goal involvement) in the league, with him involved in a goal every 142.3 minutes, behind only Frank Lampard (116.5), Coutinho (113) and Juan Mata (108.7)
Henderson’s price tag, rightly or wrongly, will always be used as a stick to beat him with (obviously he had no control over how much money was spent on him, but fans will always point to alternatives that could have been signed instead). But his attitude and application have been top class, and he’s developed in to a very useful and effective player. It’s easy to forget that he was only 20 when we signed him, and, whilst he can no longer be labelled a youngster, he’s still got plenty of time to iron out the kinks in his game. If he continues to improve he could become a very important player for us this season.