Liverpool's Midfield Weaknesses Will Prevent Serious Progression Until Remedied
Following on from a table-topping start to the Premier League season, Liverpool have had rather an uncomfortable journey back down to earth following back-to-back defeats and a run of three matches without a win.
The Reds' most recent defeat, a 1-0 loss at Old Trafford to rivals Manchester United, made for disappointing viewing despite Brendan Rodgers' side having plenty of possession and chances.
While the return of Luis Suarez and one or two other individual performances might have been positives to take, Liverpool have been, in recent weeks, continually undermined by the lack of resilience and strength in the centre of their midfield.
Such a key area of the pitch, this is a position that the manager needs to patch up as quickly as possible, before strengthening in significantly in the next transfer window.
Gerrard and Lucas
A few seasons ago, pre-long-term-Lucas-injury, this might have been the pairing that plenty of Liverpool fans wanted to see in the centre of midfield.
True, Lucas was monstrous for the Reds in a spell leading up to his knee injury in 2011, but he has been recovered from that absence for over a year now. Time to stop the excuses; he simply isn't up to scratch.
The long-heralded "regular run of games" didn't help, the expectant "full preseason" hasn't changed things a jot, and now, over a month into the new campaign, Lucas is looking not much short of a complete liability in the centre at times.
As a defensive midfielder, Lucas is tasked not with hounding around the centre of the park to win the ball, but instead to hold his position, protect the back line, stop the opposition playing through Liverpool's midfield and distribute the ball quickly and accurately to those ahead of him. While his passing has largely been consistent, if not exactly enterprising at times, his defensive work is purely shoddy.
Beside him, Steven Gerrard is the deeper playmaker of the team, asked to pick up the ball in space and pick out the quartet of players ahead of him to continually drive the team forward and instigate attacking moves.
He should be available to receive the ball, constantly, as Liverpool look to recycle possession when an immediate chance creation opportunity does not arrive. Unfortunately, at 33 years of age, Gerrard is no longer in a position to get through the amount of running he needs to, to both provide an outlet in midfield and chase back to help win the ball defensively.
There have been times in recent weeks when he looks incapable of doing one or the other for the full 90 minutes.
Whether the captain needs a rest—and surely the Capital One Cup was the right moment if so?—is carrying a slight knock or is just suffering from a temporary bout of poor form, he needs to be not so untouchable as to be a permanent fixture in the Reds' side.
Gerrard has talent still in his boots, never doubt that for a moment, but perhaps he is coming to the stage of his career where he might need the odd game on the sidelines, or at the very least, know he can be substituted if things just aren't happening in-game.
Which is another problem.
Lack of Depth
Liverpool started last season with six central midfielders: Gerrard and Lucas, Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey and Nuri Sahin.
Fast forward to September 2013 and, somehow, Gerrard and Lucas appear to be the only two available options. Henderson played just over 20 minutes in the centre against Manchester United following Lucas' substitution, but by and large, he is nowadays played in any role but as a central midfielder.
Right wing, left wing, No. 10 and, at Old Trafford, as a wing-back. Henderson barely seems worthy of being considered a centre midfielder at Anfield now, despite his growing influence on the side.
Elsewhere, Allen is injured. Shelvey was sold. Sahin lasted just half of his loan spell before departing, and neither of the latter two have been replaced. Suso and Conor Coady, who could have provided youthful backup in the centre, have also been sent out on loan to gain more regular game time.
So why did Liverpool not seek to reinforce in the summer transfer window?
Lucas and Gerrard almost couldn't be left out against United, and perhaps again against Sunderland at the weekend, because there simply doesn't seem to be anybody to replace them.
Another Window Asking for Backups
The Reds sold Christian Poulsen in the summer of 2011. While there was no doubting the necessity for that particular deal to be concluded as swiftly as possible, it did leave the club without a senior replacement for Lucas as a defensive midfielder.
Jay Spearing was given a shot but was never truly of the needed level and was also not a natural last-line-of-midfield player, instead more suited to a terrier-like, ball-winning, second midfield role.
That summer's window passed without a replacement and a backup being brought in to challenge Lucas, as did the January 2012 one. Rodgers' arrival a little over a year ago quickly showed that the Brazilian was to remain a first-team player, but surely some cover in the squad would be reasonable?
It wasn't to be. Allen filled in, so did Shelvey, but no specialist was signed. The same went for January 2013. And, inexplicably, a fifth transfer window has come and gone now without Liverpool signing either competition or a squad backup for their defensive midfielder.
Two per position?
In one of the most key roles in the side, Reds fans are wondering if they even have one at this point.
Rodgers' Anfield Career
It is not too far-fetched to suggest that Brendan Rodgers' tenure in charge of Liverpool could be decided by how he sees his central midfield faring.
Time and again, Liverpool have conceded chances, goals, points, all because of an inability to track midfield runners, effectively prevent central opposition attacks and adequately protect the back four. It wasn't a prevalent theme of the match at Old Trafford (especially the back four, which was actually a three for that game), but one instance provided a glaring example of Lucas' weaknesses in particular.
A misplaced pass, a mistimed tackle and an inability to race back into position all sent Liverpool from a position of building an attack to watching a Shinji Kagawa shot crash off the crossbar, in the space of about six seconds.
The Reds lack power, pace and genuine positional sense, far too often in the middle of the park. Put somebody beside Gerrard who can cover the width of the pitch defensively, and we might see his technical abilities run games once more. Right now it's almost too easy to create danger against Liverpool; draw Lucas out of position with a challenge, interception or aerial ball, and exploit the space behind him.
Gerrard either cannot or will not see the danger quick enough, and teams are able to surge forward.
Liverpool have a good team, with some exceptional attacking talent when everybody is fit, suspension-free and on-form.
But it will too often count for nothing if it is not built upon a solid and reliable base. Liverpool, and specifically Rodgers, must reinforce this area of the team in January. In the more immediate term, it's likely that an alternative pairing will have to be offered the chance to perform in the Premier League. Allen's return to fitness might provide the boss with the options he needs, or Henderson could be reverted to his original role.
Either way, the Reds' midfield needs sorting before it costs more points and a possible shot at a significant improvement on last season's league finish.
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