Liverpool ended up on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline against Bolton Wanderers in their Premier League tie on Saturday, and there were plenty of poor performances and negative incidents to give boss Kenny Dalglish pause for thought ahead of the forthcoming domestic cup clashes against the two Manchester clubs next week.
The Reds were undone in the first half because of two goals which came straight down the middle of the pitch, after Liverpool’s central midfielders—Charlie Adam and Steven Gerrard—failed to track the runners from deep, and the defence then failed to close out the spaces which had developed.
Mark Davies and Nigel Reo-Coker took full advantage.
They weren’t the only times during the course of the match that the Reds found themselves caught out by a midfield runner, as they struggled to close out the space in front of the defence with alarming regularity.
The absence of Lucas Leiva from the Liverpool team sheet over the past several weeks has led to calls for the Reds to sign reinforcements as they lack depth in the area of the pitch that the Brazilian has patrolled for the past three seasons.
The ball-winning, space-closing and attacking move-starting work that Lucas does has been filled by various teammates recently, but none do it as naturally as he does. Certainly none are extremely comfortable doing it at the expense of curbing their attacking instincts, with the possible exception of Jay Spearing, who has been missing recently through both suspension and injury.
So how do the Reds overcome the problem of not having a naturally defensive-minded player available for midfield?
There are three options.
The first is the preference of many fans, which is to go out and spend on a top-drawer holding midfielder. Plenty of names have already been mentioned as possible targets; that is not the purpose of this article.
Drawbacks to this approach are of course the lack of European football on offer, the expense of signing players in January and what to do with Adam and Spearing, who would arguably be the biggest losers of another new arrival competing for places.
The second, and a possible short-term option for Dalglish, is to move forward one of the centre backs.
Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger have forged a strong partnership over the past three months—the Bolton match aside—but the Dane has long been considered technically able enough to play the odd match further forward. His defensive awareness and passing proficiency mark him out as someone who might excel in the role; then again, his propensity to launch attacks from deep might be given too much freedom in his mind given he would be expected to play a disciplined holding role.
Jamie Carragher has played a defensive midfield role for the Reds this season, albeit for fleeting late appearances, but he would probably be grateful right now of any opportunity to get back into the starting 11.
A third option for Dalglish and his team is to put another player into midfield, tightening the spaces in which opposition teams can play through and, by sheer numbers if it can’t be by tactical design, helping to shield the defence by making sure one of the three is always in place behind his two midfield partners.
Adam has proven himself incapable of doing the job by himself. He is too prone to giving away cheap free kicks and wasting possession far too much for the recycling job required from the deepest lying midfield player.
However, if he is able to change during the game with, for example, Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in doing that role, the Reds might have enough discipline between them to get through the tough matches which lie ahead.
Should Spearing return from his hamstring strain in time to face Manchester City in the League Cup semifinal second leg, it would be almost guaranteed that his name will appear on the team-sheet.
Starting Spearing, Gerrard and Henderson—much more effective and comfortable in the centre than on the right as against Bolton—would be a good idea as Liverpool look to strike a balance between maintaining the solidity required to keep out City, and having enough attacking impetus to continue to cause the away side problems.
A 1-0 lead from the first leg is never likely to be enough for the tie overall, so the Reds must retain the desire to attack at Anfield.
Another of the problems Liverpool faced against Bolton, which would also be overcome by having Spearing (or another) behind the two more attack-minded central midfielders, is that they would have the security to break into the box much more often.
Neither Gerrard nor Adam seemed particularly comfortable getting too far forward too often as the Trotters outnumbered Liverpool in the centre of the park at the Reebok Stadium. Consequently, a lack of red shirts was noticeable in many of the attacks that Liverpool launched.
Liverpool have other issues from the Bolton match to sort out prior to the double-header against Manchester’s finest; ball retention and more aggressive full-back play being just two of them.
But in such important matches as Liverpool face now against big rivals, dominating the centre of the park is frequently key to who comes out on top—and the signs are there that Liverpool will need to go with three in the centre if they are to control that zone of the pitch, and once more tread the path to victory.