Why Liverpool are finally playing the squad game

Liverpool will begin their pre-season preparations in just under one week’s time with a friendly against Chinese outfit Guangdong Sunray Cave. The match, which marks Kenny Dalglish’s first non-competitive fixture since returning to the managerial hotseat earlier this year, will provide the Scot and his side with their first opportunity to answer several burning questions.

For the first campaign in living memory, Liverpool will seemingly enter a season without most fans and pundits fully aware of what the side’s strongest line-up and formation is. For the best part of two-and-a-half seasons between mid-2007/08 and the end of 2009/10, former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez religiously employed a distinct and identifiable 4-2-3-1 shape. This formation, of course, was engineered to extract the best from the talismanic duo of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

Gerrard, who was often accused of lacking the discipline to operate effectively in a conventional central midfield berth, thrived with the diminution of defensive duties and was allowed to roam in the part of the pitch in which he is most dangerous. Torres, a player who seems ill at ease with the idea of playing alongside another out-and-out centre forward, was deployed as a lone striker, and benefitted immensely from the movement and precision of Gerrard.

Whilst the use of this system was often devastatingly effective, the absence of the system’s key ingredients, be it Gerrard, Torres, or midfield fulcrum Xabi Alonso, frequently left the side desperately short. Dirk Kuyt often deputised admirably as centre-forward during Torres’ many absences, but he lacked the acceleration and clinical finishing ability to thrive as the side’s spearhead. Similarly, many attributed Gerrard’s mediocre campaign in 2009/10 to the way in which he directly suffered as a result of Alonso’s exit.

Bereft of a true deep-lying playmaker and the departed Torres, Dalglish was forced to reconsider how to assemble his side upon his return to the Anfield dugout. Whilst critics feared his time away from the game may have rendered him outdated and irrelevant, the 59-year-old (with the assistance of Steve Clarke) has proven himself to be an innovative and adaptable modern-day tactician. In addition to using 4-2-3-1, Dalglish also briefly (and effectively) used 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and various permutations of the aforementioned shapes.

Dalglish’s movement in the transfer market thus far would also seem to suggest that he is assembling a squad with tactical flexibility in mind. Jordan Henderson, the only player to have made the move to Anfield so far this summer, is adept at playing in central midfield and out on the right. Scottish midfielder Charlie Adam, the next player set to move to Anfield, operates mainly as a deep-lying playmaker, although he could foreseeably be used on the left of a narrow midfield four. Reports in the media this week suggest that Liverpool have tabled a bid for Aston Villa’s Stewart Downing too. Downing, although predominantly used as a left-winger, has appeared for his current club in a more central role as well.

It seems as though Dalglish and his staff have fully embraced the idea of modern football as a ‘squad game’. Whilst certain members of his playing personnel, such as Gerrard and Uruguayan Luis Suarez, will almost certainly be guaranteed a consistent starting berth, the anticipated depth of Dalglish’s squad will ensure a healthy degree of competition and rotation next season. This will allow the Scot to adapt his personnel and shape to suit different opponents, and provide less opportunity for opposing teams to second-guess his starting XI.

For far too long, people have criticised Liverpool’s supposed lack of strength in depth and overreliance upon certain members of their squad. Thanks to the work of Dalglish and his staff, these statements should no longer apply.

What do you think is Liverpool’s strongest starting XI? Let me know below or on twitter at www.twitter.com/zarifrasul