Does his imminent return threaten Carroll’s first-team future?

Liverpool look set to welcome the return of captain Steven Gerrard shortly after the England midfielder spent an extended period on the sidelines with a serious groin injury, but how will his return effect the shape of the side? With Suarez now unquestionably top dog, will Carroll be the one to make way in this Liverpool side’s ever-evolving line-up?

Kenny Dalglish has shown himself to be an extremely difficult manager to read when it comes to team selection since his return to the managerial seat at Anfield. While many may have questioned whether his ethos had become outdated during his time away from the game, he’s actually been rather proactive and versatile when it comes to individual selections and the formations he’s picked, with the Scot never afraid to mix it up and do the unexpected.

Liverpool, for my money at least, have performed best with Suarez as the focal point of their attack. Having a false number nine up top has brought the best out those around him.

With Andy Carroll in the side, though, Liverpool have looked, ponderous, slow in possession and lacking in ideas going forward. This is not entirely down to the Geordie front man alone, it’s just that his style of play seems to be in direct contrast to what gets the best out of the rest of the side at the moment.

Carroll still looks to be struggling for fitness on top of that and dare I say it, carrying an extra pound or two to truly trouble a defender in anything other than the air at the moment. While I may not place too much stock in the premature talk of him being a ‘flop’, he does look short of match fitness and a tad on the leggy side. Dropping him from the starting eleven may not be what’s best for him, but at the moment it may be what’s best for the rest of the side.

In his absence, Suarez took up the mantle and ran with it. The diminutive Uruguayan managed to bring the best out of Dirk Kuyt as an attacking force and the two’s link play has been simply superb at times. Although the Dutchman‘s starting place has most often been taken away at the expense of Carroll when he‘s started, he‘s both a hard-working defensive winger that offers a threat going forward and should be a regular starter.

Stewart Downing’s ability to deliver from both wings, coupled with his work ethic should ensure that his stay in the starting eleven is a prolonged one. He can frustratingly drift in and out of game at the moment, but on the whole, his form has been decent.

The middle of midfield is where the true selection headache lies, with two of Lucas, Henderson, Adam and the returning skipper Gerrard to pick from. It well and truly depends on whether Dalglish persists with Carroll and Suarez up top for the time being. Should he choose to drop Carroll for now, an extra spot opens up and with it, a place for Gerrard.

Lucas will most certainly get the nod due to his dependability both positionally and in the tackle, with the fact that he’s the club’s only recognised holding midfielder surely not going unnoticed. He’s been an ever-present since Dalglish’s return and the Scot is thought to rate him highly.

Charlie Adam always seems to make some sort of mark on the game and his passing ability from the middle and vision to spot the darting runs of Downing and Suarez further forward add an extra dimension to Liverpool’s attacking play.

Henderson offers versatility, dynamism and vision, however, he is yet to fully lay down his marker in the side. His versatility, while his biggest strength and part of the reason why Dalglish pursued his signature with such vigour in the summer, could also turn out to be his biggest hindrance. He lacks positional discipline, partly due to his inexperience and he as such, he lacks a discernible role in the side as yet.

Gerrard has shown himself to be a more than capable second-striker, particularly during his destructive partnership with Fernando Torres. He is perhaps the best one-on-one finisher in the country and he’d be ideally suited, in the years to come, to eventually becoming a predatory striker.

During the ill-fated Hodgson reign, Gerrard tried to reinvent himself as a Xabi-Alonso styled player. A deep-lying playmaker of sorts. The result was that in order to try and drop back and instigate play, Gerrard left a Gerrard-shaped hole further forward up the pitch to finish off these moves off. The arrival and emergence of Suarez has now changed this. So too has the arrival of Charlie Adam, though, and the need for Gerrard the quarterback is no more.

The England midfielder has often seen himself as a conventional central midfielder, but his best form of his career for both club and country has come either on the right wing, in a free role or as a second striker. He’s simply not the player he wants to be. The temptation to try the ‘Hollywood’ pass at every given opportunity means his strengths don’t suit those traditionally associated with that of a quarterbacking midfielder.

Liverpool are still a side going through a transitional phase. Results such as the deeply disappointing defeat to Spurs at the weekend are not uncommon through such a period and there will be more of them over the course of a long campaign.

The temptation to thrust an unfit Gerrard into the team will be great, but so far Dalglish has sensibly erred on the side of caution. However, there will come a time in the near future when Gerrard is raring to go and a decision will need to be made.

The club has often been derided in the past as a one-man or two-man team. With the emergence of Luis Suarez as a key figure over the last few months, Liverpool’s best performances have coincided with him as the lone front man.

Whether that makes them a one-man team again remains to be seen, but the Liverpool of old appears to have gone and in order to get the best out the talent available, Gerrard may have to adjust, albeit in a familiar role, to the new one-man team at the club, even if that means leaving £35m worth of striker on the bench for the foreseeable future.

You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/JamesMcManus1

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