Liverpool showed their tactical flexibility during the 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge yesterday, changing from their usual 4-3-3 formation to a 3-5-1-1, with Raheem Sterling moving to a central role playing behind Luis Suarez, similar to what they did in the second half of the Merseyside derby a few weeks back. Playing three at the back has been a useful tactic for the Reds, even before the arrival of Brendan Rodgers – Liverpool won at Stamford Bridge two seasons ago playing a similar setup – and it’s unlikely to be the last time we play it, particularly away from home.
There are certainly merits to playing three at the back, and I’d love to see a few Premier League teams start playing it week in week out. For us, theoretically, it allows us to get the best out of our best players: Daniel Agger will get more opportunities to bring the ball out from the back; Glen Johnson is not forced to curb his attacking instincts to focus on defensive work; Steven Gerrard has a solid base behind him so can get forward where he’s most effective; and with most of the play coming through the middle of the pitch, Luis Suarez should get the sort of service he thrives on.
The system does negate the strengths of Raheem Sterling when he’s played centrally, but he’s still learning, so the experience of playing in a more unconventional role will be beneficial for him in the long run. Plus, as we’ve seen over recent years, the ‘central winger’ has been used to great effect: Alexis Sanchez during his last season at Udinese was moved inside playing in an almost identical 3-5-1-1 formation, and was sensational playing off Antonio Di Natale. Sterling is a fantastic dribbler and his movement and positional sense belie his preciousness, so it’s certainly a role he could thrive in.
Liverpool’s midfield triumvirate, it seems, has a significantly different composition to Rodgers’ midfield at Swansea. Now, the midfield split in to three distinct roles: the holding midfielder, whose main role is to sit deep in front of the back four, win the ball back and then give it to one of the more attacking players; the central midfielder, who is the heartbeat of the side, the metronome that links the play from defence to attack and keeps things ticking over; and the attacking midfielder, who play as a deeper number 10, supports the lone forward and creates chances as the play goes through him in the final third.
As you would expect, Liverpool have been pretty effective of retaining possession this season, and their main problem has been creating chances in the final third, and, of course, scoring goals. However, there are times when the midfield looks disjointed, and one of my few criticisms of Brendan Rodgers at this stage of his tenure is that, for someone who constantly stresses the importance of the midfield three and dominating the ball, his use of the central midfielders and what role they play has been questionable at times; he’s not using players in their best roles.
Of course, the absence of Lucas for the past two-and-a-half months has put a proverbial spanner in the works, and with him being the only natural holding midfielder in the squad, Rodgers has been forced to reshuffle the pack, with Joe Allen playing as the deepest of the midfield three. Once Lucas returns, and will no doubt reclaim his role as Liverpool’s anchor, the midfield should have a more balanced look, and should not be as penetrable when we do lose possession. The Brazilian is one of the more underrated holding midfielders, and whilst it may well take time for him to get back to the level he was playing at before his cruciate injury a year ago, he and Allen will become an integral part of this side for the foreseeable future.
The Welshman made a brilliant start to his Liverpool career but his form has tailed off over the past few weeks and he’s looking jaded, which is understandable as he played every game for Team GB in the Olympics and been ever-present for us this season; the physical demands of the system we’re playing are particularly telling, something Rodgers himself admitted and gave as the main reason he’s tinkered with the formation. He also said we’ll see much more from Allen once Lucas is back as he’ll play a bit further forward, probably taking up more of a mediano role than play a typical regista. He’s tenacious, mobile, has a great footballing brain and it is easy to see why the manager made it his priority to sign him; he’s every bit the archetypical Rodgers player.
What this does mean, though, is that we have four players - Nuri Sahin, Jonjo Shelvey, Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard – and just one other position - the more advanced midfield role - available. With us playing in the Europa League there will be opportunities for the squad players, and Henderson is not suited to the advanced role so will have to settle as being back up to Lucas/Allen, but this is where Rodgers should rethink his strategy. None of the midfield three have done enough in recent weeks to cement their place in the side, so if they find a place on the bench they only have themselves to blame.
Since he served a three-match suspension after getting sent off against Manchester United back in September, Jonjo Shelvey has been forced to play second fiddle to Nuri Sahin and settle for starts in the cups. As a massive Sahin fan I have no problem with this, but I’m disappointed by the Turk’s contribution over the past month; it took him a while to gain match fitness and get used to the system, and he put in a few excellent performances against West Brom and Norwich, but since then he’s failed to really impact the games he’s played. The games against Stoke and Everton were understandable as they’re high octane, physical matchups, but against Reading, Newcastle and Chelsea I expected more.
However, he’s being used as the most advanced of the midfield three for the most part, which is not his natural game, and Rodgers is doing him no favours in that sense. At Dortmund he played in a midfield two alongside Sven Bender with Shinji Kagawa ahead of him, so would get forward when possible, but that was because he could run from deep. His strengths are his passing and vision, and he doesn’t yet look as dynamic as he did in Germany, but then he hasn’t played much football and was injured for most of last year. He needs to work on the defensive side of his game as opposition players get past him too easily, but he has the talent.
The role he’s playing is where Shelvey and Gerrard are best suited to; they are creators and goalscorers. We lack goals in the side, and those two have proven they can score goals from midfield, so it makes sense to play either of them further forward and play Sahin a bit deeper. Gerrard’s form has been disappointing, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be the player he was; I probably wouldn’t even start him every week any more. He and Shelvey should rotate depending on form and fitness, and the same with Allen and Sahin.
Liverpool are fortunate that midfield is the one area where we have a surplus of quality options, and I still stand by my assessment that it’s probably the best core of central midfielders in the league (I wouldn’t class Cazorla, Silva, Mata, Hazard et al as central midfielders as they’re most effective in the final third). He’s not getting the best out of the players at his disposal, though, and until he does the other areas of the side will suffer.