Whilst there’s pretty much no argument to be had against the idea that top level sports is very much a results-based business, the truth of short-term performances can often be badly clouded and misconstrued because of lucky, positive or unlucky, negative scorelines. So when Brendan Rodgers opted to go for an unchanged team in Liverpool’s second Premier League game following a hugely dire 1-0 win at Stoke, it was, to put it nicely, a rather questionable choice.
They did go on to win the match at home to Bournemouth too, after Christian Benteke got his first goal for the club (which should’ve been ruled out for an offside from Philippe Coutinho), but it was another hardly convincing performance. Sure, it’s only a couple of games in and it’s good for them to have the points on the board at least, but it’s important to recognise what needs to change or be improved on at this stage. And, despite it arguably being the strongest area of their team on paper, the midfield area is the one which has shown the potential to be the most problematic so far.
Initially set up for both games in a mixture of a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 shape that had Coutinho regularly dropping from the number 10 position, Jordan Henderson, who sat deepest of the two most of the time, and James Milner towards the base of the midfield together showed few signs of working properly. Whilst the typically successful balance in an effective midfield orientates around the use of at least one holder or controller, both of the England internationals predominantly thrive in a box-to-box role; meaning that instead of having both be able to constantly provide supporting runs to burst into space or to break the opposition’s lines, each regularly had to forget their natural game and sit back to cover for the other.
It’s a situation where only one – if either – of them can actually be used to their full potential in attacking (as well as pressing, because of the enhanced distance from deep) phases. It was also a partnership which proved detrimental in build-up phases too, and, coupled with the lack of a good ball-playing centre-back (Mamadou Sakho, anybody?), there was nobody in the first and second thirds who could develop possession at any real tempo. For a team with attackers who have regularly proved they thrive in a high speed system, that’s far from ideal. Stoke found it easy to keep their shape, Liverpool’s final third players were way too predictable, and chances were few and far between.
When Emre Can came on for Adam Lallana in that game around the hour mark, however, things changed. The midfield shape became a much more distinct ‘1-2’, with Coutinho moving towards the left, Jordon Ibe to the right, and Can operating as the deepest midfielder behind Henderson and Milner. As someone who’s not only a more secure defensive presence but also a player who’s excellent in build-up phases, the German’s ability to vary his positions, open up his body quickly and provide vertical passes gave both of the other two midfielders the freedom to push on at will.
This enhanced speed of play and the threat of an additional runner to look out for forced Stoke back and gave Liverpool more space to utilise – which Coutinho particularly made the most of to score the only goal of the game from long range. It was a far from deserved win, but Can (alongside good performances from the two new full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez) and the systematic changes which were made were undoubtedly a bright spark. Which, again, made it strange that Rodgers opted to start with the same set of players against Bournemouth at first.
However there were, at least, a couple of more subtle alterations made to the imbalanced system. After a quite heavily right-centric performance for a good portion of the Stoke game, due to the right-footed Gomez rarely pushing forward from left-back and Lallana (then Coutinho after the change) continuously moving infield from the same flank, the positions of the three attacking midfielders swapped. Coutinho moved out to the right, although as could be expected he drifted inside constantly and gave Clyne space to push up the line, whilst Lallana went central and Jordon Ibe took up the position on the left and offered a little more consistent width.
The common theme of the first-half also saw something of a loose midfield diamond begin to occur, partly because of those factors and partly due to Henderson again taking a more reserved role and sitting as the restricted lone pivot, whilst Coutinho, Lallana and to a lesser extent Milner played in more advanced roles. This aggressive positioning through the middle pushed Bournemouth back, and also created a pretty easy numerical dominance through the centre, ensuring that a good level of control emerged – despite a shaky start in the opening 15 minutes or so.
These small changes gave Liverpool a bit more variety about their game and set the tone of an improved (albeit still largely unconvincing) performance after they grew into the match, and there was a slightly greater piece of emphasis on the more suitable ‘1-2’ midfield shape than there was for the first hour of the Stoke game.
The last 30 minutes of the first-half were, to an extent, a case of what seems like the potentially right system with the wrong personnel. Henderson did quite well in the deeper role, especially with the consideration that he was playing with a knock, but just like against Stoke his powerful, vertical, creative side (as demonstrated by the wonderfully-crossed assist for the goal, for example) wasn’t utilised to its full extent.
When Can came on a few minutes into the second-half for the injured Henderson though the ‘1-2’ shape became more effective for the second game in a row; and Milner had even more licence to roam forward, often towards the right half-space. Lallana took up similar positions on the inside left, and these two were both able to get more involved in the attack. Can again showcased his ability to both defend and help Liverpool vary their build-up play with different positional patterns here, offering a much more natural fit as a lone pivot than Henderson did.
Lallana effectively took up some of the positions that Henderson – although Henderson would move into them from a deeper position at pace instead – would have roamed into had there been somebody else in the pivot role, but really in both games he (the same applies to Jordon Ibe) has done little to justify a place in the starting team ahead of Can; who’s been one of Liverpool’s most consistent players when he’s played since joining the club last season. And when the change to a more distinct midfield three could potentially do so much to help not only their defensive set-up and build-up play but also get the most of Henderson, it seems quite a logical thing to do.
On top of the two English players being used to their maximum in attacking phases, the system with the three of them together could also do the same for Can. In a similar kind of way to how Henderson and Milner do it, Can is a frightening presence when he carries the ball forward, and with the defensive discipline of the other two to cover on the occasions that he does push on there’s real potential for a hugely effective three-way midfield rotation system there.
Whether that happens to its full extent or not, however, Can’s presence in the middle of the park behind Henderson and Milner was vital to helping to solve the various issues which were evident in the two league games so far – and it could well be a long-term solution.
Looking better with a definitive three in midfield instead of two, whether simply because of the available personnel or due to some form of coaching fault, is something which has consistently been the case under Rodgers in four-man defensive systems. The problem, perhaps, lies in the temptation to try and get away with two in order to accommodate the wide range of attacking options at his disposal; especially when Roberto Firmino regains full match fitness and Daniel Sturridge recovers from his injury.
Avoiding that urge and going with the three, though, is likely to be the key to achieving a suitable balance throughout not only the midfield but the whole team itself. The lack of it has been an issue for the last two seasons, and without huge levels of firepower to go some way towards covering over the cracks as in 2013/14, achieving unity in both defence and attack is a necessity in order for Liverpool to progress.