The Reds’ scramble to cover at full-back has caused instability at centre-back, while a mooted move for Basel forward Mohamed Salah would provide a vital new option out wide
By George Ankers
Liverpool are enjoying their most promising season since 2008-09.
Luis Suarez’s brilliance has reached new heights, Daniel Sturridge has flourished with confidence and when able to play together, the pair have struck fear into the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers has them fourth, tantalisingly close to a long-awaited return to the Champions League.
The January transfer window is often seen as a risk. It tempts panic buys. From Andy Carroll to the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, though, the Reds know its positives and negatives better than most.
And this is as key a January as they have faced in recent memory. Every year that passes without that all-important Champions League cash puts them further behind their rivals’ financial might and pulling power and they will not reap the benefits of an improved stadium for at least two or three years yet.
Thus, with a top-four place to lose, many of their rivals in transitional periods and teams throughout the top half making a habit of beating each other, Liverpool have a golden opportunity which must be taken. Suarez’s future, too, depends on it. That means taking action now to solve what problems they can – and, despite their improved position, there are problems to be solved.
The first is at the back. If teams should take just the one lesson from Arsenal this season, it is that a settled defence can work wonders. The solidity of the Per Mertesacker-Laurent Koscielny partnership for the leaders has been a revelation, one that makes a mockery of the Reds’ approach.
Rodgers, plainly, does not know what his first-choice back line looks like. Martin Skrtel has been the most frequently fielded centre-back, but one suspects only because he cannot be shoehorned in to cover at full-back.
After his 18 outings, Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure have started 11, eight and eight games respectively in the middle. The former two, however, have also been made to deputise on the left, while the latter has occasionally been needed on the right. Between the four of them, Skrtel, Agger, Sakho and Toure have it in them to rival Mertesacker and Koscielny but not until a clear hierarchy is found.
It is for this reason that Rodgers needs to invest on the left flank. His need to shuffle is understandable – his first-choice left-back, Jose Enrique, has been injured for some time and is not likely to be back before the window shuts. Of his other options, Aly Cissokho has been unimpressive and Glen Johnson is more comfortable on the right but is having a less outstanding season than last..
Jose Enrique will be back before too long but he needs a serious, direct competitor even upon his return, one comfortable with a more advanced role when Liverpool switch to a 3-5-2, as they have done several times in 2013-14.
Reports have linked them with Ryan Bertrand and it is a move that would make a lot of sense. The Reds have recent experience of rehabilitating players who struggled for playing time at Chelsea, as Sturridge can attest, and Bertrand looks a long way from displacing Ashley Cole or Cesar Azpilicueta.
Rodgers knows the 24-year-old from his time as a coach at Stamford Bridge, has a good relationship with Jose Mourinho and would benefit from a cut-price deal, as Bertrand would likely represent. The Englishman also has the unlikely but useful advantage of Champions League experience, having made his European debut in the final when the Blues lifted the trophy in 2012.
Concurrent to that hunt for defensive stability should be a similar search for a winger and it looks like Liverpool are already hard at work on that front, with Basel’s Mohamed Salah “99 per cent certain” to move to Anfield, according to a former team-mate.
It is the right position to target. Rodgers’s options up front have been limited since Sturridge’s injury but Iago Aspas’s first goal in Liverpool colours on Sunday was a timely boost. With the England international due back soon, the Spaniard should at least be trusted until the end of the season to provide back-up, especially as both Sturridge and Suarez’s form is not entirely dependent on the other’s presence.
While that may yet be a point of reinforcement in the summer, the flanks are of more immediate concern. Recognising that the Suarez-Sturridge partnership, when fit, has to an extent reduced the need for out-and-out wingers, as has the experimenting with 3-5-2, the periods with only one of the pair available have been awkward in regards to width.
|STERLING v MOSES
|2013-14 PREMIER LEAGUE STATS
In December, Raheem Sterling has enjoyed a renaissance, with a run of three goals in four games before Christmas. However, that came after a long period of frustrating form and at 19 such peaks and troughs are to be expected. Troublingly, he is the most senior of the Reds’ most recognised wide men, ahead of Victor Moses and Luis Alberto.
Moses’ failure to light up Anfield came as a surprise – with his pacey, direct approach, he appeared a fine fit. Nevertheless, fail he has so far, and Rodgers should not have to focus unduly on re-inspiring a disappointing player who will be back at parent club Chelsea by the season’s end. In several key respects – shots per game (0.8), key passes (0.6 per game), dribbles (1.1) and turnovers (0.6) – Moses lags behind the more dynamic Sterling (1.3, 1.4, 2.1 and 1.1, respectively).
Alberto, meanwhile, is definitively a work in progress as he adapts to life in England. He is not this season’s answer. Oussama Assaidi has impressed lately in his loan spell at Stoke City but will not return in time to affect the Reds’ Champions League chase.
This paucity of options has seen Coutinho and Jordan Henderson forced out wide too often and, while the latter has often impressed on the right, his best position is in the centre of midfield, where he should focus on continuing to flourish. Steven Gerrard, after all, is not going to succeed himself.
Targeting Salah makes sense on several counts. On the most basic level, he is a natural wide player, of which the Reds clearly lack. Helpfully, he is left-footed, which cannot be said for Sterling, Moses or Alberto.
At 21, he is young enough to improve on his already very promising performances at European level, as well as young enough not to necessarily demand a starting place every week, which will prove helpful when Suarez is reunited with Sturridge. His attacking instincts – he loves to cut in towards goal on his left foot and has 17 goals in 27 games for Egypt – mean he could also provide further cover for either of the two when necessary.
Comfortingly, Liverpool are in no need of a Carroll-style major transfer this January. Their needs are for stability, to ensure that they always have players playing in their proper positions, thereby allowing for a settled side. It need not take a fortune but a wide man at either end of the pitch is the order of the day.
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