The England international’s partnership with Luis Suarez has brought the vast majority of the Reds’ goals this season but Brendan Rodgers has few options while he is injured
By George Ankers
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is right to see the absence of Daniel Sturridge until at least mid-January as “a big blow”. Sunday’s shock defeat at Hull City served as an uncomfortable reminder of how influential the England forward has been this season.
As has been discussed at length before, his partnership with Luis Suarez has been the most devastating combination in the Premier League thus far this season and Rodgers’ switch to deploying the pair through the middle in 2013-14 has liberated the Uruguayan as well as Sturridge.
Since Suarez’s return to action from suspension, Liverpool have scored 20 goals. Their partnership accounted for 14 of those, with the other six all coming from set-pieces; meaning the pressure on the Uruguayan will now be intense.
Options are needed, both to keep Suarez firing as he has done and to open up new avenues of attack in Sturridge’s absence.
Against Hull, Rodgers reverted to a formation similar to that which he employed up to 12 months ago, before he signed his new talisman from Chelsea. Raheem Sterling and Victor Moses took up wide positions either side of Suarez, with Jordan Henderson the furthest forward of three central midfielders.
It did not work. For one thing, Hull – as they often have this season – fielded a back five, which meant three centre-backs all fully focused on shutting down Suarez, while still having cover on the flanks to keep Liverpool’s wingers quiet.
This will not be the case against every team – the Reds themselves are one of few other clubs who dally in odd-numbered back lines – but, as long as the Uruguayan is on his own in the centre, he will have to work harder to find space.
The fact that both Sterling and Moses have been struggling for form also played its part. The trip to the KC Stadium was a chance for both to take their seasons by the lapels and stake a claim but both were low on momentum and, as a result, penetration.
Liverpool’s problem is that they do not have a great many other options. Their biggest plus is that Philippe Coutinho added a dash of quality when he came off the bench and his return from injury is a vital fillip to counter Sturridge’s absence.
The Brazilian, pushed into a more advanced central position than Henderson, was understandably a little rusty but has the movement and drive to either draw defenders out or take them on. He could be employed in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 or even as the nominal second striker in the formation that has suited Sturridge and Suarez so well.
The latter might represent a move too far from his position of greatest effect, however. In an ideal world, to most closely replicate his best team until Sturridge returns, Rodgers would prefer to have Coutinho in the hole behind Suarez and another out-and-out centre forward.
This was surely the role for which Fabio Borini would have been best suited – but, loaned out to Sunderland, he will not be able to seize the chance. Instead, it must be seen as the golden opportunity for Iago Aspas to finally make his mark on English football.
Since Liverpool spent over €8 million on his signature from Celta Vigo, the 26-year-old has rarely been seen, thanks in part to a thigh injury picked up in October. He was on the bench at Hull, though was not brought on, not trusted enough to make a difference for a risky run-out to be worth it after an inauspicious first six outings.
Aspas is not a ready-made substitute for Sturridge – quick but not electrically so, with more of a propensity to pass rather than a poacher’s selfish streak – but if his signing is to mean something, then this is the situation in which to use him.
Another summer signing, Luis Alberto, may be worth a try, especially given the travails of Sterling and Moses. The wide forward is far from the finished article but could have featured at least sparingly in Barcelona’s first team this season before his move to Anfield and could do with the minutes.
The only definite is that Coutinho will play if fit. That will most likely be in the No.10 position but, given the paucity of in-form forward options, Rodgers could yet decide to shunt him a little wider and continue to play three in midfield. The Reds would be a little more stifled as a result but, with fewer risks taken up front, might simply target solidity over the busy festive period.
That, though, is the extent of the choices available to Rodgers. Short of trying out even younger players such as Samed Yesil or repositioning those already out of form – the possibility of Moses being moved more centrally to deputise, for example – he can only tweak with what he has.
It should say a lot about his summer transfer business, either way. The activity of Aspas and Alberto, particularly compared to Borini, will be closely watched. If Rodgers cannot trust them now, then when?
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