The Premier League season is, amazingly, just under two weeks away. On August 8, fans will gather for their well-rehearsed rituals ahead of the weekend's ultimate treat: competitive football's return.
For Liverpool, this season is all about breaking back into the top four. A poor 2014-15 campaign saw them knocked out of the Champions League by Basel at the group stage and finish sixth in the division on a measly 62 points.
That Brendan Rodgers kept his job after such a fiasco was incredibly surprising. The club have made big moves this summer in order to try and close the gap between themselves and the league's top order, arming the man at the helm with every tool requested.
How are Liverpool shaping up ahead of the new campaign? We run the rule over their setup and ask the big questions ahead of another big campaign.
1. A Bit of 4-3-3 To Begin, Bring In The Diamond Later?
Liverpool cycled through formations like a roulette wheel in 2014-15 campaign, trialling all sorts in vain. Brendan Rodgers, by the final match against Stoke City, looked well and truly defeated as to how to arrange his side.
Once the 3-4-2-1 lost its steam (Emre Can's performances in defence dipped and Raheem Sterling's goals officially dried up), Rodgers was forced to change things, but he never truly stumbled upon the answer. You can only play Basel a maximum of twice a year to find inspiration!
For some strange reason, the 4-2-3-1 kept creeping back into the plan despite it falling flat on its face every time it was rolled out. Turgid, uninspiring football became a regularity in that shape, with many of the Reds' players struggling to find form. Even Philippe Coutinho, in the No. 10 slot, didn't really thrive, and the Steven Gerrard-Jordan Henderson double pivot was an outright abomination.
Fortunately, the 4-3-3 looks like it's back with a bang. It's been heavily used during pre-season, and while there have been tactical nuances breaking off from that basic shape, it looks as though it's going to be a fairly regular feature in Liverpool's play.
The summer warm-up games may not be an indicator of how Rodgers wants to set his side out full-time—they've been unable to get Christian Benteke, Roberto Firmino and, of course, the injured Daniel Sturridge into the mix early enough—but until the two new star forwards are settled, this is likely how they'll attack the early part of the fixture list.
That's good news for Can, James Milner and Jordan Henderson, but a bit rough for Coutinho as he may be stuck out on the left. It's imperative they get the Brazilian doing his best work in his optimal zones, and that's why Rodgers—given the wealth of forward options available to him—should be strongly considering the 4-4-2 diamond once again.
It's the formation that brought Liverpool so close to Premier League glory in 2013-14, and in the early parts of last season it proved destructive too—remember Henderson destroying Tottenham Hotspur in space at White Hart Lane?
With between five and seven strikers set to contribute for the Reds this season, a two-striker formation feels absolutely necessary. The diamond would allow Coutinho to play at No. 10, Milner, Henderson and Can to play in midfield and Rodgers to pick and choose his front two depending on the game.
2. The Return of Midfield Pressing
Another feature of pre-season thus far has been renewed energy and pressing from Liverpool; Rodgers looks to have decided to reinvigorate the team's approach and re-create the high-energy strategy that worked so well earlier in his career.
Some of the summer signings certainly look to have been made with this in mind: Nathaniel Clyne and Milner, especially, represent far more mobile, durable players than Glen Johnson and Gerrard. They are individuals capable of freshening up the atmosphere as well as the playing style.
A 4-3-3 base, at times morphing into a 3-4-3 due to fluidity on the ball, is generally seen as the ideal pressing shape, laying further credence to the idea that we'll be seeing plenty of that structure in 2015-16. The mobile full-backs push up, Can drops between the centre-backs and the unit squeezes the space in which the opposition can play.
"James Milner and Jordan Henderson could run to Adelaide!" Rodgers enthused after Liverpool's successful pre-season tour of Australia, per the Liverpool Echo. "The work they put into the game—how they press, how they run and also the quality."
It's clear Milner's been bought as a central player—the role he's been yearning for since leaving Aston Villa in 2010—and that his hard running and stamina are to be utilised in a pressing mantra alongside captain Henderson. It's arguable there are no two other English players who are better-suited to the roles.
There are two concerns, though. Firstly, pressing out of a diamond doesn't tend to work unless you ask your strikers to split wide, lock onto the opposing full-backs and your No. 10 pushes forward to become an auxiliary No. 9 (essentially becoming a 4-3-3). Of all people, Roy Hodgson showed us how well this can work when England beat Switzerland early in the Euro 2016 qualifying phase.
There's no doubt the strikers Rodgers has at his disposal are capable of doing this, and should Firmino play No. 10, he'd be perfectly happy to filter forward as the No. 9, but it's quite the deviation from the norm and must be coached extremely carefully.
Second, Liverpool have pressed before, and there were massive gaps between the defensive and midfield lines—largely because the defence sat too deep when the players in front pushed on. This reared its head again during the Australian tour, and the distances must be addressed ahead of the big kick-off.
3. The Martin Skrtel Situation
Early in July, Skrtel signed a new deal to extend his stay at the club. Based on his 2014-15 performance, it made a lot of sense, but projecting into 2015-16 it doesn't.
Rodgers carved the Slovakian a great role out last season in the central centre-back slot of a back three. It minimised his main weakness (passing out) and accentuated his strengths (winning headers and smashing through challenges).
