The write-up does not intend to evaluate Liverpool’s transfer strategy, FSG’s fix with money ball or Dalglish’s inclination towards British players. The author does not claim to know anything that the reader does not know! Rather, this is an attempt to decrease the complexity on player movements on the basis of available data and to derive logical implications out of the different available sets. The conclusions drawn, by any intent and purpose, do not endorse any player or approach on the basis of human emotions. This is pure data crunching, so do not read further if you are a romantic!
It’s of utmost importance for the management of any football club to have a clear vision of the playing system that it wishes to use. Only then would the club be able to build a transfer strategy and negotiate deals on the basis of priorities that they attach to the targets. This, of course, does not stand correct for the likes of Real Madrid, Man City and Chelsea where the abundance of commercial resources allow the management to go wrong! But in case of Liverpool, where the future depends on the revenue that the club would generate, the margin of error is minimal and a single bad signing could make all the difference!
Therefore, to understand the movement of the club in the transfer window, instead of analyzing the tabloids and reading between the lines, why not take the bottom-up approach; understanding the actual requirements on the pitch that would eventually dictate the player movements and further help establish the key pieces in the puzzle.
Welcome to the desert of the real
With the arrival of Charlie Adam, Liverpool currently poses a crop of 12 midfielders in the senior team. Together, these players would be fighting for 4 to 5 places in the starting 11, depending upon the system the manager chooses to deploy. The pertinent question is whether Liverpool would play the old English style 4-4-2, or the European 4-3-3 that could also be altered in to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1?
Recently, Liverpool’s reserve team coach, Pep Segura, brought to notice Liverpool’s coaching model throughout its youth setup. According to him, the players in the academy, right from the under 15s , the under 17s, the under 18s to the under 20s, play in the 4-2-3-1 system. The method is somewhat similar to that followed at Barcelona and should undoubtedly produce fruitful results when the players from academy get ready for the first team action.The Liverpool senior team under Dalglish also employed a similar system from January to May, last season. Although 4-2-3-1 was the primary formation that was used by Liverpool, injuries and suspensions and at other occasions, the opponent’s tactics, also saw the players assemble into a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3, at times. The results were fruitful as the team managed to reach to the 6th spot from the abysmal 13th Roy Hodgson had left them at.
Clearly, there is no reason to believe that the manager would shift to the 4-4-2 system abandoning the 4-2-3-1; something that has been speculated over fan communities over the previous few weeks. Even Liverpool’s coaching setup emphasizes on the management’s willingness to harbor a crop of players that are apt to the more European three-man midfield, which would almost always dominate a two-man midfield in a 4-4-2.
Perhaps, we are asking the wrong questions…
Keeping this into account, it is easy to deduce that the Liverpool midfielders would be fighting for 5 places amidst the six (excluding 4 defenders), one of which would always be occupied by a striker. For the ease of analysis, let’s include Luis Suarez in the set of midfielders, largely due to the versatility of the player. We can conveniently drop Milan Jovanovic and Christian Poulsen who are pretty much on the verge of an exit. Also, to reach to a definitive conclusion we cannot neglect the possibility of the arrival of Juan Mata or Stewart Downing who have been relentlessly linked to the club.
So, that leaves us with a list of 13 players that would fight for the five places. Arranging these players, according to their Primary Craft/ Preferred Position, on a relative scale to one another, would help us identify the set of players that would make it to the first eleven and the set of players that could act as backup and fill in when required. The analysis would also help to establish the ones that are clearly not required at Melwood.
To start with, Steven Gerrard is placed as the primary CAM. The captain could also be used as a secondary Right Attacking midfielder (RAM) or in a deeper role, either as a defensive player or a playmaker. Gerrard’s lack of discipline in terms of positioning, is may be his only shortcoming that places him at the same scale with Spearing as a defensive midfielder. Overall, the former England captain plays at his best when allowed to roam free behind the striker or at the right side of midfield.
Chalrie Adam, without much doubt, will start as the deep play-maker along with Lucas, who is the best defensive midfielder available at the moment. Notably, Aquilani also features in the ‘starting’ column, but this does not suggest that both the players will start for the team rather only emphasizes on the relative capability that Aqulani holds as a playmaker when compared to Charlie Adam. Same holds true for Meireles, who although is comparable to Gerrard in the Central Attacking Role, will be left out for the same position when the final eleven are picked.
Meireles can also operate on the left or on the right if required, but may not be the best candidate for the spot in the presence of Jordan Henderson and Dirk Kuyt. Henderson, who stands fifth in the tally of maximum key passes made by a player, could be placed at the an equal pedestal with Dirk Kuyt, who compensates his loose first touch with his strong work ethic .
Joe Cole, understandably stands one spot below Kuyt and Jordan for the Right Attacking Midfielder spot. Cole for that matter can also be used as a CAM, and should be equally effective as Jonjo Shelvey at the position. Suarez would automatically qualify for the left attacking spot and Downing /Mata could also start in the absence of Suarez or if the Uruguayan is deployed as a striker in place of Andy Carroll.
