What Has Gone Wrong For Liverpool?

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    Updated: November 17, 2014
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    To say that so far this season Liverpool have been a shadow of the team that took the Premier League by storm last year, pushing eventual champions Manchester City to the very last day of the season, would be quite the understatement. The reasons why the Reds have struggled this season have been widely discussed and the truth is that there is more than one factor that has to be considered.

    Nothing has clicked for the Reds this year; with the only exception being the demolition of Tottenham at White Hart Lane in August, which is also notable for being the last game in which the Daniel Sturridge appeared for the club.

    Sturridge was 2nd top goalscorer in the league last year behind his former clubmate, the recently departed Uruguayan nibbler, Luis Suarez. The goals that both of these players provided for the Reds last season have been sorely missed for Liverpool so far this season.

     

    Life After Suarez

     

    A number of fans, critics, former players and media commentators alike have attributed the bulk of Liverpool’s success last season solely down to Suarez, and the reason that Liverpool have struggled so far this season is because of his absence. Some have even suggested, or explicitly stated, that manager Brendan Rodgers was carried to success that belied his own ability on the coattails of Suarez’s phenomenal form.

    There is obvious merit in this theory, the results speak for themselves, however the fact that the team, formations and tactics seemed to have been tailored to get the best out of Suarez, all of which were decisions taken by Rodgers seems to have been widely ignored. Suarez, while always incredibly dangerous and never failing to give his all for the team, did not show anywhere near the same kind of goalscoring form in Rodgers first season in charge, nor under his predecessor Kenny Dalglish.

    The team, as under Rafa Benitez, when Fernando Torres was brought to the club, was set up with a system that was designed to get the best out of their star man, and that was exactly what Liverpool under Rodgers did last season. Suarez was provided with the tools to be successful by setting him up in a system, and with players (not all of Rodgers choosing as the entirely forgettable transfer window, which brought Aspas, Alberto, Cissokho et al. seemed to demonstrate) that would compliment his abilities and drive.

    The loss of Suarez was a huge blow to Liverpool, losing one of the top 5 players in the world would hurt any team (just ask Tottenham), and the struggle to replace him has hurt Liverpool severely so far. The players that were signed in the summer have not yet come close to replacing Suarez’s goal output, creativity, work rate or even his simple desire and determination. And this, when combined with a defence that seems even more porous than last year have made a number of games almost unwatchable for fans.

    The prime target to replace Suarez, and a player that has a similar approach, was Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez, the player who Suarez replaced at Barcelona. Sanchez chose to move to Arsenal instead of Liverpool, and he has already proven his worth on a number of occasions this season for the Gunners.

    One of the main criticisms from those looking from without, and considering the club’s activity in the transfer window, is that he seemed to be the only option that the club had in mind. Not getting Sanchez seemed to cause significant issues for the Reds going into the season.

     

    The Transfer Window

     

    One thing that needs to be considered is the impact of not only so many new signings but the adaptation period of these players not only to a new team, but also a new area and a new style of play. The players that were signed were heavily weighted towards those that could, and hopefully will, be potentially great: Emre Can, Javier Manquillo, Alberto Moreno, Lazar Markovic to name just a few, and with the current stockpile of impressive youngsters in the academy the future does indeed seem to look bright.

    The problem with this approach is that there is a significant danger of Liverpool being left behind. Manchester United, without any form of European football to offer were able to lure proven, world-class talent in the likes of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, in an effort to force themselves back into contention for Champions League places. Though they did seem to ignore the problems in the defence that had also plagued them last season.

    Whether this is because of FSG’s moneyball/return on investment policy of buying promising young players when it comes to transfers, an inability to offer the same wages as clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, or even the fact that the Reds, having missed out on the Champions League for an extended, are not the draw for top players that they used to be, is open to considerable debate. But it is clear that only time will tell whether the approach is the right one.

     

    System To Suit

     

    Another problem that Liverpool have faced so far this season is the lack of a settled system. Undoubtedly this has not been helped by the fact that Sturridge has missed so many games due to injury. A great number of fans believe that Liverpool should play a 4-4-2 diamond formation, and the fact that the misfiring Mario Balotelli has been used as a lone striker in a number of games this season, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to play to his strengths, has been the stick which has most been used to beat Rodgers with. This inflexibility, or perceived stubbornness of Rodgers in relation to the system that has been adopted this season has been a significant issue with fans.

    If you analyse the players that were signed in the summer, along with those already in the squad, it could be argued that Rodgers idea was to employ the 4-3-3 formation that brought such success at Swansea, or even the 4-2-3-1 that has been trialed, without a great deal of success at times this season. Liverpool appear abundant with wingers or attacking midfielders and yet the diamond formation would lead to a number of the players having not only to adapt to a new team and system, but also to a new and likely unfamiliar positional role.

