Category Archives: Player analysis

Time for Liverpool to Rethink How to Manage Steven Gerrard’s Later Years

Two of the defining components of England’s bygone Golden Generation experienced contrasting fortunes in the Premier League last weekend: While Frank Lampard scored a dramatic late equalizer after coming off the bench against old club Chelsea, Steven Gerrard was given the runaround by former Liverpool flop Stewart Downing against West Ham United.

After what has transpired over the last few months—Lampard being released from his contract at Stamford Bridge after 13 glorious seasons and becoming Chelsea’s all-time record goalscorer, and Gerrard being nominated for the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award after his pivotal role in Liverpool’s outstanding season—the contrast couldn’t have been bigger.

While England’s dismal display at the Brazil World Cup ultimately led to two of their greatest-ever midfielders announcing their international retirement later in the summer, it seems that two modern legends of the Premier League era have since embarked on drastically different career paths.

With Frank Lampard adopting a role as a key squad player at Manchester City and making an instant impact in the penalty box on Sunday, and Gerrard finding himself targeted week after week as the deepest-lying playmaker in the Liverpool midfield, perhaps it’s time for the Reds to rethink how they are and should be managing the final years of Steven Gerrard’s career.

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

 

Steven Gerrard, the Impact Sub?

We’ve seen this with Ryan Giggs in the previous few years and, increasingly over the past few seasons, with Frank Lampard at Chelsea and now at Manchester City: As players enter the final years of their careers, their game time needs to be managed so they can stay at peak fitness and still remain productive when they do take to the field.

This is especially true for players relying on explosive pace and power to conjure up split-second moments of game-changing magic. While Gerrard has never been the pacy wing wizard Giggs used to be in his prime, the Liverpool skipper made his name with his lung-bursting runs from midfield, barnstorming drives into the penalty area and blockbuster shots from long range.

There’s nothing wrong with Brendan Rodgers pushing Gerrard deeper in the midfield to take up his current deep-lying playmaker position per se; the problem is that at 34 years of age, Gerrard is still completing 90-minute games week in, week out.

And with the Champions League now back in Liverpool’s schedule, that is simply unsustainable.

After a tough win at home against unfancied Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad in the Champions League, Gerrard’s 90 minutes at Upton Park was unsavory at best, depressing at worst. Compared to leaving his midfield area glaringly vacant for opponents to storm into time and again, getting overrun by Stewart Downing is already a less concerning headline.

Rodgers’ toughest mandate during his time as Liverpool manager arguably isn’t to have gotten the Reds back into the European big time; it was to phase Gerrard out in the right way and to manage the latter stages of his career.

Recent injuries to Joe Allen and Emre Can have forced his hand, but Liverpool fans should reasonably expect to see Gerrard feature more as an impact substitute as the rest of the season unfolds.

Only as an impact substitute, or at least a lessened status as a squad player, will Gerrard’s career really be prolonged, and not hastened towards becoming the main liability in the middle of the park for Liverpool.

 

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Making Use of Gerrard’s Versatility

One factor that should influence Rodgers’ planning and thinking over the next couple of seasons is the fact that he is one of the most complete midfielders to ever have come out of England. In that regard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard don’t even come close.

It’s one thing to have a skill set comparable to Andrea Pirlo’s (even if his positional discipline and tactical understanding are inferior); it’s quite another to have won the PFA Player of the Year award playing as an unorthodox right-winger, to have struck up a world-class partnership with Fernando Torres as a second striker and to have influenced the biggest stage of all—the Champions League final—as a makeshift right-wing-back.

Now, there is no need for Gerrard to fill in at right-back—Liverpool are comfortably sorted at the moment with Javi Manquillo proving to be an astute acquisition and a number of players capable of assuming the role—and indeed the Reds’ optimal 4-4-2 diamond formation doesn’t allow for a right-winger.

Yet as Rodgers clearly still seems to regard Gerrard as the one “undroppable” player in his team—often substituting his midfield partners when Liverpool are in need of a change in formation or approach, before he takes that drastic step to drop his captain from the starting XI and turn him into an impact substitute—there is another blueprint that he can reference.

There’s no finer example than Roberto Mancini’s favorite tactical switch during his reign at the Etihad Stadium: Sending on a defensive midfielder (often Nigel de Jong), releasing Yaya Toure’s defensive shackles and pushing him forward into a free attacking-midfield role.

That Rodgers doesn’t have a world-class defensive midfielder at his disposal is perhaps down to the fact that he regards Gerrard as his optimal regista sitting at the base of his midfield, with Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen providing protection and help around him. Emre Can’s arrival, however, is interesting and could potentially pose an alternative for the Liverpool manager.

