Review Series Part Three: The Midfield

The nadir of the Liverpool midfield under Brendan Rodgers was the performance against Southampton away, in his first season in charge. Not only did the defeat mark the end of any possible challenge for the top four places, but the manner in which the team was carved apart time and again was deeply disturbing. A half-fit Joe Allen and a slowing Steven Gerrard were overwhelmed in an experimental midfield, a 4-2-4 formation aimed at flooding the pitch with attacking players. Fast-forward to the season just gone and the contrast could not be more striking. Liverpool’s two best midfield performances of the season – Arsenal at home and Tottenham away – were a far cry from the shaky, uncertain matches of the year before. Not only were the opposition players dominated, but the two matches showed the ability of the team to adjust to different styles of play in order to get the best results. The Tottenham game was an excellent demonstration of controlled, high-pressing possession football; a disciplined midfield trio of Lucas, Allen and Henderson working in tandem to provide a platform for their attacking colleagues, protecting the defence with ease and pulling the Spurs team apart through a combination of slick passing and intense pressure on the ball. Equally as impressive was the home game against Arsenal. This time however, the midfield was content to draw the opposition into their own half before releasing a devastating barrage of counter-attack after counter-attack, slicing through one of the best defences in the league at will.

Of course, there were games when a willingness to drive forward left the Reds a little short at the back. Moments of naivety against the likes of Southampton and Aston Villa were punished; likewise, the frustrations of Chelsea and Crystal Palace showed a team still getting to grips with their new-found status as title contenders. A number of injuries, most crucially in the pile-up of fixtures in the Christmas period, also had a negative effect on the stability and efficacy of the midfield unit. That said, tactical innovation from the manager and a number of top quality performances throughout the season meant a quality campaign for the Liverpool middle.

Tactical Changes

The two most obvious alterations to the Liverpool line-up over the course of the season were the changes in role for Philippe Coutinho and the captain Steven Gerrard. Gerrard was reinvented in a deep-lying, regista position in front of the of the two centre-backs. Although further back on the pitch, this position was not exclusively defensive as a lot of the early pressure on opponents came from a hard running pair of central midfielders ahead of the captain; Jordan Henderson excelled in this role, and the adaptation of Coutinho to a similar task alongside the former Sunderland man meant the Reds added some much-needed attacking quality in the central midfield positions. The switch from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3 (and later a 4-4-2 diamond) saw an end to the vast gaps between midfield and attack (or defence) which had been a feature of previous seasons. Passing ability all over the pitch coupled with no deficit in numbers at the back meant the team were able to play some of the most exciting attacking football in Europe, varying the offensive play as the situation demanded. Raheem Sterling’s inclusion as a number 10 was a further revelation which allowed the youngster to make good on his early promise and finish the campaign with an impressive goalscoring record. The versatility of players such as Allen, Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling was a key factor in allowing the side to play in a variety of different formations over the course of the year. That said, there were times when injury and suspension threatened to reveal the relatively threadbare nature of the Liverpool squad. It is no great surprise to hear the club are in talks with Southampton over the availability of the versatile Adam Lallana; the ability to play in more than one position will be an essential quality if the Reds are to compete across multiple competitions next season.

Jordan Henderson

Jordan Henderson had his best season yet in a Liverpool shirt, scoring 5 goals and assisting 7 across all competitions. The numbers do not tell the whole story, however; the fact that his inclusion in the England squad has raised no eyebrows is testament to his importance to Liverpool’s title charge. Indeed, a rare bad tackle against Manchester City which saw him banned for three games may well be seen in hindsight as one of the turning points of the season. His industry and increasingly sharp eye for a pass would have been invaluable against the parked bus of Chelsea, whilst his stamina and leadership skills would have no doubt been of great use in the capitulation at Palace. Adaptable, strong, athletic and growing in confidence, Henderson can be a vital cog in next year’s search for silverware. A bit of shooting practice and £16m will look more of a bargain than ever.

