Liverpool picked up an important three points on their return to the UEFA Champions League stage in midweek, but as with most of their games so far this season, the attacking play was at times a little laboured, a little slow, a little disjointed.
With last season's top two scorers missing through being sold and a short-term injury, and a whole host of new signings having come in to work together over the summer, it should be expected that the Reds would not be the fluid, exciting side of February to May.
Even so, Brendan Rodgers and his players need to keep picking up the points, and with rotations to the team likely at the weekend against West Ham United, the match must be seen as a chance for at least one to really push his own claim for a regular place in the first XI at the beginning of this season.
Markovic and Lallana
In a 4-3-3, the normal "first XI" would see Raheem Sterling on one flank and one of the new signings, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic, on the other. Both were handed a start against Aston Villa last weekend, but neither provided the creativity and positivity in the final third for scoring chances. As the Reds sought to change things, both were subbed off.
Lallana got another chance in midweek against Ludogorets, but despite being fairly involved he still couldn't quite find his touch or incisiveness in the penalty area and was again replaced. Markovic was suspended.
Coutinho been poor, but I'd prefer he tried to make things happen & be inventive rather than play it safe. Same with Lallana. #LFC.— Simon Steers (@sisteers) September 16, 2014
There is also the option of Suso to play from the right side of the front three of course, with the young Spanish playmaker having been on the bench in midweek.
Either of the three could feasibly be involved from the start against the Hammers, though Lallana, with his league experience, work rate and physical ability to handle the opposition, would likely be considered the favourite.
Whoever gets the nod needs to show an improvement in what has been seen so far from the wide areas of attack at the start of 2014-15. A place is there to be won, if anyone has the form to take it.
Borini and Lambert
Up front, Mario Balotelli is up and running with a goal for the Reds and will lead the line against the Hammers with Daniel Sturridge still out injured.
Both "second-choice" forwards, Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert, have had opportunities from the bench since the start of the campaign, though neither have done enough to warrant a starting spot due to their own form—if either comes into the team it will be as a result of a tactical change by Brendan Rodgers from his 4-3-3 system used at the start of the Ludogorets match.
Borini looked bright and had a good headed chance in midweek, but neither looked like finding the net against Villa last week, neither creating space nor troubling the defence.
The Reds need one of them to step up and really have an impact at the moment, whether as a sub or starter, to show that they can be relied upon to shoulder the scoring burden alongside Balotelli in the absence of Sturridge...or to challenge one of those two for a starting spot when all are available.
Do either of them have enough? So far it hasn't been seen, but that can in part be attributed to the relative overall attacking malaise of the side in August and September.
Certainly, two strikers instead of one suits the Reds better for their attacking shape.
We've looked out of sorts with just one upfront. Drastically improve when there's two. Like to see Lambert or Borini supporting Balotelli.— AttackoftheKop (@AttackoftheKop) September 16, 2014
Hard Work Required—With Which System?
And so to Rodgers' big decision. He knows how West Ham will be as opposition. His pre-match comments to reporters indicate they will be difficult to defend against and to attack:
West Ham played very well against Hull. They showed great resilience. Sam Allardyce’s teams are always well set up. It’ll be a test. We know West Ham will be a threat, but we’ll look to take our game there, work hard and get the three points.
We will attack and defender as a team, and win and lose as a team. We had to invest in the summer because we were so light. Our form last year was incredible, but we weren’t playing like that this time last year. It’ll take time to settle.
The manager's choice is to either start with a diamond midfield and two in attack or opt for a threat from wide, thus also giving defensive cover down the channels to the full-backs.
Lallana, Markovic, Borini, Lambert.
The quartet could well be competing for a single place between them, depending on who else plays in midfield, and while all have the quality to prove they can start regularly for Liverpool, it hasn't been seen enough from any of them just yet.
Upton Park remains a tough place to travel, but Liverpool need to atone for the Villa loss with a positive result at the weekend, which means the attack must function more effectively. A big performance from one of the would-be starters here will make his confidence soar and could seal a position in the team for the forthcoming weeks—with the Merseyside derby just around the corner.