While not a specialist defensive midfielder, Can—who ironically has a skill set most comparable to Yaya Toure’s out of Liverpool’s midfield contingent—has more than enough to offer in terms of steel, physicality, pace and defensive nous. All Rodgers needs to do, when Can returns from injury and if he starts on the bench, is send him on and let Gerrard rekindle his magic with a free-scoring forward.

Only this time it’s Daniel Sturridge.

 

Phil Cole/Getty Images

 

 

A Case for Gerrard the Forward

It’s interesting that Rafael Benitez, the manager credited with realizing Gerrard’s potential as a devastating attacker rather than a controlled midfielder, stated during Gerrard’s peak years that he saw him becoming a striker later in his career, according to The Sun (via Emily Benammar in the Telegraph). Rodgers, on the other hand, has suggested he could become a right-sided center back, per BBC Sport.

Both suggestions reflect Gerrard’s universality as the complete modern footballer, to the extent that two managers who have reinvented his game can’t even agree on whether it’s his attacking game or defensive abilities that make him stand out.

But while he has always been known as much for his match-winning piledrivers as he is for his last-ditch tackles and thunderous challenges, Gerrard has always been afforded the freedom to do essentially whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. It’s for this reason he so frequently drove into the box in his heyday to score important goals.

That Gerrard reserves his best performances when a select duo is played as his midfield colleagues—now usually and preferably Henderson and Allen—means that Rodgers needs to tailor the entirety of Liverpool’s approach play to Gerrard by shaping the midfield, and thus forward line, around his strengths and deficiencies.

Without his famous acceleration, pace and power, Gerrard is required, perhaps more so than ever, to sit in front of his defence, command his midfield, control his area and remain positionally disciplined, which is a huge ask of a player who has always turned up to save the day when his team has needed him to.

That sounds all right until he ventures forward at his own will, leaving his area and the defence exposed—while without having the pace or stamina to track back to atone for a positional error.

Slotting Gerrard into a more advanced position akin to his prime might not see him replicate his majestic runs, but it would allow Rodgers to address a badly imbalanced midfield with more steel and defensive presence at the base, while retaining his captain’s famous vision, passing and game-changing shooting ability closer to the opponent’s goal.

After all, Gerrard is arguably the second most natural finisher currently in the first team—behind Daniel Sturridge—while the timing of his arrivals into the box have seen many a late winner, and his heading has long been an underrated facet to his attacking game.

In short, he is one of Liverpool’s few complete attacking weapons.

Moving him forward, playing him selectively and using him wisely in the wider context of the whole Liverpool team would reverse his rapid decline—and who knows, maybe Liverpool fans will be able to start cheering yet another superhuman winner from Steven Gerrard again. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of those.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

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Why Fabio Borini Should Be Ahead of Rickie Lambert in Liverpool Pecking Order

For their last two fixtures, Liverpool have turned to another Italian striker for further support up front in the second half. Not Mario Balotelli, but ex-Anfield outcast Fabio Borini.

It’s a considerable turnaround in fortunes for Borini, given that he found himself in limbo after rejecting a last-minute summer move to Queens Park Rangers, according to Chris Bascombe of theTelegraph. Liverpool’s earlier pursuit of Loic Remy and subsequent signing of Balotelli suggested that Brendan Rodgers had other options in mind ahead of Borini, who looked to be on his way out of Anfield.

Yet circumstances have fallen into place for Borini to perhaps salvage a career for himself at Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge’s injury, sustained while on international duty with Roy Hodgson’s England, has forced Rodgers to rely on his bench options.

Liverpool’s first signing of the summer may have been Rickie Lambert, but the current Reds setup almost demands that Borini should move ahead of the local Liverpudlian in the pecking order—and crucially, Rodgers seems to think so as well.

 

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Rickie Lambert, a Poor Man’s Mario Balotelli

When Lambert was recruited from Southampton, where he enjoyed a stellar career and became an England international in the process, it was clear that Rodgers was looking for something different to the Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge pairing that was so successful last season.

Lambert brought an interesting combination of strength, aerial prowess, composure and technique to the forward line that the Reds perhaps didn’t have last season, and he would’ve provided a useful outlet who could turn out to be one of the bargains of the offseason.

Rodgers’ highly public pursuit of Loic Remy after Suarez’s departure for Barcelona suggested that he was on the lookout for a striker with pace and direct running who would be useful on the break and alongside Sturridge, and who would further strengthen Lambert’s status in the squad as the go-to bench option up front.

Yet his subsequent chasing of Wilfried Bony—similar in style and mould to Lambert—and the eventual signing of Mario Balotelli has since moved him down the pecking order, as Rodgers now has a better and more established version of Lambert at his disposal.

