By my reckoning, teams expected to challenge at the top end of the Premier League need approximately six attacking players; exactly where they line-up in the team is open to adjustment, but Roy Hodgson’s approach at Fulham – which was understandably more negative – will not translate.
Four ‘defending’ defenders and two central midfielders who didn’t really get into the box (more ‘Alonso’ than ‘Gerrard’) left just the two wingers and the two strikers. For Fulham, this was often fine; for Liverpool, it won’t be. But of course, he will be aware of that. He has a different set of players and a different set of challenges.
What critics of Rafa Benítez failed to recognise was that in Johnson and Insua, Liverpool had two of the best attacking full-backs in the league. (Johnson was sensational at times, while Insua was the division’s top assist-making full-back going into the final months of the campaign.) These were not defenders, but quasi-wingers. Fabio Aurelio was also a forward-thinking full-back, rather than a solid oak.
The four defenders for Liverpool were not the back four, but the square in front of the keeper: two centre-backs (although Agger could drift forward like a midfielder) and the two ‘holding’ midfielders (even though they didn’t hold 100% of the time).
This left six attacking players: the full-backs, the wide midfielders, and the two furthest upfield, usually a striker and split-striker.
It wasn’t rigid. Kuyt could defend brilliantly, but he also created and scored a lot of goals from the right, even if he, like Maxi, wasn’t an exciting winger. As mentioned, Agger could step into midfield, even beyond. Gerrard could drift deep, but also go beyond the centre-forward with pace, something that split-strikers like Dalglish and Sheringham never could. And at home against the weaker opposition, Gerrard started in a central midfield role, meaning seven ostensibly-attacking players.
Of course, last season – unlike 2008/09, when the Reds top-scored in the Premier League – it didn’t work in practice as well as it did in theory.
It fell apart with the absence of Torres half of the time, with the funds for another striker (raised from the sale of Robbie Keane) withdrawn last summer; the failure of Aquilani to be fit enough, quickly enough, to ‘replace’ Alonso; the lack of form and confidence of Gerrard; the head-turning Barcelona interest for Mascherano; the four-month absence of the new attacking dimension, Glen Johnson, who also had a few to-be-expected bedding-in problems with the rest of a frequently changing back four (due to injuries); and sundry other minor problems that, when combined, left a team weak and, at times, imbalanced.
Whatever Roy Hodgson tries to do tactically, the chances of succeeding will rely on having his best players available for most of the time. But if everyone is fit, here’s how I see things working.
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