Why Liverpool's poor defensive midfield options could cost them this season
Liverpool finished sixth last season, but it was the gap of 25 points between the Reds and champions Chelsea that perturbed supporters most. A repeat of the previous year’s title challenge was never really anticipated, but many fans had hoped Liverpool would at least be able to consolidate within the top four. Their limp attempt at doing so - not to mention a 6-1 thrashing at Stoke on the final day - meant the prominent feeling in the summer was that the Merseysiders’ efforts in 2014/15 had simply not been good enough.
In an attempt to come back stronger this time around, Liverpool were one of the Premier League’s most active sides in the summer transfer market. Given that Brendan Rodgers’ side managed only 52 goals in the league last term - the same total attained by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge alone in 2013/14 - strikers were always going to be at the top of the shopping list. Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke were the two headline attacking purchases, the pair arriving at Anfield for a combined £61.5 million.
The exits of Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Glen Johnson also made it likely that the transfer committee would seek to replace their individual characteristics of experience, pace and width from full-back areas, with James Milner, Danny Ings and Nathaniel Clyne duly obtained as successors.
One position which has surprisingly been ignored, however, is that of the holding midfielder, the role which has caused Rodgers a constant quandary ever since his arrival at the club in 2012
One position which has surprisingly been ignored, however, is that of the holding midfielder, the role which has caused Rodgers a constant quandary ever since his arrival at the club in 2012.
Whether it's setting the tempo for Liverpool’s attacks or intercepting the ball in front of the back four, Rodgers is more than aware of the benefits of a central pivot.
"He understands totally the ideas I'm trying to implement, so for him that was going to showcase his qualities even more," Rodgers said of Lucas Leiva early on in his tenure at Anfield, when it became apparent that he considered the Brazilian Liverpool’s alternative to Sergio Busquets.
Lucas, though, struggled to overcome a long-term injury; the fact he missed large chunks of Rodgers’ debut campaign made it difficult for him to be fully integrated into the Northern Irishman’s new-look side.
Joe Allen, the man Rodgers once called the "Welsh Iniesta", came in to fill the vacancy of mobile regista. While Allen possesses excellent positional sense and the ability to recycle possession, his defensive contributions let him down. Midfield partners Nuri Sahin, Steven Gerrard and Jonjo Shelvey were all better suited to roles further forward, giving Rodgers something of a headache.
Upon his return after three months out, Lucas averaged more tackles per game than anyone else in the Premier League in 2012/13. Such statistics demonstrated his importance to the team, convincing Rodgers that he was right to trust the Brazilian to central zone of the pitch together.
Lucas carried that form into the new campaign, but another fitness setback - along with Gerrard's redeployment as a deep-lying playmaker - meant he featured only sporadically in the run-in to Liverpool's assault on the league championship. The shift to a more direct style of play, moreover, meant that Lucas’s lack of mobility began to show. Against opposition that like to control possession, however, Lucas can still play a key part for the Reds. The 28-year-old was terrific in Liverpool’s 0-0 draw against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last month, again demonstrating his adeptness at covering space.
"Lucas is our best defensive midfield player," Rodgers confessed after the game. "There are games where I play three midfield players but not always with a defensive specific one, but when we do need that, he is the best one we have." Last season saw Rodgers use Gerrard, Lucas and Jordan Henderson in the centre, although the switch to 3-4-2-1 neutralised the need for a single natural holder in front of the defence.
In Liverpool's opening two matches this term, Rodgers positioned Henderson and James Milner in a double pivot, with Henderson sitting slightly deeper than the former Manchester City man.
This enabled Milner to join the next line of pressing, meaning the team resembled a 4-1-4-1 when trying to win back possession. Milner's adaptability is already a crucial component of the Liverpool midfield, with his positive contributions only likely to increase as he builds up a greater telepathy with his team-mates.
The cameo appearances of Emre Can in the encounters with Stoke and Bournemouth, meanwhile, offered an insight into Rodgers’ thought process. The German sat deepest in the engine room, affording Henderson and Milner the freedom to advance into the final third.
"Emre is one of those players that always gives 100 per cent on the pitch. He is a very dynamic player and he is quite mature physically as well," said Can's coach at Bayer Leverkusen, Hyypia.
"He is quite a technical player and he does the simple things perfectly, with 100 per cent concentration. I think he will have a great career at Liverpool."
While Can is blessed with many of the attributes required to succeed in that position, his tactical awareness could certainly be improved: against players with a low centre of gravity, the 21-year-old gets turned remarkably easy, though he is likely to iron out that deficiency as he becomes more experienced.
Youngsters Jordan Rossiter and Pedro Chirivella are both progressing well in the academy, but it would be an extremely bold move for Rodgers to select either 18-year-old on a regular basis.
The value of a specialist
The need for a specialist holding midfielder has cost the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United in recent years, with Jose Mourinho revealing how important he considers the position to be by paying Benfica £21 million to sign Nemanja Matic 18 months ago. With Liverpool's defence seemingly never too far away from a calamitous mistake, a semblance of assuredness ahead of them would not go amiss.