Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers admission that new signing Daniel Sturridge will be utilised through the middle rather than out wide will have a direct knock-on effect on where top scorer Luis Suarez starts from, but is this tactical change really a good idea?
The Uruguayan forward has been in sensational form in a central attacking role in Rodgers’ preferred 4-3-3 system so far this campaign, hitting 19 goals across all competitions, with 15 of those coming in the Premier League, not to mention the rather nifty total of eight assists. That last statistic is perhaps the most telling, along with this one courtesy of Opta, that Suarez has created 57 chances already this season; something is clearly working and to adopt the old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Just to put that stat into context, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Leighton Baines, three players all playing in teams higher up the table at the moment and who we could all agree have been having very good seasons from an individual viewpoints have created 47 chances in 18 games, 50 chances in 20 games and 67 chances in 21 games respectively – Suarez is in pretty exalted company, while also supplying the lion’s share of the team’s goals.
Rodgers stated before signing Sturridge that the player had been granted no assurances during negotiations that he would be afforded a central striking role, but after the completion of the deal, appeared to change tack somewhat, addressing the positional conundrum: “Daniel’s best position is as a central striker, and I think the best role for him will be straight through the middle, with his pace.
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“Where will Luis play then? He’ll play for the common good of the team. But don’t tell me it’s a problem – it’s never a problem having good players.
“Wherever Luis plays, he will make the same movements and find the space, because he is a world class player. There is not just one way to play 4-3-3.
“You can have one up and two wingers, a floating nine like Luis. Or you can have one like Daniel playing central, two in and around him narrow, with the full-backs bombing on.
“When Luis was at Ajax he played in behind as a number 10, in between the lines, and he played as a reverse winger from the left. So he wasn’t quite out wide, he was tucked in round the corner.
“I spoke with Luis at length on it a number of times. This has been in the plan for a few months. The principles of your game are based on your players.”
Of course, the tactical versatility and flexibility of the duo probably means that wherever Suarez plays he will have some sort of impact on the game, just because he’s such a busy, active presence, both as a playmaker and finisher, but the fact that he’s such a livewire and can occupy both centre-backs at once on his own does change the complexion of Liverpool’s attack if he’s shifted out wide, even if he has a mandate to drift inside. Can Sturridge be expected to do the same? It’s a tough ask.
They are very different players – Sturridge will make runs in behind the back four, just like he did repeatedly during a lively debut performance against Mansfield in the 2-1 FA Cup third round victory last weekend, while Suarez will drop deeper into that false nine position. One gives you a bustling, powerful presence up top, the other is more of a team player. It would be a mistake to keep a fixed favourite for the central striking role and it should be judged more by the opposition that they come up against between now and the end of the season.
When the club eventually completes their pursuit of Tom Ince, which will be tied up at one point or another during the January transfer window, the club looks as if it has some real attacking depth now, with Suarez, Sturridge, Fabio Borini, Stewart Downing, Raheem Sterling, Oussama Assaidi and Suso to choose from. The first choice trio looks likely to be a Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling.
The way Suarez can drift in off the flank does mean there are shades of Thierry Henry about his style of play and the flip side of the shift is that with a fixed focal point, they could cause havoc in tandem with one another, with Suarez essentially given a free licence to roam and drift about the pitch as he sees fit. This could potentially make him even more difficult to mark, while Sturridge’s pace can clearly stretch teams on the break, leaving a fluid, attacking system in place.
Nevertheless, it’s a bold move from Rodgers, and tinkering with a winning formula, particularly one so instrumental and responsible for a large percentage of the team’s goals, is something of a gamble. You can see the logic behind it and the squad depth and first eleven is in a far better position now than it was at the start of the month, with the manager finally having some options to choose from rather than a rigid plan, but it remains to be seen whether it will have an effect on the club’s star performer.
That it’s even open for debate highlights that perhaps the best course of action for the time being would be to grant Sturridge the opportunity out wide to build up his fitness and form before contemplating shifting their only world-class talent away from a role he’s truly thrived in this season.