A noticeable change in the way that Liverpool have set themselves up so far this term under new boss Brendan Rodgers is the role that the full-backs have been asked to perform, pushing much higher up the pitch. But are the current crop at the club good enough to do the job justice?
In the opening day defeat to West Brom, both Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly were told to bomb on down the flanks whenever the midfield had the ball, which in the first half at least, was quite regularly. Their responsibilities are two-fold – they have to provide the width for the sideways passing of the likes of Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard in midfield, which is essential to the possession-based system effectiveness, while also being conscious of their defensive duties, something which both Neil Taylor and Angel Rangel did superbly last term.
During a period of transition such as this, there are bound to be bumps in the road to negotiate and Johnson could be accused in a left-back role that he’s becoming increasingly familiar with, as playing as an auxiliary left midfielder at times, leaving huge gaps behind him for the opposition to expose and exploit, but with the aim a more expansive style of play, these are necessary consequences.
During the 2-2 draw at Anfield against reigning champions Manchester City, with Jose Enrique still working his way back to full fitness, Martin Kelly was once again given the role on the right. While it may seem harsh to criticise him for Yaya Toure’s equaliser, with the fault resting largely at the door of flapping goalkeeper Pepe Reina, he’s far from technically proficient when compared to his continental counterparts in the same role.
The 22-year-old capped off a breakthrough season last term by making England’s Euro 2012 squad as a late addition to Roy Hodgson’s squad, but it’s long been assumed that his positional future lies at centre-half. He can best be bracketed as a ‘game and willing runner’, but he can look awkward at times when penned in tight spaces and his delivery from out wide, a key component of the role, can range wildly from exceptional to abysmal. He does however, represent a decent option to have in the squad.
The impact that this has on the centre-backs has also been evident so far, with both Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel struggling to an extent and committing a number of game-changing individual errors. When the full-backs push on higher up the pitch, they split, leaving a big gap between them to pass the ball and a central midfielder drops into the gap to cover.
Jose Enrique will of course return to the starting eleven when he’s fully fit, but for a Spaniard, he’s not the most technically adept around and at times, his passing can be wasteful. Rodgers will be hoping that he’s recovered from the serious dip in form that affected him towards the back-end of last season when he does return to the team. Nevertheless, with a great engine on him, a turn of pace and a decent cross, he should be able to adapt.
Another suggestion mooted this week by Rodgers was to move Stewart Downing backwards, in an attempt to prolong his stay at the club, into a left full-back role. After the success of youngster Raheem Sterling in recent weeks, Downing’s obvious struggles in his first year at the club have been well documented, and his time as an attacking player, particularly as one of a front three, may be coming to an end, but there’s no doubting that he has the technical ability to fill the position.
Both Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson are at impressionable ages still and as such, can be taught to learn the ethos that Rodgers is trying to implement into the club. A final decision will not need to be made on their respective futures until at least next season, and at present, they are little more than back-up should an injury crisis come about.
Teething problems are part and parcel of learning a new system and playing with a new style in mind. In terms of keeping possession, Johnson, Jose Enrique and Kelly could all improve, while the jury is still out on the second-choice right-back’s technical ability and long-term future in the role. Patience is required to see whether they can adapt to the dual demands of the position, but these are certainly questions for Rodgers to ponder further down the line as he seeks to make his mark at the club.
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