Sure, Lambert made a difference when he came off the bench in the late win against Southampton on the opening day of the season, but with Balotelli firmly instilled as first-choice at Anfield, things don’t look too good for Lambert.

 

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Fabio Borini’s Strengths as a Sub

And what Fabio Borini brings to the table makes him an ideal option to change things up—not just from Liverpool’s perspective, but against tired legs in the opposition when he comes off the bench in the second half.

Borini’s effervescent running—not many people can realistically argue against his work rate—and excellent attacking positioning makes him a nuisance to deal with from a defensive point of view. In this sense, his effect may be compared to Southampton’s Shane Long, who also doesn’t boast a prolific scoring record but is prized for his contributions to the team up front.

Indeed, what Liverpool have been missing this season is Suarez’s immense work rate from a deeper-lying forward position, as Rodgers looks to continue instilling a similar work ethic into new recruit Balotelli, now tasked with that same role, according to David Maddock of the Mirror.

Borini’s good grasp of positioning and ability to get into the game with his running, regardless of his personal form, means that he gets into good positions to threaten the opposition goal—see his header against Ludogorets that forced goalkeeper Milan Borjan into a fine save not long after he came off the bench—and has the legs to stretch the play and occupy defenders.

Contrast this with Lambert’s more languid style of play: Speed has never been a hallmark of his game, while he relies more on a strong understanding of space to create and finish, rather than being a nuisance to defenders, which is now essential to Rodgers’ blueprint at Anfield.

This makes it hard for Lambert to influence the game just by being on the pitch, especially after coming on as a substitute and requiring time to settle into the rhythm of the game.

 

Jon Super/Associated Press

 

 

Two up Top Is Now Indisputably Liverpool’s Best System

A summer of attacking midfield signings in Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic to add to an already strong collection including Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling hinted at Rodgers’ interest in potentially exploring a 4-2-3-1 system at Anfield, which he has done in the first few weeks of the season.

Yet this was perhaps also an enforced switch, with Sturridge’s injury rendering Balotelli as their only fit senior striker.

Unfortunately, Balotelli still has quite a way to go before he can match Suarez’s effect on the team from a work ethic standpoint, while the lack of penetration ahead of the midfield area has unsurprisingly seen a downturn in Coutinho’s form.

Perhaps Coutinho as the No. 10 works best when there is a Sturridge alongside Balotelli to stretch defences for the Brazilian playmaker to find space to launch his game-changing passes—and perhaps Sterling isn’t quite as cut out to play that off-the-shoulder striker furthest forward as he is as behind a front two.

Lambert’s similarity—or rather lack of a real differentiation in playing style—to Balotelli means that he is much less ideal as a partner for Balotelli rather than a direct replacement. What Balotelli and his team-mates are now crying out for is movement and running up front.

Step up Fabio Borini, who has it in his locker to make a difference. He did enough on loan at Sunderland last season for them to want to take him on a permanent basis this year but has decided to fight for his place at Liverpool.

Now is his chance to prove that he deserves to not only move ahead of Rickie Lambert in the pecking order at Anfield, but to push Rodgers’ first-choice front two for a starting place.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Mario Balotelli Will Be Better at Liverpool Than Manchester City

Mario Balotelli is back in England with Liverpool, and he’s still attracting headlines everywhere he goes.

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Kenny Jackett had to take to the media to reject widespread suggestions on social media that Balotelli was involved in a clash during a behind-closed-doors friendly last week, via the Mirror.

Balotelli himself will be expecting more of the same rumor creation and spreading during his time at Anfield, as the media and fans continue to operate under the mythical persona that they have all combined to create.

But as he prepares to make his home debut in Red against Aston Villa this weekend, there are reasons to believe that while he will still be subject to constant scrutiny. Mario Balotelli will be a better player at Anfield than during his time with Manchester City.

Here are five reasons why.

 

He’s Four Years Older

It seems as if Mario Balotelli has been around forever. After all, we’ve heard all about his temper tantrums dating back to his days at Internazionale, his racism controversies during his time in Italy, then his folk legends at Manchester City.

That he has been in the spotlight since 2007 when he made his debut for Inter is a testament to his talent and potential, which led to Roberto Mancini giving him his debut at the Giuseppe Meazza.

When he arrived at City for £22.5 million, he brought a considerable reputation with him—yet he was only just 20 years old.

Four years on, Balotelli has become Italy’s starting striker, with a stint as AC Milan‘s starting striker sandwiched in between.

At just 24 years of age, Balotelli should finally come of age as a professional footballer, and he will be maturing and growing into his prime years at Liverpool.

