Following Liverpool’s comprehensive loss to Arsenal last weekend, questions must be asked of the Reds’ midfield. As the game progressed, Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva were widely passed off the pitch, and looked exhausted by the time the final whistle blew. This left Jordan Henderson to do the lion’s share of the team’s pressing in the middle of the field for large portions of the game which, despite his tenacity, was always going to be a losing tactic against the likes of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, and Mikel Arteta.

The Problem

While both Lucas and Gerrard have looked very strong against lower teams this season – one needs to look no further than Liverpool’s mauling of West Bromwich Albion for evidence of this  – they are clearly found out when playing against a team which dominates possession, precisely because they lack the stamina to successfully press the opposition for 90 minutes. Though both players are undeniably talented, they are liabilities when played at the same time for the entirety of games, especially against those teams competing for a spot in the top four (such as Everton, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Chelsea, all of whom Liverpool will play away from home within the next 9 games). This commentator has serious doubts that the midfield, as it currently stands, will be able to cope with the high levels of pressure and athleticism which these other sides possess (just the thought of Steven and Lucas going toe-to-toe with Paulinho, Moussa Dembele, and Sandro for an entire game makes me go a bit pale). Still, I believe that, with a few tweaks, this Liverpool side could somewhat change its character and offer a more difficult  challenge to those who might compete with the mighty Reds for a place in next year’s Champions League.

The Solution(s)

There are two things that Brendan Rodgers should do in order to improve Liverpool’s midfield, prior to his almost inevitable purchase of a strong, athletic defensive midfielder in January.

1) Brendan Rodgers should consider changing Liverpool’s formation.

Pushed to the wing?

Pushed to the wing?

While I was originally in favor of switching to the 3-5-2, Saturday’s loss demonstrated that it might not be Liverpool’s best formation. While the center backs performed well enough, Liverpool was generally overrun on the wings, and could not control the midfield, Glen Johnson’s unfortunate facial infection, leading to the controversial start of youngster Jon Flanagan, exposed Liverpool’s glaring lack of depth at right wing back, and Aly Cissokho’s woeful performance had many Reds wishing that Jose Enrique was back fit. Though I personally cut Cissokho some slack – he has just recently come into the team and might still be adjusting to the pace of the Premier League – I am starting to lose faith in the overall quality of our wing backs, especially since they are so crucial to successfully running a system with three at the back. On many occasions against Arsenal, moreover, Kolo Toure, Mamadou Sahko, and Martin Skrtel were all left covering the lone Olivier Giroud. This apparently wasteful triple coverage left the Reds understaffed in the midfield.

With these remarks in mind, there are several routes that Brendan Rodgers could pursue in order to solve Liverpool’s problems from the weekend. First, he could continue using a system with three center backs, especially upon the return of Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique to fitness. If he were to continue this style, however, he should consider switching his personnel in the center of midfield (more on this later). Second, Rodgers could employ a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system, placing Coutinho behind an attacking trident of Victor Moses, Daniel Sturridge, and Luis Suarez. Though this formation would force Luis Suarez to the wing – a shame considering his excellent performances partnering Sturridge – he has extensive experience playing in this position for both Ajax and the Uruguayan national team, and has excelled cutting in from the tight angles provided by the flanks. The question of who to place behind Coutinho in this formation, however, remains. Third, Rodgers could begin play a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. The advantage of this formation is that it would allow Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez to continue playing alongside one another, and potentially continue their scintillating form. Still, the question of who plays in midfield remains. This leads to the second point, which is that…

2) Brendan Rodgers has to make the tough call, and realize that both Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva should not be playing the duration of every single game, and Joe Allen should be given an opportunity to run Liverpool’s midfield.

I am sure that I will receive criticism for this view, so allow me to explain myself. First, let me say that I love Steven Gerrard. He is nothing short of a legend, he still puts in some strong performances, and his set piece delivery has been fantastic of late. Lucas, likewise, has been an excellent servant to the club, and has yet to fully return to his best. That being said, I don’t think either player is ideal for the current Liverpool team. Lucas, for his part, tends to get overwhelmed in the midfield. He lacks a physical presence against the counterattack, leading to his being dribbled past with frightening regularity, and his fitness issues have shown, especially late on in games. Gerrard is a an entirely differ matter altogether.

