Liverpool: What Has Been Brendan Rodgers' Strongest XI This Season?
After seven months, almost two complete transfer windows and 35 competitive matches, Brendan Rodgers is getting a hold of his new job as Liverpool manager. By now, he should have a pretty good idea of what his strongest XI is.
So far, in all competitive matches, Rogers has utilised 34 players, with Raheem Sterling playing the most times (30) and seven players appearing just once or twice to date—including record-breaking youngster Jerome Sinclair, new boy Daniel Sturridge and the now-departed Charlie Adam.
Form has been up and down for a large part of the season, though a recent resurgence offers hope for the Reds that they can pick up a significant point total in the Premier League over the second half of the season. They also have trophies to play for on two fronts, with the FA and Europa League Cups up for grabs.
Rodgers ensuring that he can select his strongest side as often as possible will determine just how far up the league table the Reds can look to finish.
Following is a breakdown of the best XI for Liverpool in the Northern Irishman's debut season in charge.
Goalkeeper: Pepe Reina
This would normally be undisputed; an almost unnecessary addition to credit Pepe Reina with being the No. 1 goalkeeping choice for Liverpool. But this season, his own form and fitness, coupled with transfer rumours circling and the improvement of Brad Jones, means it is no longer so cut-and-dried.
Reina struggled early on, perhaps with his own confidence but likely also because of yet another change in the way that the defensive line operates ahead of him. The latest incoming manager meant a fourth style for Reina to adjust to since May 2010.
It might not seem too big a deal, but for a goalkeeper who has built his solid reputation on organising defences in front, manning his penalty area with authority and being secure in his place in the team, all these switches were bound to take their toll at some point.
In truth, Reina's poor form started more than a year ago, but the start of this campaign saw him perhaps hit the bottom. Injury soon followed on international duty with Spain, and suddenly, one of last season's heroes of the FA Cup, Brad Jones, was thrust back into the limelight.
Jones is well-liked because of his admirable confidence and mental strength. He seems to be a good character in the dressing room and, most importantly, he has shown in his 11 appearances this season that he can be a real challenger to Reina's post.
However, Reina has bounced back with a series of better performances and clean sheets over the past couple of months, and he maintains his place as first-choice 'keeper at Liverpool.
Right-Back: Andre Wisdom
One of the rookies of Liverpool's team, Andre Wisdom only made his debut in September but has already established himself as a regular member of the match-day squad and has amassed 15 appearances so far—nine of them in the Premier League.
Strong, athletic, comfortable in possession and reliable for such a young defender, Wisdom has made the transition from reserve-team centre-back to first-team full-back with ease.
He has much to learn in terms of when to press higher up the pitch, his delivery in the final third could use a little more work and, of course, as a young defender, you need to expect and accept a few mistakes. But, by and large, he has been a terrific integration in the side.
Wisdom has had two major spells in the team either side of a Jose Enrique mini-resurgence, but he has been much the more reliable and higher quality of the two. He also balances Liverpool's defence out at times; one full-back attacking, the other holding position more.
That's not to say that he can't attack though.
Wisdom isn't the type to bomb forward with the ball at his feet, but he is intelligent enough to let space open up ahead of him before quickly accelerating into it to receive the ball to feet—and that is just as effective a method of attacking the flanks as trying to dribble past an opposition midfielder. It is quite a lot safer too.
Central Defenders: Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger
Central defence is one of three areas which needs little explanation.
With Jamie Carragher and Sebastian Coates providing nothing more than cover this season, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are the two regulars for Brendan Rodgers.
Both have had a few off-games where mistakes have cost Liverpool goals and points, but in general, they are an effective partnership and hold the back line together well.
Agger is the more controlled organiser and the one blessed with good vision and anticipation. Skrtel is the sweeper down the right channel with a thundering sliding tackle, and he is the individual more likely to jump into a challenge 15 metres further up the pitch to stop an attack before it really takes hold.
They are the Reds' first choice pairing and, barring injury and suspension, will stay so for the whole season.
Left-Back: Glen Johnson
Liverpool have managed to field four players at left-back again in the opening half of the season, in what remains the club's most problematic position to fill with reliability and quality.
Jose Enrique has alternated between woeful and explosive, Stewart Downing has filled in when required and youngster Jack Robinson will be hoping for more than his five appearances so far this term.
But the best of the lot has been Glen Johnson.
Usually the Reds' right-back, he has arguably been the best attacking full-back in the entire Premier League this season, combining strong defensive performances most weeks with his usual attacking invention and thrust.
Johnson has been at his best when paired down the flank with Stewart Downing, who leaves more space infield for Johnson to hurtle into. Unlike most full-backs who will almost exclusively attack the flanks, Johnson prefers to cut infield toward the penalty area as he enters the final third. He is usually heavily involved in the build-up play—regardless if playing from the right or left.
At present, he's the Reds' best option for the left because Wisdom has offered the solidity on the right, but this has got to be the position near the top of the manager's "to do" list for the summer.
Holding Midfielder: Joe Allen
Liverpool's three-man midfield under Brendan Rodgers consists of a holding, controlling player who will receive the ball from the defence or goalkeeper and distribute into midfield, a playmaking central midfielder who is intended as the hub of the team's rhythm and tempo, and a more attacking midfielder.
Joe Allen has filled all three roles at times this season, but after a good start, has fallen off the pace of matches recently.
Filling in for the injured Lucas during the first couple of months as the deepest of the three, Allen received the space and time to play his normal passing game as the rest of the team got to grips with a new formation and altered routine of training and playing matches.
With most expecting that he would excel further when deployed closer to the attacking third, Lucas' return was eagerly anticipated—but instead it has coincided with a dip in form from the Welshman and a spell in and out of the team.
