Perhaps the most crucial issue for the future development of Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers is whether or not the club can hang on to Luis Suarez.
Despite a controversy-ridden spell on Merseyside, Suarez appears to feel at home at Liverpool, but as Steven Gerrard said last week, a player of his ability deserves to be playing in the Champions League.
Considering the poor start to the season, Liverpool’s rise to seventh has been fairly impressive, and indicates an upward trend likely to see the side continue to improve in the second half of the season. But finishing 4th (a feat more hotly contested than the title race itself) will still take some doing. Liverpool fans will hope a much-improved second half to the season will be enough to convince Suarez to hang around until at least next Christmas – when Champions League football might look closer – even if the club eventually finish 5th or 6th, but whether 2013/14 is a post-Suarez season or not, the Uruguayan will provide Brendan Rodgers with plenty of different options.
Should he decide to leave, Rodgers will receive a transfer fee allowing him to sculpt the playing squad he desires – although losing a player of such repute doesn’t send the best message to potential targets. But if Liverpool can retain the services of a player arguably peerless, excepting Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, then Liverpool’s manager can deploy him in a number of positions.
At times this season Liverpool have lined up with a 4-3-3 formation (with either a 2-1 or 1-2 midfield, although this morphs into a 3-4-3 when in possession, with the fullbacks pushing forwards, centre-backs splitting wide, and Lucas dropping in-between them), and at other times utilising a 4-2-3-1, but in either configuration Suarez has played the central attacking role, albeit as a false 9 with license to roam. The acquisition of Sturridge, however, along with the return of Fabio Borini, means Suarez can now be used in a variety of roles, depending on how he can best help the team and hurt the opposition.
At Ajax he often played wide-left in a forward three, and could easily do the same on the right, but against Norwich, Suarez took up a proto-free role, dropping between the lines and sometimes drifting out to the left. With Sturridge playing central and Downing on the right of attack, the Uruguayan was able to roam without unbalancing the side, thanks to Glen Johnson’s ability to play as both a full-back and winger at the same time.
Brendan Rodgers on MOTD3 (April 2012)
When Brendan Rodgers appeared on MOTD3 last season he was asked to pick his all-time Premiership XI, and opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Zola occupying the position in the middle of the three (between the strong, quick and athletic Henry and Ronaldo) and made a point of mentioning how he calls this position often referred to as ‘the hole’ the “Zola-zone”.
When Liverpool have played 4-3-3 with a 2-1 midfield this season, the player occupying the advanced position in that triangle has been either Gerrard, Shelvey, Henderson or the now departed Sahin, with more emphasis on covering ground and linking the midfield and attack than being an all-out playmaking attacker of the Zola variety.
Similarly, when adopting a 4-2-3-1 formation the player in the middle of that ‘3’ has been more rigid and workmanlike than someone tasked with being the side’s main creative force, but could it be that Rodgers’ reluctance to play someone in the Zola-zone has been more down to necessity than desire, with Suarez required as a finisher, and Suso – probably the next most Zola-like player on the books – not yet ready to take on such an important role?
Suarez is no slouch, but neither is he as quick as Sturridge, whose pace forces defences deeper, opening up more spaces between the lines of defence and midfield to be exploited. Liberated by the acquisition of Sturridge and return of Borini, the Uruguayan could now slot into the hole when Rodgers opts for a 4-2-3-1. It would require two midfielders behind him – perhaps Lucas and Henderson – who could compensate for his license to create and wander, as well as wide players willing to work hard and drop deep when necessary, but seeing to that, operating in the Zola-zone could yet prove to be Suarez’s best position.