The question of Gerrard or Allen is an interesting one. Allen, on the one hand, represents the prototypical student of Rodgers’ self-professed commitment to possession-based “death by football.” He is the ideal Rodgers player: tactically aware, excellent at retaining the ball, and effectively functioning as a metronome that sets an even pace for the entire team. While the moniker of the “Welsh Xavi” has probably piled undue stress and expectation on the young player, the comparison is an appropriate one, as both players boast markedly similar styles of play. Gerrard, on the other hand, is less of a metronome and more of a railroad engineer: he drives the team forward with purpose and directness, punctuated by surging runs and raking, 40 yard passes. Or, at least, that is what he was known for. While Stevie G still commands an impressive range of passing and a commanding presence, his surging runs are mostly a thing of the past (as much as it pains me to say it). Since he does not have Allen’s aptitude for maintaining possession, Gerrard has forced Rodgers to make a decision between his diminutive Welshman and his legendary captain and, in turn, between playing “death by football” and a system which has a bit of an identity crisis. Though Liverpool’s third place standing shows that they have had a successful season so far, the team’s performance against Arsenal suggests it might be time for a change.

Joe Allen v Arsenal

Joe Allen v Arsenal

Steven Gerrard v Arsenal

Steven Gerrard v Arsenal

 

To compare Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard, one must look no farther than two performances: Gerrard’s in this past weekend’s 2-0 loss to Arsenal, and Allen’s in last season’s third game, which was also a 2-0 loss to Arsenal. On the one hand, in the last game Gerrard made an impressive 69 passes out of 82 attempted, for an 84% completion percentage. He also completed 2 of 3 attempted tackles, and completed 0 of his attempted 2 take-ons. Critically, Gerrard managed zero interceptions throughout the game, demonstrating his inability to halt Arsenal’s impressive midfield passing. I would also wager that his performance dropped significantly as the game progressed. On the other hand, Joe Allen’s performance – a mere three games into Brendan Rodgers’ tenure at Liverpool – was markedly better. Allen also managed to complete 69 passes, but out of 75 passes, for a pass completion percentage of 92%. He completed 1 of 2 tackles, and succeeded on his single attempt at taking on an opposing player. What is most impressive, however, is that he managed 3 interceptions in the game as well. A comparison of the players’ heat maps, moreover, shows that, while Gerrard was tiring himself out all over the pitch, Allen stayed mostly in the middle of the pitch, tidying up play and keeping possession. Tellingly, in this game, Liverpool had 51% of possession, compared to Arsenal’s 49%. In this year’s iteration, Arsenal commanded 54% of possession. To further demonstrate Allen’s aptitude , againagainst big team, one must look to his performance against Manchester City, where the Welshman completed 43 of his 46 passes for a 93% completion percentage, alongside 4 interceptions. If one looks back to his performances at Swansea, moreover, Allen’s numbers were nothing short of outstanding. (Don’t believe me? Check out this article .

Ultimately, the decision between Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard is one of style. If Rodgers is to effectively play his favored “death by football,” he must make the difficult decision and start playing Allen far more often than he has. While Gerrard is by no means a poor player, he is in desperate need of rest, and should simply not be playing every minute of every game. With a relatively easy home game against Fulham on the horizon, Rodgers would be smart to give Allen some time on the pitch, perhaps even a start. In any of the formations previously noted, Allen could excel: in a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3, Allen could sit next to Jordan Henderson behind Coutinho, both contributing to offensive and defensive duties, or play next to Henderson and Lucas in the 4-4-2 diamond, again behind Coutinho. If Rodgers is able to make this call, we may see a Liverpool midfield which is more equipped to his style, a style which emphasizes possession that could more readily compete with the midfields of the other teams in competition for this year’s Champions League positions.



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About The Author

Alex Beck

is an American student at the University of Wisconsin, studying political science and history. Though he has only followed Liverpool since the 2011 season, he has become a die-hard fan of the Reds. He has a penchant for scouting reports, and loves all things Kolo Toure. He hopes to one day have hair as good as Jordan Henderson.

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