Henderson – 8.5/10

Steven Gerrard

As one of the greatest players in the club’s history, Steven Gerrard deserves to lift the Premier League trophy more than any other member of the squad. His own desire to do so has been more evident than ever this year, with a fantastic contribution to the Liverpool cause once again from the skipper. A truly magnificent return of 15 goals and 15 assists in all competitions a fitting example of how Gerrard can produce consistently at the very top level. All this in a season of learning a new position which will enable him to play on for another couple of years – hopefully enough time for him to win the one trophy which has evaded him so far in a stunning career. There are still occasions when his desire to win can cause lapses in discipline, such as the games against Chelsea and Palace. As trust in his team-mates and the manager grows, however, it is likely that Gerrard will be happy to play any role he can in bringing the league title back to Anfield. His presence in the dressing-room and his experience make him an invaluable member of the Liverpool team, now and in the future.

Gerrard – 9/10

Lucas Leiva

Lucas Leiva had another injury-hit season which proved to be a metaphor for his Liverpool career as a whole. The Brazilian was excellent on occasion, showing his class and ability most clearly when played as the sole defensive pivot in a traditional 4-3-3. The games against Manchester City and Tottenham, both played away, were prime examples; the Spurs game in particular a timely reminder of just how good Lucas can be in shielding the back four. The conversion of Gerrard, however, meant a slightly different role for Lucas – one in which he struggled a little. Despite originally being a box-to-box midfielder, his various injury problems have meant a loss of mobility which is badly exposed in Liverpool’s high-pressing game. When asked to sit deep and read the game, Lucas is exceptional; when pressuring the opposition high up the pitch, his inability to protect the space behind him due to a lack of pace is a real problem. Although his calming presence and confident passing on the ball were useful in closing out games, it would appear that rumours of his exit may not be unfounded. A shame for a player whose true worth was becoming apparent before a run of devastating injuries.

Lucas Leiva – 7/10

Joe Allen

Another player with a chequered injury history, Joe Allen took some significant steps in his journey as a Liverpool player this year. Not only in grabbing his first Premier League goal for the Reds, but also in consistent demonstrations of the quality and control he can bring to games. In and out of the side due to some niggling injuries and the form of players around him, Allen nonetheless showed, on more than one occasion, why Brendan Rodgers was so keen to have him in the squad. A tidy and efficient passer of the ball with good tackling ability and superb vision, Allen will be a key part of next year’s campaign.

Joe Allen – 7.5/10

Philippe Coutinho

Injuries aside, Allen was also kept out of the side by the development of Philippe Coutinho in a central midfield position. Initial doubts about his ability to shoulder his defensive responsibilities were brushed aside after two stellar performances at Anfield, against Everton and Arsenal respectively. A snappy tackler with a good low centre of gravity and an instinctive knowledge of when to put pressure on an opposing player, Coutinho adapted very quickly to the demands of his new role. Allied to his wonderful vision, passing range and dribbling ability, the young Brazilian had a very good season that was only just short of excellent. A slight tendency to go missing at times and an over-eagerness to shoot are facets of his game that will disappear as he gets older. A steal at £8.5m, Coutinho will be an essential part of the Liverpool teams of the future.

Philippe Coutinho – 8/10

Conclusion

An extremely encouraging year of improvement for the Reds’ midfield. It will be fascinating to see if Sterling will continue his run in the number 10 position, or if he will revert back to the wide-forward role which characterised much of his season this year. Likewise, the additions and sales the club makes over the summer will say a great deal about the direction Rodgers is wanting the club to go in. Should Lucas depart, a back-up option for Gerrard seems likely, whilst the attacking berths in central midfield may well be bolstered by the arrival of Adam Lallana. The increased number of matches will no doubt lead to multiple changes in personnel and position, but on the evidence of this season the midfield is more than up to the task.



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Review Series Part Three: The Midfield
Jordan Henderson8.5
Steven Gerrard9
Lucas Leiva7
Joe Allen7.5
Philippe Coutinho8
8Overall Score

About The Author

Toby Podmore

is a Liverpool-supporting cuckoo from a rugby-mad South African nest in north London, Toby Podmore was brought to Liverpool football club through a soft spot for Michael Owen. With that well and truly gone, his love for the club has remained with him from France to the UK and back again. He now spends his time reading, writing and watching the club from Belfast.

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