Liverpool trounced Merseyside rivals Everton 4-0 in the Premier League on Tuesday night, January 28th, opening up a significant four-point gap between themselves and their Champions League-place rivals in the process.
While there were plenty of excellent individual performances on the night, manager Brendan Rodgers has to take plenty of plaudits himself for setting Liverpool up in what was pretty much a perfect tactical system to exploit Everton's weaknesses and make the most of his own team's strengths.
That involved a number of alterations; Philippe Coutinho playing in a more withdrawn role in midfield than he previously had, the team sitting back to utilise a counter-attacking approach and Daniel Sturridge starting from a left-sided position.
Despite his initial role, there was an awful lot of movement and fluidity about Sturridge's game, especially with regard to his constant switching with centre-forward Luis Suarez.
Two versus One
With Everton's regular right-back Seamus Coleman absent through injury, Roberto Martinez fielded John Stones in his place. Stones may develop into a fine defender, but he was utterly lost in the derby, unsure of who to mark and constantly outnumbered down the flank.
Suarez and Sturridge interchanging from forward and left side meant Everton defence had no idea who to mark. Worked a treat.— Matt Ladson (@mattladson) January 29, 2014
Even playing up front, Suarez's natural inclination sees him work the channels very well and he drifted left a number of times to link play and attack by cutting in from that position. If Stones went with him, Sturridge had the freedom of the left. If Stones didn't, well, giving Suarez a free run with the ball at his feet is generally not the best idea.
The constant switching of positions, the pace of both forwards and the individual skill on the ball from both ensured Stones was never able to stop the Reds attacking down that flank and endured a miserable night of his own.
Sturridge and Suarez first switched after just nine minutes, with the latter pulling out wide, and it was a sign of things to come as they both wreaked havoc during the game.
While Suarez and Sturridge both swapped over to attack, Sturridge also showed he had plenty of licence by drifting infield in deeper positions, especially early on in the game, almost being a link man at times between midfield and attack.
To cope with this movement and the gaps it left, Liverpool's midfield had to be hugely competent on the night—and it was, defensively, technically and tactically.
Steven Gerrard sat deepest and central, challenging anything and everything which looked even vaguely blue and alive.
Coutinho occupied all central spaces, finding room to receive the ball, turn and launch an attack, while finally Jordan Henderson produced another all-action display in his box-to-box role, providing an overload in attack but also filling in down the left-central side when required. His mobility and diligence in tucking in and providing cover allowed others to render Everton's well-drilled side exposed and ineffective.
Signs for the Future?
Liverpool have looked undeniably better this season when they operate with a 1-2 shape midfield rather than a 2-1 (or indeed a flat, though fluid, bank of four straight across).
The preference for Brendan Rodgers is to continue with the 4-3-3 shape, but it requires a number of sacrifices: not all of Coutinho, Suarez, Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Joe Allen and others can fit into it. As shown against Everton, any of the front few can have a wide starting position and still be highly effective centrally, but in midfield, if Coutinho is to play in the deeper role, it likely means a fit pair of Lucas and Allen would miss out.
Not that this should be a problem—Liverpool should have quality players left on the bench. Using Coutinho as a central midfield playmaker instead of seeing him sat out wide and looking to cut infield worked extremely well for the Reds.
The test will come in whether he can perform as effectively—in attack and defensively—in games that Liverpool dominate and control possession, rather than just making great use of space on the counter.
However, using both Sturridge and Suarez is key to Liverpool's successes this season and while a two-up-top strategy isn't immediately looking like returning, both players having such a stellar impact on an important victory shows how Rodgers can make it work without dropping either.