Liverpool FC under Brendan Rodgers have adopted a new playing philosophy based on possession football. In a league known for fast paced direct football; Rodgers is preaching a style which focuses on a patient build-up and starving the opposition of the ball.
The key to that mantra is having control over the midfield. Rodgers prefers to play a 4-3-3 system which is similar to that used by the likes of Barcelona. Employing three midfielders at the centre of the pitch allows the team to constantly “recycle” the ball and carve out opportunities for the forward line. Rodgers is trying to build a strong squad of players and Liverpool seems to be well stocked in midfield.
While Lucas and Gerrard are automatic starters when fit due to their sheer quality, the third midfield spot is very much up for grabs. Young players like Allen, Henderson and Shelvey have all been used over the course of the season as the third midfielder by Rodgers. Suso too, has been utilized briefly as an attacking midfielder while Coutinho could be moved infield if Rodgers makes reinforcements in the summer transfer window. However, Allen and Henderson look the most likely choices for Brendan Rodgers.
After a very disappointing performance against Southampton, Joe Allen was substituted at half time. Allen has subsequently undergone a shoulder operation which will see him miss the rest of the season. Rodgers’ experiment with playing 4 attacking players backfired against The Saints and it is likely that he will revert to a more cautious approach. After being overlooked by the manager for the last few games in spite of good performances, Henderson now looks set to regain his starting berth.
But several questions arise as the season draws to a close – Who should be first choice in the Liverpool team next season? With Spearing returning from loan, do Liverpool now have one midfielder too many? With Rodgers looking to reinforce other positions on a limited budget, could one of Henderson or Allen be sold to finance the transfers? Resident Liverpool experts Uday Telkar, Anurag Upadhyaya and Sreyon Chatterjee voice their opinions.
Uday Telkar: Both Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson are talented footballers who have a bright footballing future. At 23, both players are young and still have a lot to learn to be counted amongst the top footballers. However, both players are quite experienced for their age and have played around 150 games of first team football. Both players prefer to play in central midfield and both have very similar attributes. Allen seems to understand Rodgers’ football philosophy better having played under him previously at Swansea. The Welshman did a good job at the start of the season in Lucas’ absence. Allen is not a regular defensive midfielder but was amongst the players having the highest number of tackles and interceptions in the Premier League. Allen’s metronome like passing helped Liverpool recycle the ball and maintain control of the midfield.
Allen’s form has dipped since (possibly due to the shoulder injury) but Rodgers clearly rates his football acumen. Gerrard cannot go on forever and it is likely that Allen will be the preferred midfield partner to Lucas once Liverpool’s Captain decides to hang up his boots. Carragher’s retirement at the end of the season and Skrtel’s poor form means Liverpool need to buy at least one new centre-back in the transfer window. Lucas’ absence too seems to have a detrimental effect on the side and Rodgers may want a specialist defensive midfielder as cover for the Brazilian. Henderson has redeemed himself after a poor start to his Liverpool career but he doesn’t offer anything significantly different to Allen. Henderson may be deemed surplus to requirements by Rodgers and the funds generated from his sale could be used to buy a quality defensive option. People may seriously question the rationale behind Henderson’s sale but it would significantly boost Liverpool’s transfer budget and while it would be harsh on the player; it could be beneficial to Liverpool’s long term success.
Anurag Upadhyay: After a bitterly disappointing first season at Liverpool, Jordan Henderson has had a new lease of life under Brendan Rodgers. After struggling to force his way into the first team, the England U21 captain has been an important cog in Liverpool’s play since November. Henderson has been growing in confidence with each game and has been excellent at linking up play between the defence and the attack. Henderson is a supremely fit athlete and his relentless pressing allows Liverpool to win back possession in dangerous areas of the pitch. Rodgers has used Henderson’s high energy levels and utilized him at an advanced left midfield position where he almost does the job of two players.
Henderson also provides a balance to the first choice midfield pairing of Lucas and Gerrard. Allen simply has not been as effective when employed as the furthest forward of the three midfielders. Gerrard has been used in a deep lying play-maker role for Liverpool this season, but the captain has been allowed greater freedom in making late runs into the penalty box due to Henderson’s willingness to track back. Henderson’s attacking contributions have improved too and he has made several key passes this season. Goals too have coming with increased regularity in recent months. Along with Stewart Downing, Henderson has been the most improved player this season and has been remarkably consistent. Selling him in favour of Allen, who has struggled to adapt to the Liverpool set-up, would be criminal.
There are several fringe players such as Suso and Shelvey who need regular first team football. A loan deal for them looks likely next summer and in such a scenario it would be imperative for Rodgers to have a squad deep enough to cope with any injuries and suspensions. Henderson’s improvement means that he should now be choice for the attacking midfield role and also a reliable back-up for other positions.
Sreyon Chatterjee: Brendan Rodgers likes intelligent, technically sound footballers who can play in a variety of positions. Both Allen and Henderson seem to be adept at the same. In fact, neither player has really featured in their preferred central midfield position this season. Allen has played primarily as a defensive midfielder or as an attacking midfielder while Henderson has played a right back, left and right midfield and attacking midfield.
Utility players like Allen and Henderson are invaluable to the squad and can act as effective cover for a variety of positions in case of injury. Rodgers would want to have both players in his squad and rotate. Players like Allen and Henderson would allow great tactical flexibility for Rodgers and he can set-up his team according to the opposition. Sir Alex has had great success at Manchester United having a squad of players having different skill sets who he picks depending on the demands from the opposition. Rodgers will hope to replicate the same at Liverpool. It is not thus a case of one player over the other and we could easily see neither player making it to the starting line-up if Rodgers chooses
Rodgers may look to field different formations over the course of the season depending on opposition. Variations in the 4-3-3, choosing to go with a 3-4-3 or 4-4-2 would require players having very specific competencies. Rodgers would thus want players who can adapt to different systems. Both players are still developing and can be coached to develop skill sets for the benefit of the team. Allen for example, may be asked to improve his tackling and positioning to be counted as an able replacement to Lucas. Both players are disciplined, willing to learn and have a hunger to succeed at the club. They will form the core on which Liverpool will hope to base their success. It is thus imperative for Rodgers to keep the duo at Liverpool in the future.