He’s back. Admittedly, it has been somewhat difficult to concentrate on the playing side of matters recently. An historic week has brought the long-awaited takeover to a welcomed conclusion. Rafa Benitez and David Moyes meanwhile, served up a real derby-day bonanza. Sadly, all fire-works were reserved for Merseyside’s equivalent of Jordan vs. Jodie, rather than an epic encounter on the field.
So a new era begins at St. James’s Park. It will do so with the return of Momo Sissoko after a three month lay-off. To say Liverpool have missed the gangly Malian would be somewhat untrue. One defeat in eleven Premiership games is hardly unsatisfactory. Steven Gerrard has benefited more than most. Moved into what many believe to be his best position, the skipper has excelled of late. Goals, assists, tackles, silky skills ‘¦ the full repertoire in evidence as Whiston’s finest emerges from the dreaded World Cup hangover. Though both will presumably feature at the weekend (due to Xabi Alonso’s suspension) one will surely have to make-way, or rather, make compromises, for the tail end of the season. Gerrard’s form has been exemplary, but can Benitez really leave Sissoko in reserve?
Before a nasty shoulder injury on a murky night in Birmingham, ‘˜the Boss’ had arguably been the reds’ player of the season. Even now, the Vieira comparison is perhaps a little far-fetched, but the former Valencia man has truly excelled since arriving at Melwood 18 months ago. Strong, energetic and intimidating, the very sight of our Momo eying-up a tackle brings a squint to opposition eyes. He reassures. An insidious attack will suddenly be stunted by the combative midfielder. This was never more apparent than during the Community Shield. His Achilles-heal is a scant scoring record. Indeed, the 21 year-old makes Jamie Carragher look prolific in this department. Nevertheless, Benitez, the team and the supporters all know the value of Sissoko. Quite simply, he must feature.
The dilemma this creates is rather like England’s Gerrard-Lampard saga. You cannot help but feel for the former. Possibly the best central midfielder in the world, he is first choice for neither club nor country. The previously vapid Jermaine Pennant has also improved of late, which could add to Gerrard’s woes. It will be extremely difficult for Benitez to dislodge the in-form wing-man now finally married with a period of form. This means Gerrad cannot be thrown-out wide to make-way for Sissoko and Alonso inside. How about the left of midfield? The captain was put there against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, performing only moderately it has to be said.
From whichever angle you look at it, Gerrard is a centre-midfield man. He can operate in various positions admirably, because of his quality. Yet, like Carragher before him, his vast capabilities seem to have cost him a permanent position.
One solution is a change in the overall formation. The Spanish Coach is a keen admirer of two holding players. Whilst in his native Spain, he usually fielded David Albelda and Ruben Baraja here in a supreme Valencia side. Sissoko and Alonso clearly hold this mantle at Anfield. Crucially though, the ultimate tactician has reverted to three centre-backs on numerous occasions this year. Between them, Daniel Agger, Sami Hyypia and Carragher have built-up a definite understanding, culminating in clean-sheets against Wigan and Watford amongst others. This new set-up has enabled an extra striker up-top, with Peter Crouch coming back into the fold competently. But what if that third striker was made into a fifth midfielder? With the insurance of his two pals behind him, Gerrard could adopt his favoured attacking midfield role centrally. This way, the punishment of what he himself calls ‘˜the graveyard shift’ would be avoided, as too would a controversial subbing. Sure, there are pros and cons to this argument. For one, would Rafa seriously consider facing the might of Barcelona with only three in defence? Unlikely. Of course it will vary according to opposition, but in principle, this is the only way to keep all content.
The very thought of Gerrad latching onto a Crouch knock-down, or bursting through the final-third, is enough to make Gordon Brown smile. His athleticism means he could always help-out defensively, while his finishing is often unerring.
Regardless of the incoming ‘˜Kop Football Limited’ ‘“ Liverpool boast three of Europe’s finest centre-midfielders. Certainly, specific areas must be improved, but not this one. Is 3-5-2 the answer? We may never discover. But, my opinion is summed up in the most unashamed pun Kopites will hear all February – for now ‘¦ it’s the best the reds can get.