 

A Young and Driven Dressing Room at Anfield

A Young and Driven Dressing Room at Anfield

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

 

 

In the teams he has previously played for, Balotelli was one of the most well-known, probably attracting the most controversy. Yet he was undisputedly one of the youngest stars on the team.

At Anfield, he will be playing with a group that will be hitting their peak roughly at the same time as he will—the likes of Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno and Javi Manquillo, all starting options in Brendan Rodgers’ team, are all younger than Balotelli, while Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson and Mamadou Sakho are all in the same age bracket.

Last season was evidence that Rodgers has cultivated a driven and confident dressing room culture at Anfield, and Balotelli will be taking to the training field every day with colleagues all eager to prove themselves as professional footballers.

With an Anfield crowd as adoring and patient towards new and young stars as they are famous for, he will know that time is on his side at Liverpool even when the world of Mario Balotelli seems to always be spinning much faster outside football.

 

He Can Concentrate on His Own Game

Upon Balotelli’s signing in late August, his agent Mino Raiola stated that his client wasn’t born to be a leader, and that he had “searched for a team where he can be an important player without being asked to lead,” according to the Daily Mail.

Often treated as the main man of AC Milan’s attack, coinciding with an alarming slide in the Serie A powerhouse’s fortunes and performances, Balotelli is also at an “all or nothing” stage at his age and period in his career, according to Raiola.

That Rodgers has actively looked to recruit leaders and club captains in his transfer business will not have been lost on Raiola or Balotelli himself, and the Italian striker will be surrounded by other vocal presences and leadership figures in the Anfield dressing room.

Raiola also stated that Steven Gerrard will protect him and allow him the freedom to concentrate on his own game, providing him a platform to excel at what he does best.

 

A Tactical Setup Allowing Him to Excel

A Tactical Setup Allowing Him to Excel

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

 

 

And what Balotelli does best is excel as an all-round forward with strengths in almost all areas of the attacking game.

With Rodgers appearing to settle on a 4-4-2 diamond formation as his preferred setup for most weeks, Balotelli will be a regular starter alongside Sturridge with the excitingly talented Raheem Sterling supporting the attack behind them.

A Reds side coursing with pace, energy, composure and off-the-ball pressing sets a platform for a relentless attack to excel, and Sturridge has on many occasions shown that he is much more dangerous in a strike partnership than as a lone striker.

With Sturridge, Sterling and Co. providing the pace and ever-improving tactical intelligence to occupy opposition defences, Balotelli will be given the space and freedom to create and score goals.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ Tutelage

Despite records that Balotelli has enjoyed a decent strike rate so far in his professional career, critics are coming around to the fact that he is not all that potent in open play, with his composure from the penalty spot contributing to his goal tally.

Yet this is where Brendan Rodgers comes in, a manager who worked on Luis Suarez’s finishing and goal-scoring output, transforming him into one of the deadliest strikers in world football just a couple of seasons since he was derided for wasting Liverpool’s chances in Kenny Dalglish’s team.

Add to that Rodgers’ increasingly famous knack for providing the man management, motivation, technical and tactical coaching to resurrect players’ careers, turning them into potential superstars. This suddenly becomes a mouthwatering prospect for Liverpool fans.

At £16 million, an off-the-shelf Balotelli should already prove to be good value; if he thrives in the environment that Rodgers has created at Melwood and the feel-good optimism at Anfield, he might even be able to one-up his time at Manchester City.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Assessing the Battle for the Full-Back Slots at Liverpool

With the signing of Javier Manquillo and the impending arrival of Alberto Moreno, per The Guardian‘s Andy Hunter, suddenly Liverpool look quite a bit more stacked in the full-back department than they did just a couple of weeks ago.

Manquillo and Moreno’s additions to Brendan Rodgers’ squad have been offset by the departure of Andre Wisdom on a season-long loan to West Bromwich Albion earlier this summer, as well as the likely exit of Martin Kelly on a permanent transfer to Crystal Palace, according to Garry Doolan of the Daily Mail.

But with some much-needed strength and depth added to the full-back positions this summer, Rodgers finally has genuine options to choose this season for different contexts, systems and formations.

Let’s assess the battle for the full-back slots at Anfield ahead of the new campaign.

 

David Ramos/Getty Images

 

 

Manquillo and Moreno, Regular Starters

With Manquillo going straight into Rodgers’ starting lineup for Liverpool’s final preseason friendly against Borussia Dortmund, and Moreno apparently a big-money first-choice target for the left-back position, they will likely begin the season as starters at full-back.

