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Stoke 0–1 Liverpool: 5 Talking points – incl. Lovren, Henderson and Rodgers’ tactics

Following Liverpool’s battling win at the Britannia Stadium, Ben Twelves picks five discussion points from the opening weekend success.

STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 9, 2015: Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Correia celebrates scoring the first goal against Stoke City during the Premier League match at the Britannia Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool opened the 2015/16 campaign with a hard-fought, sweet 1-0 victory on their return to scene of the horror show of four months ago.

Philippe Coutinho’s screamer four minutes from time proved to be enough to hand Liverpool their first three points of the season at the first time of asking – going some way to avenging that defeat.

It was a sensational strike from the Brazilian on an afternoon of mixed fortunes for Brendan Rodgers’ side, and here are the discussion points from the welcome victory.

 

Back Four Impress with Welcome Clean Sheet

STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 9, 2015: Liverpool's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet applauds the supporters after the 1-0 victory over Stoke City during the Premier League match at the Britannia Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A notoriously difficult place to go meant the Reds needed a solid defensive performance at the Britannia Stadium – and they delivered.

Under pressure from the lively Mame Biram Diouf throughout and a Stoke side dangerous from set pieces, the Reds back line stood firm clearing lines well, and met the numerous challenges head-on in a composed manner.

The much-maligned Dejan Lovren turned in a very impressive performance – making the most clearances (12) of any Red – and the commanding Croatian looked a different man from the one who endured a miserable debut campaign.

Centre back partner Martin Skrtel endured shaky moments but was solid enough for the most part, while composed full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez – who defended especially well against the physical threat of nuisance, Jon Walters – both won 100% of their tackles, epitomising their good work.

The four worked impressively as a unit when defending crosses and long-balls, but more importantly in open play they retained shape and defended strongly to keep pressure off Simon Mignolet and Stoke at bay.

 

4-1-4-1 Starting Shape Experiment Proves Fruitless

STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 9, 2015: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers and assistant manager Sean O'Driscoll during the Premier League match against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A number of systems were predicted for Rodgers to use at the Britannia, but not many saw the 4-1-4-1 that Liverpool took to the pitch in being the choice.

And it proved a wholly uninspiring move, with Liverpool disjointed and struggling for any kind of forward momentum and attacking purpose from Anthony Taylor’s first whistle.

Henderson – in the deep-lying role shielding the back four – directed and dictated, but struggled to impose himself in the way he has over the last two seasons.

With the midfielder’s progressive running limited and with the Reds far too flat in the shape, Christian Benteke cut an isolated figure.

While a change of personnel aided the second half up-turn, it wasn’t until Rodgers switched away from the spontaneous starting formation to a suited 4-3-3 that his side really took control of the game – with the XI looking far more assured and confident in the system.

The experiment proved unproductive, and Liverpool’s sluggish display for 63 minutes has shown Rodgers that it’s 4-1-4-1 is a formation best left alone.

 

Jordan Henderson Deep-Lying Proves Not to be the Answer

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 22, 2015: Liverpool's Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring the second goal against Southampton during the FA Premier League match at St Mary's Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool’s skipper found himself in a new role within the 4-1-4-1 shape, but it clearly proved not to be the one he should play.

Henderson – anchoring in front of the back four – performed adequately in the role where he swept up well and provided defensive cover, but his influence on Liverpool’s play was far too limited and proved a key reason behind the lack of first half threat and creativity.

With forward running restricted, the captain was unable to support developing play from deep, and his all-round productivity was negated behind Coutinho and James Milner.

Once the change of shape sufficed – with Emre Can coming into the defensive midfield role in 4-3-3 – Henderson was able to bring energy to the midfield with Milner to maraud and join in while Can watched guard, and it paid dividends with the Reds enjoying far more control.

Instantly the 24-year-old’s running got him in behind and created a chance for Benteke, and immediately Liverpool enjoyed more dominance and purpose in their play with options ahead of the ball.

With the upturn of performance following his move forward, Henderson showed he’s not the answer for Liverpool’s defensive midfield question, with his quality needed higher up the pitch.

 

The Brazilian Magician Produces the Moment of Magic

STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 9, 2015: Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Correia scores the first goal against Stoke City during the Premier League match at the Britannia Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It looked destined for a goalless draw with the clock ticking down, but Philippe Coutinho stepped up as he did time and again last season to fire the Reds to three points.

It was far from a great overall afternoon for the 23-year-old who was on the periphery of the game for large parts and uncharacteristically wasteful on the ball – he posted a lowly pass completion of just 71% – but like on numerous occasions before, he stepped up to make the difference.

From Gomez’s ball into feet, the Brazil international spun superbly, before rifling a trademark curling drive into the top corner – as seen against Southampton, Bolton and Man City last season – to send the travelling Kop wild.

It was a sensational strike from Coutinho – who was about to be withdrawn following a quiet performance – but the Brazilian showed why he is the special player he is, by coming up trumps at a time when it looked so unlikely.

It was a piece of magic from the magician and hopefully the first of many for the season ahead.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ In-Game Management Provides Catalyst for Victory

STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 9, 2015: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers and Stoke City's manager Mark Hughes during the Premier League match at the Britannia Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The Liverpool boss didn’t help his side enjoy the best opening 66 minutes to a season, but his changes thereafter provided the catalyst for opening weekend success.

Withdrawing the unproductive Adam Lallana for Can and switching to a 4-3-3, allowing Henderson and Milner to recreate the partnership of pre-season, proved an inspired move with the game swinging firmly in Liverpool’s favour.

Rodgers watched on as his side dominated the final 25 minutes with the team looking far more comfortable, settled and purposeful in the more familiar shape, and instantly openings began to arrive.

The energy and direction in Liverpool’s play – with the addition too of the tidy Roberto Firmino – helped open the game up and ultimately allowed for Coutinho to produce the match-winning moment of magic.

Rodgers contributed heavily to the humiliation of four months ago with a poor selection, but this time it was the Northern Irishman’s progressive and positive changes that sparked a brilliant victory.

 

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