Juxtaposing their 6-1 massacre at the Britannia on the final day of last season, Liverpool will be counting their blessings this week after escaping Stoke City with a 1-0 win on Sunday.
But in a lethargic, uneventful and frankly drab 90 minutes decided by an early goal of the season contender from Philippe Coutinho, defying the boredom like a crimson rose spouting from a bed of horse manure, there were plenty of signs suggesting Liverpool’s Plan A for the 2015/16 Premier League campaign doesn’t necessarily work. Although one game doesn’t make a season, there were warnings Brendan Rodgers can’t afford to ignore.
Powerful target man Christian Benteke represents Liverpool’s biggest expenditure this summer – and indeed, Rodgers’ biggest since becoming Anfield boss in 2012. The Reds don’t have the best history when it comes to towering, old-fashioned centre-forwards; from Emile Heskey to Rickie Lambert, with Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll in between, none have managed a Premier League strike-rate better than one-in-four for the Merseysiders; and the Belgium international too looked a little out of place against the Potters.
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Of course, Benteke is a much more complete striker than many of the aforementioned names, with impressive feet and surprising mobility for such a predominantly physical presence, and as much as Liverpool must adapt to the kind of service he craves, the 24 year-old must work on the less attritional aspects of his game to suit their style of play.
The concern, however, is that the Reds did try to play to Benteke’s strengths at the Britannia; twelve crosses and 60 long-balls (a slight increase on their 57 average per match last season); but nothing quite paid off. Wide men Jordan Ibe and Adam Lallana managed just one accurate cross between them, whilst none of the Liverpool midfield were close enough to ghost in for second balls bouncing off the Belgian’s 6 foot 3 frame.
Top end Premier League stars are a malleable bunch. Although those crosses aren’t connecting and those second balls aren’t dropping right now, they could do in a month’s time.
Yet, throughout Liverpool’s squad there’s an abundant lack of natural width and crossing prolificacy; Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana all prefer inside channels to outside ones, whilst right-back signing Nathaniel Clyne managed just 18 accurate crosses per match last term and didn’t attempt a single one against Stoke. Rather interestingly, the Reds’ most consistent crosser on Sunday was James Milner – who moved to Anfield, amongst other reasons, to reinvent himself as a centre-mid.
With three weeks of the summer window still to go, it’s worth finding a solution – Real Madrid’s Denis Cheryshev, an old-school touchline hugger, particularly coming to mind.
Likewise, although Coutinho’s wonder goal proved the decider against Mark Hughes’ side, the real turning point came when Emre can entered the fray from the bench just after the hour mark, with Rodgers changing the extra man in midfield from a No.10 to a holding player. Not only did it push the Reds further afield, creating that width Benteke needs, but it also gave Milner and Jordan Henderson integral license to roam.
Both are fantastically well-rounded midfielders who have proved successful in diverse roles throughout their careers. Yet both are naturally progressive players and they struggled to prove that until Can’s arrival, spending the majority of the previous hour plugging the gaps left behind by bombing full-backs or screening just in front of Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel. Although their work-rate and tenacity is encouraged, it’s always served them better going forward than towards their own goal, evident enough their shared eleven goals and 16 assists in the Premier League last season.
Adding Can to the equation made all the difference; suddenly, Milner and Henderson were getting into the advanced positions they’ve become synonymous with over the last few years, whilst the German international held ground and swept up in simple yet effective style. In my opinion, this should be the formula to Liverpool’s engine room for at least the next few games – it’s technical, powerful and balanced.
Of course, Brendan Rodgers is a tinkerer – perhaps the most serial tinkerer in the Premier League. There’s still question marks over his ability to manage a club as big as Liverpool and his record in the transfer market, but you have to give the man credit for how he turned the Reds’ 2014/15 campaign around by changing formation to a simply inspired 3-6-1 – a system that’s hardly been seen in the Premier League since the days of Glenn Hoddle.
The problem last season, however, was that the change came too late; by the time Rodgers’ boys had got to grips with the 3-6-1 in December, their top four hopes had already evaporated. Thus, it may be the first game out of 38, but if Liverpool’s Plan A isn’t producing the desired performances, the gaffer needs to change things up sooner rather than later. Liverpool’s Anfield clash with Premier League new boys Bournemouth next Monday certainly provides the right conditions to try something little different.