While a single game for Liverpool—and just six for Atletico Madrid, his parent club, at the senior level—may not be conclusive of Manquillo‘s true ability and potential, what he did show against Dortmund reflected the qualities that he will bring to the Reds’ first team in the short to medium term.

He might not have Moreno’s searing speed and renowned attacking ability, but Manquillo‘s defensive solidity, as well as a good sense of timing when it comes to venturing forward, makes him a complete full-back capable of putting a shift in at both ends of the field.

Moreno’s attacking nous brings him further forward, promising to be a key part of the Reds attack, while his quickness and positional intelligence will allow him to make up for any ground lost while bombing up and down the flank.

As such, both Manquillo and Moreno offer much more than Jon Flanagan and Glen Johnson, who looked set to start the campaign in the first team before the arrivals of the Spanish full-backs.

 

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

 

 

Other Options and Formations

Flanagan’s limited technical ability unfortunately hampers his overall appeal—his maturing tactical understanding is offset by a lack of finesse on the ball—while Johnson’s erratic positioning and questionable work rate belies an evident technical accomplishment on the ball.

Behind both Flanagan and Johnson in the pecking order is Jose Enrique, who boasts an impressive physique and is more than a match for pacy forwards with his physicality, but he needs constant guidance on the pitch when it comes to positioning and the timing of his runs.

Together, they offer decent backup to Manquillo and Moreno, as well as tactical flexibility: With fewer defensive duties as a wing-back, Johnson would be an ideal option in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 variant, which would free him from a more rigid defensive position and let him attack down the flanks at will.

Flanagan, meanwhile, would be a very good option to come off the bench when in need of some backs-to-the-wall defending or to play alongside a more adventurous central defender on either flank—his versatility, along with Johnson’s, will prove useful over the course of the season.

Moreno’s attacking ability, meanwhile, is an ideal candidate for a left wing-back position, which means that in any such formation that requires two wing-backs to take on Liverpool’s attacking responsibilities down the flanks, Rodgers could turn to him and Johnson as his starters.

 

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

 

 

Time for the Backups to Prove Their Worth

What this offers is much healthier competition across the squad for the first-team places at Anfield and many more alternatives for Rodgers to choose from. With the Reds looking to challenge on all four fronts this season, having both strength and depth in the full-back department will be valuable and much welcomed.

Yet as Manquillo and Moreno look to establish their places in the first team alongside new signing Dejan Lovren in a new-look and overhauled defence, there is still plenty for Rodgers and his coaching staff to do if they are to get a leaky defence fixed and build a solid platform to support their midfield and attack at the back.

As Rodgers tries out his different options and combinations across the back four, while Manquillo and Moreno will likely feature as the regular first-team starters, the sheer number of games Liverpool will be playing this season allows Flanagan, Johnson and Enrique to show their manager what they’re capable of.

Flanagan’s remarkable resurgence may have been hampered by more esteemed and technically accomplished signings, while Johnson will need a season reminding all around Liverpool what he’s capable of at his peak. Enrique, as well, will need to prove that he’s much more than just brawn on the field.

This has been the hallmark of Liverpool’s summer-acquisition strategy so far: increase the strength and depth across the squad, while providing players ample opportunity to seize a chance to outshine their colleagues for a place in the team.

Rodgers may start the campaign with a few ideas in mind, but the message has been clear already throughout preseason: There are places up for grabs in this Liverpool team.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Liverpool: Full Report Card for Every Position Entering Premier League Season

With their International Champions Cup campaign under their belt, Liverpool only have one final friendly—against Borussia Dortmund on Sunday—before they start their Premier League season on August 17 against Southampton.

With less than a month to go in the summer transfer window, it’s already been a productive offseason for Brendan Rodgers and his management team.

In Rickie Lambert, Emre Can, Lazar Markovic, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Divock Origi, the Reds have already brought in six players to strengthen their squad.

Other players have had the opportunity to impress (or fail to impress) the manager during their preseason tour of the United States, and as Rodgers prepares for the new season, he will be looking to make a few more additions to his first team.

So how do Liverpool look across the board? Here’s a full report card for every position entering the new campaign—assuming that they stick with the interchangeable 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond formations they ended last season with. Both starting quality and bench depth will be considered in our ratings.

 

Goalkeeper: B

Goalkeeper: B

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

 

Starting Option(s): Simon Mignolet

Reserve(s): Brad Jones, Danny Ward

 

Overall Verdict

At the time of writing, Bayern Munich have confirmed, according to Simon Jones of the Daily Mail, that Pepe Reina is set to sign a contract with the Bundesliga giants, so barring any late movement, Brendan Rodgers will be starting the season with just two senior goalkeepers.