Whether because of tiredness, expectancy of playing for a bigger club or simply not being confident enough to play his normal game, Allen has not yet hit the heights expected of him in a more attacking role.
Having said that, Lucas has also not recovered his best form post-injury and is struggling to recapture his best levels of dominating midfield—so Allen remains the strongest player Liverpool have had in this position so far.
Deep Playmaking Midfielder: Steven Gerrard
Allen's form has somewhat reverse-engineered that of Steven Gerrard.
Early in the campaign the captain seemed to take a time to come to terms with what his manager was asking of him, playing as one of the two deeper midfielders instead of the expected attacking element.
Gerrard's ball retention was questioned at times—as was the manager's decision to play him further back in a team which was crying out for goals; either as the attacking midfielder or as one of the front three, it was generally thought that Gerrard would aid scoring significantly if the team could get him in the penalty area.
Instead, Liverpool persevered with the No. 8 in the deeper role and over the past six weeks his form has taken off.
Suddenly the team had gotten to grips with positioning themselves higher up the pitch and as a result, Gerrard was afforded huge amounts of space to work in—and picked up six assists in a matter of weeks as a result, as well as a handful of goals.
He has been one of Liverpool's best players for over a month and results have picked up at the same time.
Advanced Midfielder: Jordan Henderson
The third and most advanced position in midfield is a curious one.
Brendan Rodgers has tried all sorts of combinations; the raw potential and huger of Jonjo Shelvey, the creative Sahin, Joe Allen, Suso—and, finally, Jordan Henderson.
Each of the players who came before him in the role—while the former Sunderland player was stuck out at right-back, holding midfield, left-sided forward and who knows where else—had their good moments, but none showed enough consistency to nail down the spot.
For four weeks or so over the Christmas and New Year period of fixtures, though, Henderson brought not only technical ability but also power and terrific work-rate to the team as his running enabled Gerrard in particular to be afforded much more time on the ball.
He can count himself unlucky to have lost his starting spot in the most recent of games—but he's probably been the most effective in the role to date this season, despite getting the last shot at it and having played fewer games in that position than some of the others.
Settling on a player who will do well in this role will be important for Brendan Rodgers; the last 20 minutes against Manchester United saw Luis Suarez operate in a very loose version of the role. Time will tell if he will get more minutes trying the same position.
Right Forward: Raheem Sterling
Liverpool's front line almost picks itself.
An early season injury to Fabio Borini meant that youngsters such as Suso were handed more chances, but Raheem Sterling was already in the team by then and in his first few months showed plenty of the explosive talent that he possesses.
Having played the most games at this stage of the season has had an obvious effect on the wide forward.
Not so much his confidence but his sharpness, ability to beat players and his effect on the game in general has diminished of late, and he will be afforded a well-earned rest over the coming weeks as Borini's injury and the signing of Daniel Sturridge hand Rodgers more options in the final third.
Sterling is a very good talent and will get better as he gains more experience, but his true worth is in beating defenders to create space for himself and others—a spell on the sidelines will help him get back to his best.
Centre-Forward: Luis Suarez
No question here.
Luis Suarez may or may not continue in the most advanced central attacker's role for the remainder of the season, but he has operated there with aplomb from August to January and is the Reds' top scorer with 19 goals in all competitions—two better than last season's total already.
One of the best footballers in all of Europe, Suarez brings creativity, hunger, pace and aggression to the front line which is too often otherwise lacking in four in recent times.
Left Forward: Stewart Downing
Out on the opposite flank, the recent improvement in form of Stewart Downing secures him the left-forward berth after a very poor start to the season saw him lose his place in the team altogether.
Another who has benefited from the injury to Borini, Downing took longer to regain his place after the likes of Suso and Jose Enrique were given runs in the team.
A couple of months' worth of effective wing play is not enough to secure his long-term future at the club and Downing needs to prove he can produce on a consistent basis if he is to remain at Liverpool beyond the summer, but his upturn in form is very much appreciated nonetheless.
He's in the team on merit these days, has been a much harder worker in both directions and has combined well with Suarez and Glen Johnson.
Even so, he is one of those under pressure to keep up his good levels in the near future with the increased options available for the front line.
On the Bench, or in the Team?
For a variety of reasons, there are up to half a dozen players who would hope to be a part of Liverpool's strongest XI, but haven't yet managed it this season.
In goal, as mentioned, Brad Jones has been pushing Reina hard but is understandably and undeniably the No. 2 pick at present and will likely remain so.
Jose Enrique had picked up his form over December after an awful first three or four months of the season when he lost his place in the team. However, an injury has meant he lost his spot once more—we'll see how many more chances he gets after his return, due in another couple of weeks.
Lucas Leiva is Liverpool's usual holding midfielder but after two injuries robbed him of more than a year of football, he has yet to return to his absolute top level. He will certainly continue to get plenty of game time and will be first choice in more matches than not—because he is the Reds' only "real" defensive midfielder.
However, he will know that he needs to continue working on his fitness and form to be seen as an indispensable member of the side once more.
Fabio Borini is another who would have played far more this season, up front aiding Luis Suarez, but for injury. A three-month layoff has ruined his debut season so far, but Borini should be back in the squad for Liverpool within a week or two.
Finally, of course, there is one striker who will be expected to be an immediate addition to the first-team list: Daniel Sturridge.
It remains to be seen whether he plays centrally or from the right, but it is certainly expected that he takes the place of either Sterling or Downing. Initially it could be the former who makes way, having played a lot of matches this season already, but Downing is likely the longer-term victim of the purchase with Sterling showing far more potential.
Liverpool's squad continues to improve slowly, but Rodgers knows he will need a few more new faces to challenge the "strongest XI" if the Reds are to make up more ground on the top end of the table.
Statistics from LFChistory.net