By David Lynch
When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool over the summer alongside his Swansea protege Joe Allen, it is doubtful that the 39-year-old believed he had inherited a problematic midfield. His new club already possessed a top-notch holding man in Lucas Leiva, a world-class attacking midfielder in Steven Gerrard and, having purchased Allen, the presence which could knit these two talents together.
The bonus signing of Nuri Sahin and Jordan Henderson’s decision to stay and fight for his place meant the middle of the park actually appeared to be the single most well-stocked area of the squad. But, a setback in the form of a two-month lay-off for Lucas early in the season soon put paid to that theory.
Gerrard and Allen’s roles changed significantly during this period, as the pair were asked to drop deep whilst Jonjo Shelvey took on attacking duties. Unfortunately for the Welsh half of that holding duo, only Gerrard has seen off the challenge of Lucas’ return – but the most significant factor for Liverpool as a whole is that he has not reverted to an attacking role.
Gerrard and Liverpool’s benchmark-setting season in the Premier League era was arguably in 2008-09, as they finished just four points behind eventual champions Manchester United after a thrilling title chase. The Huyton-born captain excelled playing behind Fernando Torres as the Reds flourished that term; therefore it provides the best statistical evidence of the 32-year-old’s evolving responsibilities.
As is to be expected under a manager who prioritises ball retention, Liverpool’s possession statistics are up even on that unparalleled season, with the Reds completing an average of 534 passes per game as opposed to 513 in 08-09. Predictably, Gerrard is no different in that regard, averaging 74 passes per game in comparison to the 64 he produced four seasons ago.
The most telling figure, however, is that Gerrard has made 36 per cent of his numerous passes this season from the defensive third, whilst just 23% came from that area in 2008-09. The midfielder is undoubtedly moving deeper as age catches up with him and, despite being just one short of the career-best nine assists he provided in 2008-09, his gradual retreat has caused one sizeable issue this season; a huge void behind the strikers.
Both Henderson and Allen have been experimented at the peak of the midfield, but neither is an attacking midfielder in its classic definition, having scored just seven and four career Premier League goals respectively. But if Rodgers wants his midfield to continue functioning – and, in recent weeks, it has been doing so for the first time since his arrival – the goal haul of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez must be supplemented from elsewhere. Thus, the pursuit of Inter midfielder Philippe Coutinho makes perfect sense.
TWO OF LIVERPOOL’S TOP TARGETS
| CLUB: Inter
CAREER APPS: 96
CAREER GOALS: 15
| CLUB: Blackpool
CAREER APPS: 79
CAREER GOALS: 23
The Brazilian has played as a No. 10 in the past and may well be viewed as the long-term solution in that position but, should he arrive at Anfield this month, it is unlikely he will be given a baptism of fire in a role which is not exactly prevalent in English football.
Much more likely is that the 20-year-old will be asked to come in from the left, a task he has performed with distinction several times in Italy and during a loan spell at Espanyol last season. Liverpool’s lack of goals from wide may have been masked by their desperate, season-defining pursuit of Sturridge, but with that desire sated, priorities should now shift accordingly.
Over the summer, the Merseyside club allowed Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy to depart, despite the trio contributing 20 goals from wide positions last season. So far this campaign, the combined efforts of Raheem Sterling, Stewart Downing, Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi and Suso have yielded just six.
Coutinho, meanwhile, has plundered three goals in just 10 starts despite falling out of favour at Inter, and that is undoubtedly the sort of return from the wings which would instantly improve Liverpool. In fact, somewhat incredibly given the club’s ill-advised summer policy, this threat could even be further boosted by the addition of a decidedly more long-term target in the shape of Tom Ince.
The former Reds trainee has scored 13 goals and provided 10 assists this term, statistics which far surpass those of the €18 million-rated Wilfried Zaha (even if they have come in the second tier of English football). Most encouragingly though, Ince has taken 72 shots in order to net on 13 occasions, a conversion rate of 18% which Liverpool’s most clinical winger in terms of shots-to-goals this season, Downing, comes nowhere near at 5%.
Barring a late twist in January – one which is entirely possible given the frantic nature of the window – Coutinho and Ince are likely to be the Merseysiders’ only remaining additions. But their status as young, talented, hungry players who resolve concerns regarding the current squad is particularly noteworthy for a club who have made headlines for the wrong reasons in recent times.
After years of inexplicably poor decisions in the transfer market, Liverpool might just be about to take control of their own destiny.
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