Simon Mignolet is the undisputed first choice. However, his distribution, consistency and ability to perform in the biggest games all came into question during his first season at Anfield, a debut season that went smoothly for the Belgian by and large.

But while Mignolet hasn’t shown much susceptibility to injury, it will be dangerous to go through an entire campaign with just one top-level goalkeeper. Brad Jones is inconsistent and just doesn’t possess the required quality to stand in over a period of time if needed.

With Reina seemingly out the door at Anfield, goalkeeper is not a strong position for the Reds at the moment. There isn’t an urgent acquisition need, but it’s not something to overlook either.

 

Right-Back: B-

Right-Back: B-

David Banks/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Glen Johnson, Jon Flanagan

Reserve(s): Martin Kelly

 

Overall Verdict

That Glen Johnson is now generally poorly regarded by Liverpool fans for his erratic and positionally decrepit performances is well-known. But while specialist right-back Jon Flanagan impressed enough to return to the first team on the left last season, we will regard Johnson as the starting option for now.

And put simply, Johnson is a liability in the current Reds setup. His attacking forays have become less and less productive over time, while he has seemingly taken less responsibility on the defensive end as well.

Flanagan may well usurp Johnson to become Liverpool’s starting right-back over the course of the season. Martin Kelly has had ample opportunities to impress on the right over preseason, but his performances haven’t exactly caught the eye either.

According to Sky Sports, Liverpool are about to bring in Javi Manquillo from Atletico Madrid on a two-year loan, but at 20 years of age, he doesn’t come across as instant first-teamer.

Right-back is not a position to be proud of at Anfield at the moment.

 

Left-Back: B-

Left-Back: B-

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Jon Flanagan

Reserve(s): Jose Enrique, Jack Robinson, Glen Johnson

 

Overall Verdict

Our verdict on the right-back situation also applies to its opposite flank, where we will assume Jose Enrique’s hesitant and inconsistent performances over preseason won’t be enough to unseat Jon Flanagan from the first-team slot he secured last season.

Yet Flanagan, while a solid defensive performer from the back, doesn’t have the imagination or creativity to transition Liverpool’s play from defence to attack, and he may be found wanting in terms of technique and pace at the highest level.

In reserve, neither Enrique nor Jack Robinson have the nous or ability to become a star at Anfield. Curiously, the Reds’ strongest reserve left-back may be Glen Johnson, who has performed admirably in that position but has suffered a massive dip in form over the past year.

Fortunately, Liverpool’s impending signing of Alberto Moreno—if Simon Jones’ report in the Daily Mail is to be believed—will, unlike Manquillo, add genuine quality to the left flank. Much of our verdict hinges on this transfer—Moreno would bring a real upgrade.

 

Center-Back: B+

Center Back: B+

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren

Reserve(s): Daniel Agger, Sebastian Coates, Kolo Toure

 

Overall Verdict

Whether Liverpool play a flat four at the back or switch to a 3-5-2 (or any variant), the fact that they have three players of starting quality—four if we count Daniel Agger—is a boon to the defence.

The question is how Brendan Rodgers decides to choose from his center back options.

Dejan Lovren’s visa mix-up held him back at Liverpool when he was due to join up with his new teammates in the U.S. And that could hold him back in terms of a starting position at the beginning of the season, such was the form of Mamadou Sakho during the ICC.

Yet we’ve all seen from last season that Martin Skrtel, despite having improved his goal return, is still capable of glaring errors at the highest level, which means that a central-defensive partnership of Lovren and Sakho is the strongest pairing on paper.

Our B+ grade hinges on whether Rodgers manages to successfully convert Lovren into a right-sided center back. If he does, Lovren may yet turn out to be an excellent acquisition. If he doesn’t, that would be a costly mistake—in every sense of the term.

 

Holding Midfielder: B+

Holding Midfielder: B+

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Steven Gerrard, Emre Can

Reserve(s): Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, Lucas

 

Overall Verdict

One represents a legendary figure at Anfield; the other a bright future and a symbol of what Brendan Rodgers is trying to achieve with Liverpool.

So will it be Steven Gerrard or Emre Can who starts the season in the holding-midfield role? That is the tricky question that Rodgers will face—and not just over the start of the season.

It hasn’t been the best of years for Gerrard, given his involvement in Liverpool’s relinquishing of first place to Manchester City and his overexposure in the midfield for England in the Brazil World Cup, yet his vision, passing and set pieces are still valuable assets for the team.

What Rodgers needs to resolve is whether he can keep Gerrard in the team and ask his other two midfielders to support him defensively, or whether this is the season that sees Gerrard slowly phased out of the first team to make way for a new generation.

