Despite a 2-2 draw against Swansea City, Liverpool FC continue to top the Premier League table. Realistically speaking, a Top 4 spot is still the primary aim of the club. Based on what has been seen so far this season, here’s a look at 5 ways in which Liverpool FC can ensure they meet their target:
1. Coutinho Is Irreplaceable: Keep Him Fit
Rodgers’ Liverpool FC side has a distinctly different look to it with and without Philippe Coutinho in it. The most recent example of this is the Swansea game. Coutinho injured his shoulder in a fall and had to substituted in the 55th minute. Up till this point, Liverpool had been dominant (they were leading 1-2 then), and looked set to go on to win the game. As soon as he was off the field, the Merseyside club’s performance dipped. It’s not just that he’s the key to unlocking opposition defences; he is also defensively critical. For any passing based team (like Liverpool and even Swansea), the biggest defensive strategy is simply to hold on to the ball and not let the opposition touch it. Coutinho regularly dropped deeper from his Central Attacking position, to collect the ball and pass it around. It was almost akin to the role Joe Allen was meant to play (the role he played in Rodgers’ Swansea): a Central Midfielder who keeps the team ticking. As neither Steven Gerrard nor Lucas Leiva, who form the midfield double-pivot in Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1, are a good fit for the role, Coutinho was the one taking up the responsibility.
As soon as he was off the pitch, players suddenly didn’t have that one player who always seemed to be available for a pass. As a result, the ball was lost a lot more frequently than before, and within 9 minutes of the substitution, Swansea had taken advantage to score a goal.
Philippe Coutinho is essential to Liverpool’s style of play, and is the only creative midfielder in the side. His shoulder injury is a huge scare for the team; he must be protected and kept fit, else Liverpool’s great start may start to unravel.
2. Skrtel To Be Paired With Agger
Around the 35 minute mark in the match against Swansea City FC, a shot from Michu skids across the ground and Simon Mignolet dives to save it. Save it he does, but is unable to hang on to it; the ball slips out of his grasp and onto the path of the oncoming Bony. The goal seems like a sure thing, and Liverpool fans have their heads in their hands. But have no fear, Martin Skrtel is here. He somehow manages to come from behind the Ivorian and get a clean sliding tackle in. The ball is cast aside from its path towards goal as Skrtel and Bony crumple in a small heap at the goal-line. Skrtel gets up, clearly in a fair bit of pain, dusts himself off and is back marking Michu out of the game within minutes.
Martin Skrtel looked set to be sold to the highest bidder after a poor 2012-13 season, but an injury to Kolo Toure gave him just the window he needed (against Man United) to force his way back into the first team. While reports have indicated that a freak accident in the gym was the reason why Daniel Agger didn’t feature against Swansea City, it is becoming clear that Rodgers will continue to pick one left-footed and one right-footed centre-half; Mamadou Sakho will have to wait his turn behind Daniel Agger for the former role, while Martin Skrtel & Kolo Toure will fight it out for the latter. But if Agger and Skrtel can form the kind of partnership they had in the 2010-11 season, they should be Rodgers’ preferred starters.
3. Moses Needs To Be Used Regularly On Either Flank
Victor Moses goal on his Liverpool debut (against Swansea City) came from him intercepting a loose pass by Jonjo Shelvey, running towards the left of the goal till he reached the edge of the 18-yard box, at which point he quickly cut to the right and shot into the bottom corner. While Daniel Sturridge deserves credit for making a run to the left, causing further chaos in a defence already taken by surprise, Moses should rightly walk away with a lion’s share of the credit. Even before he scored, there were several other runs where he used his good dribbling and immense pace to cut in towards goal, at which point he would either attempt a shot or pass / cross to a teammate.
Moses is a hard worker. He regularly tracked back to defend when Liverpool were being overrun by Swansea in the second half, working his socks off right up to his substitution. Even when Luis Suarez joins back and is slotted into the left attacking position similar to where Moses played (for more on the same, read here), Moses should be given a shot on the right flank. This would Jordan Henderson out of the starting 11, who contributes to both attack and defence, but it would give the team some much needed width in attack. Swapping Moses for Henderson, or vice-versa, could become a regular 60th minute tactical switch for Rodgers.
4. Aspas And Sterling Need To Be More Physical
Iago Aspas was brought in as a utility attacking option. He is someone who has regularly been slotted into different attacking roles, based on the need of the hour. This season, he has been played in behind the striker for Liverpool, and he has been one of the poorer performers on the pitch each time. The problem is not that he isn’t talented: he seems to have good pace and acceleration, and his touch isn’t too poor either. The problem is that he’s pushed off the ball far too easily. He was bullied around by defenders in the match against Aston Villa, and again against Manchester United, and again in his substitute appearance against Swansea City. He also seems to regularly mistime his jumps when going for aerial balls. Raheem Sterling has a similar problem. In his debut season under Kenny Dalglish, his lightweight nature was less of a problem as his lightning quick pace tended to make up for it, and he regularly caught opposition defences by surprise. Unfortunately for him, opponents are familiar with him now, and know better than to give him room to run. Rather, they just muscle him off the ball as soon as he receives a pass.
The fact of the matter is that Liverpool play much higher up than Aspas’ former club Celta Vigo and the Dalglish managed Liverpool Sterling flourished in. Neither have the kind of space to run in, and need to learn to get their shoulder in and fend off physically superior players. Just look at Philippe Coutinho, who has adapted very well to the English style of play. Either Aspas and Sterling will have to toughen up, or they just might not see too much game time in the future.
5. Liverpool Need To Be Mentally Tougher
It’s good to see the way Liverpool seem to start every game this season in the fifth gear: all 10 outfield players chasing the ball, making runs and looking for chances to create and score goals. However, results will only come if they are able to maintain their concentration for the full 90 minutes. All of Liverpool’s Premier League goals (5 in 4 matches) have come in the first half. And in each match, the tensest moments have come towards the last 15-20 minutes, when the Liverpool side have looked like more likely to concede than to score themselves. A great illustration of this is the 4-2 extra time thriller against Notts County in the Capital One Cup. Liverpool were cruising to a win with 2 goals in the first half, but then they switched off and conceded twice after the 60th minute mark. Goals in extra time saved the club some embarrassment, but this is not a one-off incident. Liverpool have been switching off in the final phase of the matches, and they have been somewhat lucky not to be punished. The penalty saved by Simon Mignolet in the dying minutes against Stoke City should be a clear reminder of this.
If Liverpool are to seal a top-4 position this season, Rodgers will have to ensure that the players are given a lesson in focus and concentration, else one of these days Lady Luck might just be playing for the opposing side.