Luis Suarez’s ban is approaching its end. With Sturridge performing impressively as a central striker, Suarez may have to played on the left side of attack at Liverpool FC. A look at the pros and cons involved.
Rewind back to early June, and the Liverpool FC fan contingent were in a state of panic as Luis Suarez had announced he wanted to leave the club. Everyone knows the story from that point onwards – there were more twists to come than an Alfred Hitchcock thriller – ending with Liverpool reminding the player that contracts between club and player cannot be ignored based on one’s whims and fancies. He signed it, he has to honor it.
While Liverpool have had a marvelous start to their season with three wins in a row, Luis has been serving his 10 match ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. In the last week of September, Suarez will finally be seen in a Liverpool shirt again in a competitive match. Liverpool face Manchester United in the third round of the League Cup on 25th September and Sunderland FC on 29th September: both are matches the Uruguayan is eligible to play.
Brendan Rodgers’ failure to get a left sided attacking midfielder into the side has meant that he has had to shift some players (read: Philippe Coutinho) out of position to play his now favored 4-2-3-1 formation. While Daniel Sturridge has been phenomenal as the tip of the attacking spear (he has scored all three goals in The Reds’ three 1-0 wins), Coutinho has not been able to give his creative best. He has had to take the unfilled left attacking midfielder (LAM) position as there is no other player who can fit into that position. Iago Aspas, Liverpool’s utility attacking player, has been slotted into the Central Attacking Midfielder (CAM) position, while Jordan Henderson plays as the Right Attacking Midfielder (RAM). While Henderson has made the RAM position his own – Glen Johnson and he have formed an impressive partnership on the right – it is clear that Coutinho needs to moved to the centre, as he has constantly looked less than comfortable in that position. In fact, he has constantly drifted to the center, leaving the Jose Enrique alone in the entire left flank. Additionally, Aspas is not the ideal CAM either: he’s physically slight and does not have any major creative edge to his game.
Seeing how essential it is to move Coutinho to the center, as well as the natural fit Sturridge has been as the front-man, it is only logical that Suarez will have to be shifted to the left side of attack. Brendan Rodgers himself has admitted as much in an interview. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of having Suarez in that position.
Pros: Suarez’s Dribbling Abilities
Luis Suarez has played in various positions across the front-line throughout his career. While he has provided a truck-load of goals last season, his game is not that of a clinical finisher. Rather he is one of the best dribblers in the game, especially when comes to skipping past defences when there is in fact very little space to operate in. Additionally, he is quite greedy, which is why he’s always running to get at the end of crosses and through-balls, and also why he’s regularly on the score sheets. All of these will be a great asset to have on the left side of attack. Being right footed, he will be more than comfortable cutting inside towards goal.
Pros: Chemistry with Sturridge
Suarez is often like an unstable explosive: while he’s great at blowing apart oppositions, it’s equally hard to get him to be disciplined with respect to the team shape. In this regard, his partnership with Sturridge has been incredible. While both love to run at the goal and try to score, they have very effectively swapped and switched positions when played together. When one moves from a wider position to the center, the other will make a horizontal move to ensure that the empty space is covered. While earlier this used to be seen with Suarez starting up front and Sturridge to the right, there is no reason why they won’t work just as well with Sturridge now the focal point and Suarez to the left.
Pros: Gerrard’s Long Balls
Steven Gerrard has taken to the new, more defensive role in Rodgers’ Liverpool. Lucas Leiva and he make an impressive double pivot at the center of midfield, with quite a few opposition players being at the receiving end of Stevie-G’s trademark sliding tackles. But the one aspect of his game the team have failed to capitalise on is his ability to deliver a pin-point long-pass. Whether it’s something he picked while playing around the original long-ball maestro Xabi Alonso, or a talent he always had but couldn’t exploit when he played in more attacking roles, is hard to determine. But Liverpool, in the absence of an attacking player on the left side, have not been able to leverage this in recent games. When Coutinho plays as LAM, he isn’t naturally inclined to make a forward run towards the left side corner flag. Suarez is a much more direct player, and he will be much more aware of the potential of receiving a ball out wide from the English captain. This can be an immense asset to the team, especially in counter-attacking situations.
Cons: Defensive game
Jose Enrique is an above average left-back, but he has got his vices. While he is decent tackler, he is prone to moments of complacency where he will pass too casually and the ball will be intercepted by the opposition in a dangerous area. Even Liverpool’s Plan B in this position, Aly Cissokho, is rated as a better attacking threat than an astute defender. They are both keen to run forward to join into attack, which is a good fit for Rodgers’ footballing model. However, an attacking full-back means you need to have a defensively-responsible player in the left side of midfield/ attack. To better understand this, one only needs to look back to the 1-0 against Manchester United. Antonio Valencia, who came into the right-back position after Phil Jones’ early injury, was one of the best performers for his side. Coutinho regularly left the flank vacant, allowing Valencia to move ahead and join the attack (something he did quite effectively).
Enrique was left fairly overloaded, and a lot of United’s attacks originate from this flank. The other flank was just the opposite. Henderson and Glen Johnson formed a brilliant partnership. If you look at their Heat Graphs below, it’s hard discern which one of them was the defender and which one the midfielder. The problem on the left is going to persist if Suarez is played on the left side of attack. The Uruguayan is not someone who will consistently track back to lend a hand in defence. Lucas Leiva may be able to lend a hand occasionally (from his Left Holding Midfield position), but it is hardly an ideal situation (as he will in turn be leaving Gerrard alone to manage the entire central midfield).
Cons: Lower Personal Goal Tally
Suarez, while not a traditional striker by any means, has enjoyed the limelight that comes with being the second highest goal-scorer of the English Premier League last season. Dribbles and skills might get you on a lot of YouTube videos, but goals will get you on newspaper headlines. You can imagine which one a footballer is more likely to care about. There is a good chance that if, a few months down the line, Sturridge is higher up on the goal scoring charts while Suarez only has assists to his name, he might just decide he doesn’t like the English media/ climate/ people/ culture / food (your guess is as good as ours) and start pleading for the club to let him leave.
Sakho As Left Back?
To sum up, while fielding Suarez on the left has its risks, it’s really the only way Rodgers can accommodate having Coutinho as CAM, Sturridge as Striker, and retain the Henderson-Johnson pairing on the right (all three elements that have worked well so far for LFC this season).
However, when facing stronger opposition, there is one measure he can take to secure the left side: play Mamadou Sakho as left back. Defensively, the Frenchman is much more solid than Enrique, and he has played in this position in the past. While he may not contribute to attack as much as the Spaniard, he will ensure that Suarez is free to attack without worrying too much about tracking back.
One thing is for sure: if the Suarez-Coutinho-Sturridge triad clicks well up front, they could form one of the most devastating attacking line-ups in the Premier League.