August 19, 2014 at 9:57 am

5 Observations from the Southampton Game

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Lucas and Gerrard Should Never Happen Again

Most Liverpool fans think Lucas should be sold, or at the very least, kept as a back-up back-up behind Gerrard, Henderson, Can and Allen in the rankings for a midfield berth, so its hard to know what Brendan Rodgers was thinking here.

It’s clear that Steven Gerrard is not the player he once was. His fitness levels and mobility have waned badly, but what he does still have is great vision and good technique when striking the ball. Lucas is similar to Gerrard in that his work-rate and mobility have diminished in recent years, but that’s where the comparison ends, because unlike Gerrard, Lucas offers practically nothing on the ball.

It was only when Rodgers gave up on Lucas and Gerrard as a midfield duo last season that the Reds really clicked, so to go back to a combination that has been proved insufficient time and time again is hugely frustrating. Fans will hope Emre Can was still carrying a knock and Joe Allen was short of match fitness rather than Lucas being selected on merit, but the way Allen played when coming on suggests that wasn’t the case.

If Liverpool are to have any success this season it will not be with Lucas and Gerrard featuring regularly as a pair.

 

Sturridge and Sterling Will Score Goals

Both Sturridge and Sterling getting onto the scoresheet was a major plus in the absence of Luis Suarez. Any new signings aside, these are the two players most likely to score Liverpool goals, so getting off to a good start was vital in avoiding a situation where failing to score for the first few matches becomes ‘a thing’.

By now it should be clear that Sturridge is a pedigree footballer capable of scoring all kinds of goals, so as long as he can keep fit 20+ more from him are almost guaranteed. Sterling is a player hurtling through the various stages of development. Lots of fans (particularly of opposing teams) still don’t realise (have they not watched closely enough, or are thy blind to certain aspects of the game?) what a strong defensive and tactical player he is. Sterling is only just starting to hone his finishing at this level. At youth levels he was always and excellent, consistent finisher with both feet, but when players move up to a higher level of football a kind of reset occurs, particularly with finishing as so much of it is about confidence and composure which is directly impacted by pressure.

With one goal and one assist already it certainly looks like Sterling is starting where he left of last season and will be an important player for Liverpool this year.

 

Coutinho is the Key

Phil Coutinho was smothered out of the game by Southampton’s defensive shield of Schneiderlin and Wanyama against Southampton. Playing as a number 10 for most of the game, the Saints’ two holding midfielders closed the space for the tricky Brazilian and ensured he never had time on the ball. This wasn’t the main issue for Coutinho, however.

For Coutinho to be at his best, he needs to play further back as an 8, rather than as a 10. When Coutinho players deep he is able to use his sublime passing to dissect the space ahead of him, playing pin-point through-balls for the likes of Sterling and Sturridge. This often works best when he has used his dribbling skills to jink past a defender (or two) or when Liverpool have turned over possession and the opponents are back-peddling. If Coutinho beats a man further up the pitch another defender is usually quickly on top of him. Coutinho is best at threading balls between defenders at a distance for him, while in congested areas his passes sometimes fail to beat the first blocker, so playing him deeper as a 8 where he can find space for himself, but crucially, space ahead of him, will be key for Liverpool’s attack this season.

 

Increased Defensive Stability

For the duration of the first half against Southampton Dejan Lovren looked like an ice-cold colossus. The Croat was calm and commanding while in possession and then whenever Southampton attacked he was aggressively on the front foot, winning everything in the air. This was all very promising.

In the second half when the Saints had Liverpool rattled, though, it was Lovren’s game that nosedived most, just when what we needed was that dependable influence to act as a port within a storm. Given that it was his first game against a gritty and determined Southampton team, there’s no cause for alarm just yet and Lovren still went on to have a decent game overall. Importantly, he looked very comfortable in possession, dominant  in the air and keen to play high up the pitch, and it was only when this high defensive line receded that the defence started to falter.

 

Same Old Issues – Vacant Midfield, Deep Defence

More of a frustration than a worry for Liverpool fans is that rather than being faced with new challenges, Brendan Rodgers seems intent to keep wrestling with the old ones, even after they have been overcome. The manager consistently states that he wants his side to have more control over games, then picks a lacklustre midfield duo of Lucas and Gerrard who are totally incapable of controlling a match in the high-octane Premier League of today.

When the two are picked behind a quick, mobile front four of Sturridge, Sterling, Coutinho and Henderson they simply cannot keep up with play. A chasm opens up between the front four and the two holding midfielders, leaving a huge gap from within which the opposition can control the game. It is a very simple, obvious problem and one that Brendan Rodgers needs to address now.

The other ongoing flaw in Brendan Rodgers tactical approach is the oddly deep defence. Defending too deep is undesirable for any side as it concedes ground and invites pressure, but in a team trying to play an attacking, possession-game it makes even less sense. If your aim is to have and keep the ball close to your opponents goal, in order to stop yourselves becoming disjointed and open to counter-attacks your defence must push up with the attack and squeeze any space left between them, resulting in a compact unit that is hard to penetrate. Of course, the defence cannot move beyond the holding midfielders in front of them, so the core issue might not be within the defence at all, but the players in front of it who regulate its positional line with their own.

Even when defending under pressure – rather than defending against quick breaks – Liverpool continued to defend far too deep. When a cross comes into the box and is headed away a well drilled defence will push out, leaving attacking players offside or forcing them to drop back, disrupting their focus on attack and manipulating their movement. Liverpool never seem to do this and it has to be a concern. Both Lovren and Sakho are naturally front footed players comfortable moving away from their own goal, but Skrtel is different. He likes to drop off behind players and often back-pedals as an opposition team advances even if they aren’t running at him personally. This ought to be totally the opposite of what Brendan Rodgers wants, so his apparent faith in Skrtel is baffling.

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