By Paul Tomkins.
When Liverpool sold Luis Suarez and reinvested the money in players across several positions, I believed that it could result in the Reds becoming a better side. That didn’t happen; initially, at least. Indeed, after a near-perfect performance at White Hart Lane before the autumn set it, Liverpool spent the next few months looking much worse. Nothing looked right: the formation, the new players, the defence, and now the strike-force were drawing blanks.
But right now the team looks more like a ‘proper’ side than at any time last season. My sense of a ‘proper’ side is one that can attack and defend; one that is balanced, and not reliant on a single star player. The key now, I sense, is whether this more cohesive whole – this balanced XI – can match the massively-exceeded sum-of-parts of last season’s outfit, which was fired by two outstanding centre-forwards. Is the power of the team able to match the power of two world-class strikers in unison?
Don’t get me wrong: last season’s side wasn’t just about the attackers. Jordan Henderson came of age in the midfield. Steven Gerrard had five months of freedom on the ball in deep areas, to spray sublime passes, before teams wised up. But it was like pinball. Suarez and Sturridge would guarantee that, at the very least, Liverpool were unlikely to leave Liverpool’s score at 0, but in being so cavalier, clean sheets grew increasingly rare.
When a great player leaves a club it opens up space for others to shine. We’ve seen at Barcelona this season that you can’t have three great strikers all looking their best, because to look their best each one needs a lot of the ball – and no club has so much possession that all three of its strikers are heavily involved. So Suarez is doing the runs off the ball, the tracking back, the harrying; almost their version of Dirk Kuyt, but with outrageous skill too. He just doesn’t get to show that skill as much, because he’s a supporting player. If a chance falls to him you’d expect him to score, or to play the perfect pass to Messi or Neymar, but he’s more peripheral. If anything, Alexis Sanchez was undervalued last summer because his true ability was inhibited by the system (but if you have Messi and Neymar, that makes sense).
In the summer I expected Philippe Coutinho to move from the semi-peripheral figure of last season – brilliant in the games where he was involved, but too anonymous at other times. Finally he’s looking like a player that can do damage every single game, with the system and the central position allowing him to make the most of his talents – the finishing needs to improve but the skill and the through-balls are near-perfection. Also, now at the ripe old age of 20, Raheem Sterling is both maturing and, in the absence of Suarez, spending more time on the ball in good areas. Both have more freedom to run with the ball, because Suarez isn’t there, running with the ball. All we need now is for referees to give the weekly penalties that should be awarded for fouls on Sterling in the box.
The return of Sturridge adds another dimension – dead-eye finishing, at last! – but it means one of Coutinho or Sterling may become a bit more peripheral. The three of them can’t all be central – literally, and figuratively (one of them will have to play either a bit deeper or a bit wider) – but you sense they’ll still make for a fantastic attacking trio.
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