With the more refined Can on one side, able to bring the ball out, and the more efficient Mamadou Sakho on the other, the three were about as well balanced as you could expect given the formation was never actually in the works when plans were laid ahead of the campaign.
But Rodgers is moving back to the back four this season in an attempt to fix his midfield, meaning Skrtel must resume normal service in a more encompassing role. His performances fell away after Rodgers dropped the 3-4-2-1 this season, and there's nothing to suggest he can rediscover that level in a back four.
That leaves Rodgers with Sakho, who is brilliant, Skrtel, who will likely dip noticeably, and Dejan Lovren, whose very mention evokes shivers down fans' spines. With Andre Wisdom set for a season-long loan with Norwich City, per the Guardian, it's arguable Liverpool are taking just one centre-back of the requisite level into the new season. Joe Gomez is going to have to learn fast.
4. How To Pair A Front Two
If Liverpool opt for a front two at any point this season, as it's expected they will, it's imperative Rodgers pairs his strike force correctly. The stylistic balance is absolutely key; get it wrong and the whole thing might just fall apart.
The principle here is matching a drop-in striker with a runner; pairing one with the other will create the balance required. You can essentially divide the strike force into two columns in order to aid the process, with a third reserved for players who can fulfill either role.
|Liverpool's Striker Roles|
|Christian Benteke||Divock Origi||Daniel Sturridge|
|Roberto Firmino||Danny Ings|
Pairing Benteke with Firmino isn't going to work long-term. While it may procure a result or two at random, having two players whose instinct is to drop off between the lines, clogging Coutinho's zone and leaving the opposing centre-backs unpressured, means no one is stretching the pitch vertically, making the runs Coutinho demands.
Pairing Origi with Sturridge would require compromising on the latter's part; Sturridge would need to spend all of his time dropping in rather than running beyond, allowing Origi to stretch the pitch with his pace and instead taking advantage of the space created. He's fully capable of it, he just needs a defined role; it needs to be very clearly agreed.
Intriguingly, Danny Ings stands an uncorked bottle of potential; while he showed prowess at Burnley last season, it's arguable he's yet to be groomed, fully, into a drop-in or a run-behind forward. If he's shading either way at the moment, it's toward dropping in, but he's clever enough and fast enough to play either.
Origi really only has his pace, making him a fit with almost everyone else on the roster. That's ideal, apart from the fact that he's the least Premier League-ready by a distance and probably the worst overall striker for now.
Balancing striker roles is absolutely key to success this season.
The £32.5 Million Man
Managers live and die by the sword, or, rather, managers live and die by their very expensive signings. Benteke was one mega-expensive signing, and on paper, he's a horrid stylistic fit for Liverpool.
Given that Firmino's deal won't reach £29 million unless bonuses are fully paid, the £32.5 million spent on Benteke is by far the biggest transfer of the Reds' summer; his fee dwarfs most transfers across the Premier League, in fact.
That means it's absolutely critical that Rodgers nails the use of him, as his stay as manager may well be decided, at least partially, on whether or not he's able to get the Belgian firing. Some serious compromises will need to be made in terms of playing style here, as the Reds, second-lowest crossers in the league last season with 638, will not be playing to the striker's strengths if they don't feed him aerially.
Benteke averaged 7.7 aerial duels won per game in 2014-15, per WhoScored.com, more than any other player in the league. He's better with his feet than many give him credit for, and his passing and distribution have drastically improved since 2013, but his major plus-points are his hulking physique and aerial dominance.
Tim Sherwood saw the sense to play everything through him, serving up ball after ball for him to win, and that's exactly what Paul Lambert did too. Anyone in Villa's side who could cross got game time with the sole brief of slinging it to Benteke's head. Leandro Bacuna, particularly, benefited from this.
But Liverpool prefer to play through the immaculate Coutinho, whose cutting through balls can tear defences apart provided the striker makes runs. Making these runs is arguably the weakest part of Benteke's game; he's frequently found offside, has never shown the ability to time a run and much prefers to drop off and play deeper, as discussed above.
Taking into account style and tactical fit only, Benteke will look an alien in the current Liverpool system; Origi is a better fit, even if he's a distinctly lesser player. It's a serious concern as we approach the season, and the Reds can't expect the Belgian to thrive in a strictly short passing game.
He can play up on his own, he can play in a two (as Anfield has found out to devastating effect in the past), he can press, and he has the mobility and speed to get about. But his playing instincts don't particularly suit Coutinho, and that's hardly ideal given his cost and therefore assumed importance to the team.
The changes at Liverpool this summer can be described as borderline seismic; a change in approach, a settling in formation and a vast overhaul of players have all created positive vibes, and many expect Rodgers to have a good go at breaking back into the Champions League spots. At the very least, you can say he's been financially backed.
Losing Sterling is a blow, but the approach is shifting to pressing and workmanlike qualities from midfield. If Liverpool can get Milner, Henderson and Can working at optimal level as a trio, in addition to some assortment of strikers in form, they can push for a top-four spot.
It's arguable the Reds still stand a fifth-strongest side on paper despite the summer splurge, and it really is up to Rodgers to summon the spirit of 2014 in his attempt to upset the applecart.