With three disappointing results coming on the back of Liverpool’s finest start to the season, it would be easy to feel downbeat and criticize the manager. Though the League Cup exit could not be made to look any better than it was, 10 points from the first 15 in the league itself should be still be seen as no mean feat so far. The Reds have beaten bogey team Stoke, and won away at Aston Villa, before putting away rivals Manchester United at Anfield, all three looked unlikely last season. That’s already a step forward.
However, on the back of the League Cup exit to United a few days ago, there are still some concerning aspects of Liverpool’s game. Besides League One side Notts County, the Reds have failed to score in the second half of any other game this season. That just means, if Brendan Rodgers’ side fail to get the early initiative, they will struggle to find that equaliser or winner in the second period.
Another concerning aspect from the past two games is how the opponents won it. Two corners, two goals. First at home against Southampton, Martin Skrtel gave away a needless corner when he should have cleared. The man marking Dejan Lovren could not outmuscle him and allowed the Croatian defender to head home. Then almost deja vu at Old Trafford a few days later, Kolo Toure could have done better to prevent the corner. Wayne Rooney swung the corner in, Steven Gerrard did not clear at the near post, Javier Hernandez lost Jose Enrique with some fine movement, and the Mexican duly finished in similar fine form.
At the other end, Liverpool seem to have no threat from set-pieces. Even with four huge central defenders starting against the Saints, they could not muster a goal from any set-piece, and against United every corner was cleared easily. Rodgers really needs to sort out Liverpool’s set-piece defending methods, maybe he just needs his vice-captain back in the side as soon as possible.
Positives from the Defeat
On the bright side, the return of Luis Suarez looks to have dampened the worry over Philippe Coutinho. The line-up Rodgers sent out against United was a prelude of what could be Liverpool’s strongest line-up. The manager has rather recognized the lack of quality wingers at the club so far, or that they are rather too young and inexperienced at this moment. He also needs to accommodate the three attacking talents in Suarez, Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge.
With central defenders overflowing and two wing-backs that could be considered the best in the league right now, what better way than to go 3-4-1-2 or 5-2-1-2? If allowed to send out his strongest team, don’t be surprised to see Daniel Agger and Toure and either Skrtel or Mamadou Sakho as the three at the back, with Glen Johnson and Enrique the wing-backs.
Gerrard and Lucas Leiva will get the holding positions, allowing the very talented wing-backs up-field. Coutinho will get his number 10 role while Sturridge and Suarez will do whatever they like up front, hopefully linking up with each other and the Brazilian “key master”.
Dealing with Sunderland
With Kevin Ball temporarily in charge following Paolo di Canio’s sacking, it seems like the all too familiar situation of a new guy coming in to rejuvenate the team and get them kicking off, with Liverpool likely to feel the brunt of it. Hopefully not, of course.
Suarez and Sturridge, with a game and a few days of training together behind them, should be even more likely to link up with each other. Suarez might have looked rusty in the United game, but the understanding with Sturridge could be seen. It’s a game of fine margins, so every pass being one inch off will see the move breakdown. The Uruguayan was guilty of several bad touches, but being more and more match fit after his first competitive outing, he should be much more himself against the Black Cats.
Unless Rodgers wants to utilize Raheem Sterling from the start on the wings, he should continue with this 3-4-1-2 formation. However, clearly Gerrard and Lucas needs more help muscle-wise in midfield. With Coutinho still out, I’d back Jordan Henderson to take up the number 10 role, albeit in the less creative, more energy way. Either him or a start for a true numer 10 in Luis Alberto, who shined in the reserves with a hat-trick recently. Victor Moses was good against United with his muscle, but his offensive-minded play will see him less willing to help the tired duo in midfield.
Andre Wisdom or Martin Kelly has to be the right-back in this one, the former definitely the favourite to start. He has the strength and pace to burst past opposition defenders on the wing, though lacking in technical ability Johnson has in abundance, Wisdom is clearly a better alternative to the veteran Toure.
Liverpool need to get back to winning ways tomorrow to prove their fine start was not a false dawn, and to show that they have finally got the resilience needed to challenge for top honours. Rodgers will also want to show his tactical awareness in this one, and will not want to be outsmarted by a temporary caretaker.
Sunderland are the bottom club right now, and while a result isn’t assured, a result is a must.