     

    Why Always Balotelli

     

    Balotelli has become the scapegoat for all things wrong at Liverpool this season. People forget that he is still only a young man in spite of the fact that he has experience in the Premier League. He has just returned from a spell in his homeland with AC Milan, where the game is played at a significantly slower tempo, as with all players that period of adaptation is needed.

    Liverpool have not looked anywhere near as fluid as they did last season as an attacking force, partly down to the lack of Suarez no doubt, but also there does not seem to be the same sense of attacking urgency in possession and players who were perfectly in sync last season are on different pages this.

    Balotelli himself has possibly not helped his case by his demeanor on the field, he is perceived as lazy and that he doesn’t care. People have seemingly ignored the fact that he has been chasing back and defending on the edge of his own area in recent games. Yet his job as a striker is to score goals and the amount of touches that he has had in and around the opposition area is a greater concern to most.

    So far for Liverpool Balotelli has been seen dropping deep to receive the ball on a regular basis, holding it with his strength and skill and looking to bring others into play, though not always successfully. The problem in this is that he has been playing as the lone forward and as such when he drops deep and releases players like Sterling in behind then there is no one in the box to convert any chances that are created as a result. This is one of many reasons why many believe Balotelli would be better with a partner, and why the return of Sturridge could prove crucial to both Balotelli and Liverpool this season.

     

    Case for the Defence

     

    Liverpool scored a huge number of goals last season and they have not come close to doing so this. These goals masked the defensive deficiencies that many argue cost Liverpool the title. The most successful teams in the world build from the base of a solid defence, if you don’t concede you won’t lose, and yet the Reds seem to have become even worse this season than they were last.

    The player brought in by Rodgers to provide leadership at the heart of the defence, Dejan Lovren, has not started his Liverpool career particularly well and his positional naivety has already cost the Reds on a number of occasions this season. As has that of the much maligned Glen Johnson. Manquillo and Moreno have yet to settle and while Moreno in particular looks an excellent attacking threat, as seen by his excellent run and finish against Tottenham, this has been counterbalanced by costly mistakes in defensive areas.

    The stats for defensive errors do not make pleasant reading for Liverpool fans; the Reds sit at the very top of this particular table, with 16 errors already, 4 of which have led to goals. The question is whether this is also an issue of giving the players time to gel or whether those players that were brought in, or those who were not replaced, are good enough.

    It is impossible to discuss the Liverpool defence without considering goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Last season the Belgian stopper kept Liverpool in games with some excellent saves, yet there was still concern over an apparent lack of ability to command his area; as well as his poor distribution both of which have been considered as reason for the apparent panic in the defenders in front of him.

    Liverpool did not sign a goalkeeper to provide competition for Mignolet in the summer, even though most agree that they should have, and this lack of pressure on his position seems to have seen him go backwards. He has become a popular target for fans and commentators and many feel he should be replaced sooner rather than later.

     

    Gerrard and the Defensive Midfield Dilemma

     

    The Defensive Midfield position is key to any of the formations that Liverpool have tried to play this season, and yet this is an area that seems one of the weakest in the current side.

    Steven Gerrard has been an absolutely phenomenal player for Liverpool, many rank him as the best ever to play for the club, but few would argue that defensive midfield is not his best position. There have been countless examples over the last two seasons of teams placing a man-to-man marker on him (Shelvey, Downing and Weimann, to name just three) in games to nullify his effectiveness.

    In doing so the opposition are also able to get these players into space when they have the ball as seen in the cases of the players mentioned above, all of whom were able to drift away from Gerrard without him tracking their runs, providing an additional runner for the defence to worry about.

    Gerrard is probably the best passer of the ball in the Liverpool squad and even at his age he has shown that he is able to get around the field if required, though to be able to do so for 90 minutes a game every game, is probably asking a bit much of him now.

    Many have suggested that he operate in a position higher up the field where he can affect the game more, as he did when playing behind Torres in Benitez’s Liverpool side. A strong and dominant specialist defensive midfielder could then operate in front of the back four, providing the security and confidence that Matic does for Chelsea, and that Liverpool have been lacking since Javier Mascherano departed. A defensive midfielder of that mold is needed badly.

    In spite of all of Liverpool’s troubles so far this season they are not a million miles, or points, away from the top four. They have been helped by a poor start from many of their rivals in the race for Champions League places, and they are still in the Champions League proper with their fate in that competition in their own hands.

    With the return of Sturridge to the side and time given to the new signings to find their feet in the league, system and with their teammates then the future could still be bright for this young Liverpool side.

    Hopefully those fans who have been calling for ‘Rodgers Out’ will remember where we have been in the last five years and take the words of the club anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to heart. Even in this fast food generation of immediacy it’s worth remembering that the things that are worth having are worth waiting for.

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