Liverpool: How to Solve the Midfield Puzzle
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For the upcoming 2011/12 season, Liverpool have been very active in the transfer market, bringing in players like Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson to an already packed midfield that boasts some of Liverpool's key players.
You could easily accuse the Reds of having a bloated midfield, with Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt joined by Raul Meireles, Alberto Aquilani and Maxi Rodriguez all pushing for a starting place. Then of course, there’s the youngsters, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey, and fringe players Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole, all presumably behind Kenny’s newcomers. That’s 13 midfielders and wingers all together (with Milan Jovanovic sold to Anderlecht) that Kenny Dalglish must find a role for within his squad.
So with all these midfield players and two talented forwards in Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez to take into account when picking a starting XI, how does Dalglish solve a midfield puzzle like the one at Liverpool FC?
Taking into account a lot of the deadwood within the team, Joe Cole and Poulsen in particularl will certainly have to impress in training to get a starting place in the team, with rumours circulating that Cole might even be shipped off to West Ham or QPR. Then we have the "will he or won’t he leave?" saga surrounding Aquilani, who certainly looks set to be a creative element in Liverpool’s midfield if preseason is anything to go by.
However, even if Liverpool got rid of a few of these players, Dalglish will still struggle to find a role for all of these players. A 0-10-0 formation certainly isn't possible, and it will be very difficult to get the best midfielders like Downing, Gerrard, Kuyt, Aquilani, Meireles, Lucas, Adam and Henderson all into one giant midfield system.
So what does this mean then for Liverpool? No Europa League in the upcoming season means players like Shelvey and Spearing will find it harder to get first team experience, especially if Liverpool make a push for good League and FA Cup runs this year; they’ll need the best players to play week after week. However, a lack of space on the pitch should, in theory, spill over to a stronger bench, something Liverpool have lacked really since the pre-Benitez era, and it’s a problem that has persisted until now. Then you have to consider that so few places in the starting XI will surely create greater competition within the squad to for a starting place, which should result in stronger performances on match day that should mean better results.
If we look at the attacking midfielder role within Liverpool as an example, Steven Gerrard has been first choice for years, with no one in the squad really competing for his place. Now we have the likes of Meireles, Aquilani and Henderson all wanting to play in that role Gerrard has turned into his own. So we have to assume that anyone who is charged with the task of playing behind the striker and creating chances will be the best man for the job on that day, rather than just being selected due to reputation. Next season, Liverpool fans could find that a player’s status within the club and to the fans will account for nothing when it comes to squad selection, which can only lead to good things to come.
The hardest part of the midfield puzzle, however, will be the formation Kenny Dalglish uses to not only take advantage of his huge choice of midfielders, but also to take into account the striking partnership of Carroll and Suarez. It would be too easy to assume that Dalglish will go with a flat 4-4-2 formation just because that’s what he did last season and with past teams. Last season, he didn't have the central or wide midfield options he has now, and it’s this tactical flexibility and the variety of different types of players that may prove to be Liverpool’s greatest solution to this puzzle.
Looking at this squad, it would be easy for Liverpool to play any variety of 4-5-1 (i.e. 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1, flat 4-5-1, 4-1-4-1), or to utilise both Carroll and Suarez in a 4-4-2 variant (i.e. 4-1-3-2, 4-1-2-1-2, Diamond 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1). However, it would be just as easy to adapt a Barcelona style 4-3-3 formation, making use of Lucas, Adam and Aquilani and their passing abilities in a midfield trio similar to but not as good as, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, with Suarez playing on the right in the “Messi” role and Downing on the left, offering crosses for Carroll in the centre of a front three.
With an almost infinite amount of possibilities for tactical style and formation, the overflowing midfield selection will undoubtedly become Liverpool's greatest asset next season, with a team for every occasion being more than possible. Counter-attacking? Go 4-2-3-1 with Lucas and Adam sitting deep. All out attack? Go 4-3-3. Want to limit the opposition's passing ability? Go 4-3-2-1 with Gerrard and Aquilani behind the striker. For every team and for every system that will be used against Liverpool, the sheer depth of the squad should allow them to have a counter-system in place to give them the best chance possible.
This midfield puzzle will perhaps still persist for awhile, certainly until January when the next transfer window opens and Liverpool have the opportunity to drop more deadwood or bring in more variety, because the bottom line is, some of the players on the squad still aren't good enough. The youngsters will improve, and some of the newer and older players will adapt to new systems. The strength in depth Liverpool have for midfield may perhaps protect weaknesses at the back if our preseason "form" continues into the new Premier League season (however, with Reina in goal as opposed to Doni, we should see more clean sheets than 0-3’s).
The best way to solve this midfield puzzle, however, looks to be a combination of squad selection and tactical system. If Liverpool can nail down that right system to play against the opposition and pick the correct players, what appears to be a bloated midfield choice could become Liverpool's greatest strength.
After all, if Liverpool can't be certain who they're going to pick week in and week out, how can their opponents ever hope to feel suitably prepared?
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