Daniel Sturridge’s arrival at Liverpool last month brought a whole new dimension to the team, finally providing an attacking outlet that was missing for the first half of the season.
So when Sturridge was forced to miss Monday’s visit of West Brom through injury, it was disappointing to see Brendan Rodgers‘ selection revert to how we were before his arrival. Watching the attack was like turning the clock back to October.
Liverpool missed someone playing the Sturridge role more so than Sturridge himself. Essentially playing without a forward again. The first half in particular saw a lack of men in the box. Suarez withdrawn and Shelvey seemed lost in where he should be exactly.
We also saw a poor performance from Suarez, by his high standards, he seemed to try to do too much in his strike partner’s absence and the side lost all that it had gained in the last month tactically.
Rodgers decision to play Jonjo Shelvey seemed odd before kick-off and it certainly didn’t prove successful. He hadn’t started a League game since Boxing Day and by replacing Sturridge with Shelvey we lost the balance up front; Suarez still dropped deep and wide, he got frustrated, and the team lacked the presence Sturridge had been providing.
Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but many had asked the question before kick-off too. Why not replace Sturridge like-for-like?
If Fabio Borini isn’t going to be used in his favoured role as the centre forward when Sturridge is out and we’re at home to West Brom, then is he ever?
Of course, what we saw on the hour was Rodgers correct his ‘mistake’ and Borini replaced Shelvey (albeit he also introduced Sterling for Henderson at the same time and we consequently lost control of the midfield). It was probably the most predictable substitution Anfield has ever witnessed.
What is concerning now is the frequency which we have seen Rodgers get his original team selection wrong. Changing the shape, players, or formation in-game is seen as tactical acumen. But there has to become a point when the question is asked why he fails to get his original selection right.
Set Pieces and Physical Presence – Liverpool’s Achilles Heel
Watching Liverpool has become predictable. “Death by football” may be a term coined by Rodgers in a positive manner but right now it’s looking more like suicide. Teams can do what West Brom did expertly – defend and allow possession, take advantage of our woeful defending of set-pieces (due in no small part to our lack of physical or tall players), and expose our centre-back’s weakness in dealing with big, strong centre forwards.
Rodgers told fans groups at the first meeting with them back in October that set-pieces was an area the team would need to pay extra attention to this season, given the limited squad resources at the time being discussed. If we are currently paying extra attention to set-pieces I sincerely worry when we aren’t.
A major area that needs looking at this summer is Liverpool’s abundant lack of a physical presence – not just in defence but right throughout the side. Height and strength are not the most important attribute for a footballer but in the English game each side needs their fair share of players who can hold off a strong centre forward, or a marauding midfielder.
It’s no coincidence that players of the ilk of Lukaka, Benteke, Mulumbu and Diame have excelled against Liverpool this season.
Rodgers may be aspiring to emulate Barcelona’s style of play, but this isn’t Spain and the Spanish game differs greatly from the Premier League – just ask Fernando Morientes. Here’s what the Spaniard had to say about his short stay at Liverpool:
“I wanted to return to what I knew and play the kind of football in which I felt more comfortable. I didn’t like the physical nature of the game in England or the referees who let more things go, and who blow for fewer fouls than they do here [in Spain]. A striker isn’t protected from rival defences there, and they gave me a really hard time.”
Pep Guardiola will take over at Bayern Munich this summer but you can bet that he won’t be looking to replicate how his team played at Barcelona. Each team, League and set of players requires different coaching and a style of play. The blueprint needs adapting to what is available (the players) and the environment (the match and League) it is being used within.
Rodgers has shown flexibility in the shape of his side since Sturridge’s arrival and needs to show the same flexibility to his overall approach.
Monday’s match was a microcosm for the season; dominate possession and chances, make changes that should have been in the original selection, lose due to failing to deal with set-pieces and a strong opposing centre-forward. The same mistakes equals the same results.