Liverpool put in their most complete performance of the season at Old Trafford in the League Cup during midweek, but were unable to come away with the result that their play deserved. This was in stark contrast to their early season games; the performances left a lot to be desired but they managed to secure the win. It was reminiscent of many games last season where The Reds couldn’t turn their dominance in goals, which ultimately cost them when an individual defensive error – in this case against Manchester United, a wonderfully improvised finish from Javier Hernandez – gave the opposition the win.
After two consecutive defeats they look to get back on track against a Sunderland side free of the oppressive regime of Paolo Di Canio. It’s debatable just how true the whole idea that the ‘players will be looking to prove a point’ really is, but most Liverpool fans were hoping that the Italian’s job would have been safe for another week as The Mackems have looked a mess this season. Still, this is a team that has won just three of their last 21 league games, has just one point to their name this season and is without their best player, Steven Fletcher. There couldn’t really be a better time to play Sunderland than this.
Injuries to key players meant that Rodgers decided to experiment with a 3-4-1-2 formation against United and, for the most part, it worked very well. In the most difficult fixture of the season to date – I’ll leave you to make your own jokes about United’s form - Liverpool looked a more balanced and inventive side than they have in any other game this season, and for long parts of the game dominated what was still a strong side. The setup not only got the most of the players at Rodgers’ disposal, it also helped mask certain deficiencies that they have, most notably the lack of mobility, tenacity and stamina from the midfield.
Even though one game is nowhere near a big enough sample size to extrapolate anything definitive from, there was enough evidence to suggest that three at the back is viable option moving forward. It may not be a long-term solution going forward, but trying to shoehorn players in to roles that may not suit their particular skillset is incredibly counterproductive. Full-back is perhaps the hardest role to play in Liverpool’s system, given the demands of the role both offensively and defensively, so playing Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho as full-backs is unfair on them both as it negates their strengths as players.
Having the extra man in defence allows Lucas and Gerrard to not only press higher up the pitch, but also push up more in to the opposition half, which is a huge advantage, particularly in Gerrard’s case. The captain’s legs may be on their way out but his brain isn’t, and even if he’s curbed his attacking instincts he’s still capable of finding that killer ball in the final third, which has been a big problem for Liverpool with Coutinho injured. The one player this formation may not suit is Victor Moses, who’s not a natural number ten, but many wingers have enjoyed success when deployed centrally and there’s no reason why Moses can’t do that, too; he certainly has the talent.
The return of Luis Suarez played a part in Liverpool’s improved performance against United, too. He, somewhat understandably, looked half-a-yard off the pace, with his touch often that little bit heavy or that final ball coming just a little bit too late, but even at 80% he’s as good as most strikers in the league. However, with Daniel Sturridge impressing this season and deserving to keep his place playing as the central striker, this would allow Rodgers to play both forwards in their most favoured positions. Suarez is good enough to be effective out wide or playing as number ten, but the closer to the opposition area he is, the more dangerous he is.
Going with three at the back may not be the long-term solution, but, even when Liverpool have a full squad to choose from, there is a strong argument as to why they should use it more frequently. Imagine Daniel Agger pushing forward from defence and using his ability on the ball to greater effect; imagine Glen Johnson given free rein to maraud down the right flank and support the attack; imagine Coutinho, the bantam Brazilian, allowed to roam in his natural #10 role behind a front two of Suarez and Sturridge. Sure, all three players could be equally effective playing in Rodgers’ 4-3-3, but there are times when playing to their strengths could risk the shape of the team and expose the lack of mobility in midfield.
But that is a discussion for another day; Liverpool must focus on the task at hand. With the two Manchester clubs both suffering yet another defeat, and Chelsea and Spurs each sharing a point, this is a great chance for Liverpool to atone for their loss last week and make up ground on the teams above them. Of course, as history would suggest, Liverpool now slipping up and losing to Sunderland is as likely as Lee Cattermole going in to the referee’s notebook. It’s time for Brendan Rodgers’ side to prove that they can overcome adversity and capitalise on other team’s mistakes. Let’s see how they fare.