Can’s excellent displays over preseason will only have added to Rodgers’ selection headache.

 

Central Midfielder: A

Central Midfielder: A

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Philippe Coutinho, Joe Allen

Reserve(s): Adam Lallana, Steven Gerrard, Lucas, Joao Carlos Teixeira, Suso

 

Overall Verdict

It might not be an all-star midfield like Manchester City’s or Chelsea’s, but Liverpool’s options in the middle of the park are of excellent quality—and just at the right age to eventually mature into star status.

Jordan Henderson’s rise to prominence under Brendan Rodgers will not have gone unnoticed, and an excellent preseason campaign will only have boosted his confidence going into the new season.

Emre Can’s exciting cameos have shown his versatility and ability to play in different positions across the midfield as well, which will come in handy over the course of the season.

Philippe Coutinho’s conversion from a more attacking No. 10 role to a more complete No. 8 has come about smoothly, a testament to both the player and his manager. His vision, technique, turn of pace and newfound tenacity will add creativity and flair to a hardworking midfield.

So the likeliest casualty at the moment looks to be Joe Allen, whose stop-start preseason didn’t do him any favors toward a regular first-team place. But with Liverpool fighting on four different fronts, Rodgers will need options at his disposal—and he has got plenty.

 

Attacking Midfielder: A

Attacking Midfielder: A

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Lazar Markovic

Reserve(s): Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard, Suso, Joao Carlos Teixeira

 

Overall Verdict

If the central midfield is encouraging for Liverpool fans, the attacking midfield should at least be as exciting, if not more so.

This is a squad brimming with talent going forward, and having four first-team options is perfect evidence.

Coutinho’s aforementioned conversion to a deeper-lying role doesn’t rule him out from a more conventional No. 10 role. In fact, it was from there that he did some of his most excellent work over preseason.

Raheem Sterling has shown his tactical intelligence in his own conversion from an out-and-out attacker to a more complete role behind the striker.

Lazar Markovic’s 45-minute preseason cameo before his injury meant that Reds fans had to wait to see more of his much-hyped ability in action, but all the signs were that he could, over time, thrive in this role. Adam Lallana may currently be out injured, but he will inject more quality when he returns.

We won’t forget that Henderson has played as the most advanced midfielder in Rodgers’ team to great effect last season, while Suso and Joao Carlos Teixeira are also excellent technical options in reserve to field in cup competitions.

This is an excellent group of hot prospects with their best years ahead of them.

 

Right Forward: A-

Attacking Midfielder: A

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Lazar Markovic

Reserve(s): Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard, Suso, Joao Carlos Teixeira

 

Overall Verdict

If the central midfield is encouraging for Liverpool fans, the attacking midfield should at least be as exciting, if not more so.

This is a squad brimming with talent going forward, and having four first-team options is perfect evidence.

Coutinho’s aforementioned conversion to a deeper-lying role doesn’t rule him out from a more conventional No. 10 role. In fact, it was from there that he did some of his most excellent work over preseason.

Raheem Sterling has shown his tactical intelligence in his own conversion from an out-and-out attacker to a more complete role behind the striker.

Lazar Markovic’s 45-minute preseason cameo before his injury meant that Reds fans had to wait to see more of his much-hyped ability in action, but all the signs were that he could, over time, thrive in this role. Adam Lallana may currently be out injured, but he will inject more quality when he returns.

We won’t forget that Henderson has played as the most advanced midfielder in Rodgers’ team to great effect last season, while Suso and Joao Carlos Teixeira are also excellent technical options in reserve to field in cup competitions.

This is an excellent group of hot prospects with their best years ahead of them.

 

Left Forward: A+

Left Forward: A

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

 

Starting Option(s): Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho

Reserve(s): Jordon Ibe, Daniel Sturridge

 

Overall Verdict

If the right forward position is exciting, then left forward is truly scintillating. Four Premier League-ready forwards in place with two exciting prospects make for a stacked left prong.

It was on the left, of course, that Sterling started his career at Anfield, cutting in on his right foot, while Coutinho has also won rave reviews with his excellent performances out on the left flank, where his pace and vision can be devastatingly effective.

Markovic’s addition means that Liverpool possess a relatively unknown X-factor among their ranks on the left, but if Sterling and Coutinho are used in other starting positions, Markovic may well be Rodgers’ starting left forward at the start of the season.

With Jordon Ibe showing encouraging form over preseason and Sturridge also capable of playing on the left, Adam Lallana will not be looking forward to wrestling back a starting place on the left when he returns from injury.

