Can Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge Fit Back Together at Liverpool?

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Can Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge Fit Back Together at Liverpool?
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Sturridge and Suarez are a dynamic duo.

There has been no shortage of hype surrounding the strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge this season. 

And rightly so, individually and collectively they have both been absolutely superb. But with Sturridge set to return to the starting line-up this weekend, it is probably worth remembering that the majority of their good work has been done individually this season, and that the pair have only actually started alongside each other in seven of Liverpool's 24 games so far.

Not that the form of the pair wasn't extremely impressive during that seven-game period with Suarez grabbing eight goals and Sturridge notching five, but Brendan Rodgers was forced to tinker a lot with the side in order to try and find the best way of fitting both into the team. 

Crystal Palace, West Brom and Fulham were all dispatched at Anfield as comfortably as you'd imagine, but their sole away win came in a 3-1 victory at Sunderland, a team who had just sacked Paolo Di Canio and were, at the time, in a fair amount of turmoil.

The other three results, in their trickier games, were a 1-0 defeat away at Manchester United in the League Cup, a 2-2 draw away at Newcastle (in which they played the entire second half against 10 men) in the Premier League and a 2-0 defeat away at Arsenal, also in the League. 

It is a small sample of results, admittedly, but it does suggest that in games where they could destroy their opposition with sheer attacking brute force, Liverpool flourished but in trickier away games when there was more of an urgency for team balance and structure, they struggled. 

Stu Forster/Getty Images
Unsurprisingly, the man nicknamed "The Engineer" has found an excellent balance between midfield and attack this season.

It was a similar problem to the one faced by Manuel Pellegrini and Manchester City earlier this season. Teams were blown away by their attacking prowess at the Etihad but on the road they struggled massively to the point where it became hard to believe that they were even the same side.

But three Premier League away wins on the spin do now make it seem as though City have found a happy balance, and Rodgers will now be hoping to find the same.

 


The Shape

During those seven games earlier this season that Suarez and Sturridge started together, Liverpool broadly played a 3-5-2 system that suited the players they had available at the time.

They had four centre backs all fit and ready to play in Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho, and they had issues at full-back with Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique struggling with injuries, and Aly Cissokho yet to fully adapt to the Premier League (resulting in his rather embarrassing half time substitution at the Emirates). A back three, therefore, made sense.

Clive Mason/Getty Images
Brendan Rodgers has a task on his hands to find his best team.

It also allowed Rodgers to keep playing his much-desired midfield trio and keep his two lethal forwards upfront. 

But Rodgers steered away from this formation in the last game of those seven (after an experiment with 4-4-2 in the second half of the previous game at Arsenal), the 4-0 home victory over Fulham, and used something more akin to a diamond formation—although it played out more like a 4-1-3-2 with Coutinho dropping back into midfield.

Even taking into account the emphatic victory over Fulham, it is hard to judge just how successful the system really was, as it was at a time when the west London side were probably the biggest pushovers in the division.

Unfortunately, this was also the final game that Suarez and Sturridge would start together, so there was no chance to further assess how well this would have worked against genuinely competitive opposition. 


Going forward

How, then, will Rodgers manage to move forward and get the very best out of every facet of his side?

Fitting his two front men back in and hoping that they'll fire won't be too much of a problem but finding the right balance elsewhere at the same time might be a little more tricky. 


Back to a back three?

A return to the back three is a possibility, as, like before, it would be the only way to squeeze his three-man midfield back into the side and get Suarez and Sturridge in upfront. 

But I'd say it's also fairly unlikely. Daniel Agger is injured and Kolo Toure, despite being fit, has started just two of Liverpool's last eleven Premier League games, in which they conceded a total of six goals at Hull and Stoke. He no longer looks like a reliable Premier League starter.

Johnson is also back, fit and in form at right-back and Cissokho has started four of Liverpool's last five, suggesting that Rodgers now sees him as his primary option at left-back.

There would also be no way of getting either Philippe Coutinho or Raheem Sterling into the team. Neither are wing backs nor central midfielders.


The diamond?

Playing a back four and playing two strikers only leaves the option, then, of playing four in midfield (obviously). Steven Gerrard, Lucas and Jordan Henderson all seem like certain starters in the centre, which would leave Coutinho and Sterling fighting it out for one place.

Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Raheem Sterling has been excellent for Liverpool in recent weeks.

Both offer different qualities, Coutinho has an excellent range of passing and a superb eye for an incisive through ball, whereas Sterling offers a drive, pace and energy that has served Liverpool extremely well in recent weeks. 

There will be some rotation but, with the hectic Christmas schedule behind them and no European commitments to come, Rodgers will have far less of a need to tinker in the coming months than most of the managers around him. Even their only upcoming non-Premier League game should be a relatively straightforward FA Cup trip to Bournemouth.

Reverting back to the diamond midfield would also be a credible possibility, then. If you exclude Sterling it does theoretically come the closest to getting all their players into their best positions.

But then, of course, you have to drop the England winger who, in terms of performance, has been far superior to Coutinho in recent weeks, and deserves his place in the side.


Back to 4-3-3

And you do always get the impression from Rodgers' main prerogative is playing that midfield three. It is probably the main reason the 3-5-2 system was utilized in the first place.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Going back to the example of Manchester City, they have found a way to play two upfront and compete in the central midfield zone with just two players. But they have Yaya Toure and Fernandinho—two extremely capable box-to-box midfielders. A luxury that Liverpool cannot call upon.

Gerrard and Lucas would be too immobile as a midfield duo, Gerrard and Henderson would be too offensive and Lucas and Henderson simply wouldn't happen as Rodgers is not going to drop his captain.

So that leaves the option to play the three of them in central midfield, then use Suarez, Sturridge and either Sterling or Coutinho in a fluid attacking trio ahead of them—a system that would be very similar to Manchester United's Champions League winning side of 2007-08 (although I'm sure Liverpool fans won't appreciate the comparison!)—depending on whether the situation requires pace and width or an extra passing option to drop back into midfield. 

That selection would give Rodgers the chance to play his favoured 4-3-3 formation. But it is Sturridge, the man who is being brought back in, who might find this system the least pleasing. He may effectively see it as being asked to play on the right-hand side again, like in his Chelsea days. 

There was a hint of 4-3-3 about Liverpool for the final 25 minutes against Stoke last weekend, after Sturridge came on for Coutinho, but by that point the game was so frantic and stretched that it would be difficult to draw too many conclusions from it.


Results

Liverpool face a testing visit from Aston Villa, a team that is far superior away from home, on Saturday evening. They lost the corresponding fixture 3-1 last season. 

Suarez and Sturridge back together in the side should guarantee goals. But playing two out-and-out strikers and finding balance further back throughout the side is an extremely tricky business in modern day, system-driven football.

The 3-5-2, diamond midfield and classic Rodgers 4-3-3 systems I have mentioned above all have their benefits and their drawbacks and it will be interesting to see just how the Liverpool manager sets up his side in his pursuit of a top four finish in the second half of the season.

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