The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy….
While the above matrix helps us identify the relative capabilities of players at different positions, going a step further and eliminating the 3rd, 4th and 5th level of available skills and switching the context from the player’s perspective to the perspective in terms of Positions, would provide us the key players that would be front runners in the coming season.
The Matrix is pretty much self-explanatory, and makes much more sense than the previous table. Adam is the primary playmaker in Dalgish’s plans, the table ascertains the fact (remember this result was derived from the relative primary skill set, and not what the manager likes or dislikes). Gerrard is the best player in the free attacking role behind the main Striker and Kuyt would be preferred to Henderson, at least in the beginning of the season. Lucas will be the main defensive mid and Suarez at the left and Carroll at the central striker position, would start for the reds.
The starters were easy to identify and even a 12 year-old Liverpool fan could have done that; however, the whole exercise actually allows us to separate the grain from the Chaff; Identify the main supporting bodies that become all the more important come February.
Alberto Aquilani, Raul Meireles and Jordan Henderson are the players that could actually decide the fate of Liverpool. In an ideal world, Liverpool should retain both Aquilani and Meireles but that’s easier said than done. Financially, the club will most probably cash-in on one of them. This could lead to an Interesting situation; as the data in the second and third column will change and new entries would popup. For example, if Meireles is sold, that would destroy the cover at two positions and would lead to the inclusion of either Joe Cole or Shelvy as the third option after Aquilani, at the CAM spot.
Few Implications of selling either Aquilani or Meireles –
1. Selling Aquilani will eliminate the creative cover. Any match that Adam misses would expose Henderson as the deep playmaking role. On the other hand, if he does stay, the team would possess two very good creative players that could help Dalglish press the pass and move button, more often. Aquilani could also cover for Gerrard when required. Although he may not add the ‘kick’ to the midfield that the captain does, but the pass and move mantra is more about making short intelligent passes and keeping possession in the final third, something which the Italian is pretty capable of producing.
2. Raul Meireles was central to the resurgence of Liverpool under Dalglish, the Portuguese international was instrumental in keeping possession and making short intelligent passes. His flexible nature allowed the manager to play him at any spot in the midfield specially covering for Gerrard, who was out injured towards the end. However, that was previous season and Liverpool did not have the likes of Henderson and Adam in its ranks. The arrival of these two players has somewhat diluted the requirement of a player who could fill in at different positions. It’s more about specialists now!
3. The coloring indicates the relative dependency of player’s health and form with the team performance (the team would be more dependent on the colored ones) . Aquilani is more injury prone compared to Meireles and hence, probability of losing the Italian in midseason is more than that of losing Meireles. However, the Liverpool medical staff should be in a better situation to assess Alberto’s fitness situation, after the player reported to training earlier this week.
4. The club can sell both if the management likes, but would that be a winning move?
5. Liverpool’s season would be more dependent on the departure of one of these players rather than whether they buy Downing or Mata. (Clearly, the left winger can only start if Suarez replaces either Carroll or Kuyt; the only way they all can come together is a 4-4-2, which could be a back-up plan, at best! ) If Liverpool sell both the midfielders, Juan Mata (and not Downing) should be seen at Anfield.
Downing or Mata
Downing and Mata both solve the ‘width’ problem, something that became increasingly clear towards the end of the previous season when at times the team was restricted in the central area, with no option of playing passes on the wings. Downing made 3rd highest number of crosses and 4th highest number of key passes in the Premier league last season. Mata had been excellent throughout last season and has attracted interest from several clubs that have more to offer than Liverpool. However, there are two parameters that turn the opinion in favor of Mata. Firstly, he is 22 and suits the FSG line of thinking compared to Downing who is 27. Secondly, Mata can operate at all the 3 places in the final third; Right, left and Centre. Acquiring Mata would invariably make Meireles redundant in the above matrix and could trigger his departure.
Injuries that should not be
The Matrix clearly suggests how important Suarez’s fitness would be to Liverpool as the player stands as the only option to Carroll (it would be difficult to make even a tactical switch without Suarez) while an automatic choice at the left position. Although the left would be covered by our next purchase, it’s the striker’s position that looks vulnerable. The only option at the moment is Dirk Kuyt, who is not as agile as Suarez. Gerrard’s fitness is equally crucial and while his attacking position is all the more covered, he is the only back-up to Lucas Leiva! The probability that Gerrard and Lucas get injured, at the same time, is less, though.
In case, Liverpool plan to sell both Aquilani and Meireles and acquire Downing and not Mata, Jordan Henderson could become the lynch pin to the success of Liverpool, becoming the only creative cover at any spot in the midfield!
And finally, the unwanted
Maxi Rodriguez (might stay, but will have to sit most of the time on bench), Milan Jovanovic (already on his way out), Christian Poulsen (the sooner the better), Joe Cole (casualty), Jonjo Shelvey (can be loaned out) …