As an injury-free Daniel Sturridge returned from Liverpool’s bench against West Ham on Saturday, to apply a killer touch to a Philippe Coutinho pass and rifle the ball into the visitors’ net for the deciding goal of the afternoon, Reds fans experienced an exciting glimpse into the club’s future; specifically, a fluid attacking trio of the prolific England international, the playmaking Brazilian and Man of the Match Raheem Sterling, who opened the scoring after 51 minutes.
Liverpool’s defensive performances have received plenty of criticism this term, despite a notable improvement in recent weeks, and a record of 27 goals conceded from 23 Premier League fixtures – particularly, their catalogue of costly errors from set pieces – when compared to the water-tight days of Rafa Benitez, speaks for itself.
But this has always been an inevitable weakness of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure, Liverpool conceding on average 1.2 goals per game under his leadership, and the fact of the matter is that the Reds are an attacking side. The only problem this season, in comparison to their 101 Premier League goals last term, is the bluntness of their proverbial spearhead; Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini finding just two league goals combined.
In the absence of now-Barcelona’s 31-goal assassin Luis Suarez and the injured Sturridge, making his first appearance since August during the 2-0 win over West Ham, Rodgers inevitably struggled to find a viable formula, resulting in a change in formation to a 3-4-3 and an adaption of roles for Sterling and Steven Gerrard, the former employed as an emergency front-man and the latter moved further up the pitch, away from the quarterback position that proved so effective last season.
But those twenty-odd minutes towards the end of the victory on Saturday, where Sturridge, Sterling and Coutinho linked up to lethal consequences, provided the perfect template to not only inject new life into the Reds’ top four bid this season, but also for the many campaigns to come at Anfield, providing the countless potential suitors for all three can be kept at bay.
All three are talented players within their own right. Sturridge, for example, is the quickest player to reach 30 goals for Liverpool since the 1890s, and his strike-rate for the Reds stands at an impressive 0.7 per game. He’s certainly the most clinical English striker of his select generation, at least in domestic terms, and currently one of the most dependable in the Premier League.
Likewise, Philippe Coutinho has really come to the fore in recent weeks after struggling in first half of Liverpool’s campaign. His creativity has been stifled by the absence of a penetrative threat like Sturridge or Suarez in front of him, averaging a rather ordinary 1.2 chances per match, but Sterling’s transition to a centre-forward from December onwards has resulted in the 22 year-old rediscovering his defining gift as a footballer – the ability to provide those killer passes. Since Sterling’s first outing as a striker against Manchester United, the Brazil international has claimed one goal, four assists and two Man of the Match awards in seven Premier League appearances.
And Raheem Sterling – a prospect that simply exhausts all superlatives. No youngster played a more crucial role in mission as important as a Premier League title bid at a club as monolithic as Liverpool than the England international last season, accordingly earning him Europe’s Golden Boy award for 2014. Despite the disparity in their styles, Steven Gerrard’s successor at Anfield, at least in talismanic terms, could well come in the form of the diminutive forward.
The synergy of their qualities, however, creates a far more supreme attacking threat; Sturridge the goal-scorer, Coutinho the supplier and Sterling somewhere in between, assisting on both fronts. Not only do they complement each other perfectly, as demonstrated against West Ham on Saturday, but their positional versatility and understanding of each others’ game allows them to operate with an incredible fluidity, that will become increasing harder for Premier League defences to stop the more they familiarise in the coming weeks. They can operate as flat three with wide-men, a 2-1 with Coutinho in behind or a 1-2 with Sturridge heading the attack on his own; a series of options I’m sure Rodgers, a particularly tinkering manager, with be exploiting regularly.
Perhaps they aren’t quite at the level of Manchester City’s combination of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Samir Nasri just yet, or Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Oscar, or for that matter, Liverpool’s Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling trifecta of netting prowess last season. But the current Reds trio certainly aren’t far behind, and it’s the manner in which they counterweight each other so naturally that particularly catches the eye. Such syncronisation, such delicately-achieved blend, can overcome any gulf in quality.
Most incredible of all however, is that Liverpool’s new-found front-line has an average age of just 22. From here, in theory at least, they can only continue to improve, which should strike fear in the hearts of any Premier League manager that happened to be watching on Saturday.