 

Striker: B+

Striker: B+

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

 

Starting Option(s): Daniel Sturridge

Reserve(s): Rickie Lambert, Raheem Sterling

 

Overall Verdict

Make no mistake: Luis Suarez’s exit has left a 31-goal hole in the Reds attack. And without a versatile, all-round striker like Suarez, Liverpool are unmistakably weaker up front—not to mention shorter in depth.

Daniel Sturridge is an excellent striker leading the line for the Reds, but his first campaign as Anfield’s leading man will heap lots of pressure on his shoulders. This will be a season where he wants to be fully fit for most of the year—something he hasn’t consistently achieved over the course of his career.

At present, while Liverpool are clearly still on the hunt for another striker, Rickie Lambert is the only senior specialist striker available for selection, and his lumbering and uninspiring performances over preseason mean that he will likely need some time to fully bed in.

Leaving Sterling—not a specialist striker but versatile enough to play further forward perhaps in the long run—the only other realistic option.

It’s a slight blip in an otherwise strong midfield and forward core, but a blip that must be addressed if Liverpool hope to achieve something this season.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Daniel Sturridge Will Continue to Flourish at Liverpool Without Luis Suarez

Since the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona was confirmed 10 days ago, the question on the lips of Liverpool fans has been: How can we cope without Suarez’s goals this season?

Which, in reality, translates to: Will Daniel Sturridge be enough to shoulder our goalscoring burdens this season?

With Brendan Rodgers active in the transfer market and securing a number of signings already at Anfield, the obvious lack of a proven goalscorer at the highest level is glaring and often prompts worried discussions.

Yet amid all the nerves and apprehension with which Liverpool fans consider that Suarez is one of the very best players in the world and replacing him is a tall order, there is one thing that they have overlooked.

The current squad-trumps-all setup at Liverpool provides the answer to their most burning question: Yes, Daniel Sturridge will continue to flourish at Liverpool without Luis Suarez.

 

 

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

 

Pace Coursing Through Anfield

A quick glance at Liverpool’s highlights and attacking play from last season shows the stunning number of goals they scored because of the pace coursing through their side.

And while Suarez was an excellent player on the break due to his pace, first touch, close control, creativity and one-on-one ability, not to mention his much-improved finishing under Brendan Rodgers, his departure will not affect the dynamic and quick nature of this Reds side.

Because his departure, in terms of pace, has already been offset (and arguably eclipsed) by the signing of Lazar Markovic from Benfica and the likely arrival of Loic Remy from Queens Park Rangers, as reported by BBC Sport. Both players showed their acceleration—and most of all, their attacking output at pace—with their respective clubs last season (Remy, of course, having spent the campaign on loan at Newcastle United).

Add these two speedsters to the already lightning-quick Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe, and this is a side with pace written all over it. Sterling will be looking to further stamp his authority on the Liverpool first team after a stellar first full season, and Ibe will have ample opportunity to make the step up to senior football over preseason.

It’s this speed and acceleration with which the Reds can play that makes Daniel Sturridge so dangerous: Whether he’s supporting a main striker (for the time being, Rickie Lambert) or leading a three-pronged attack himself, his ability to play off the shoulder of the last defender makes him a tough prospect for opponents.

Suarez’s departure has deprived Sturridge of a partner who can reliably and consistently deliver the unpredictable and whose individual talent will occupy more than one defender at a time, but across the forward positions Sturridge has already gained much more he can be working with.

 

 

Scott Heppell/Associated Press

 

All-Rounded Midfielders in Support

Behind Sturridge and his forwards and wingers, the Liverpool midfield has already featured some significant upgrades this offseason, with further additions likely to arrive at Anfield before the transfer window slams shut.

Already Rodgers has added the silky skills of Adam Lallana and the versatility and all-rounded skill set of Emre Can, both of whom will be adding vision, passing and pressing in equal measure to a tactically and positionally intelligent midfield contingent of Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard.

The maturation of Coutinho from a stereotypical Brazilian No. 10 into a dominant No. 8 capable of bossing the midfield, with a newfound pressing mentality and his trademark flair and passing skills, has been nothing short of impressive. And there has already been enough made of Henderson and Allen’s contributions from both a central and a more advanced position in the midfield.

The potential of Can to become Liverpool’s very own resident box-to-box dynamo is surely mouthwatering to both his colleagues on the pitch and the fans in the stands, as will the prospect of even more seamless transitioning from defence into attack.

All of which will contribute to an overall attacking approach that will be designed to unleash the collective and electric talents of Liverpool’s forwards, and Sturridge is a key part of this exciting system designed to create as many goalscoring chances as possible.

Add the considerable all-round technical ability of Rickie Lambert, whose playmaking skills from centre-forward can be as productive and devastating as his midfield colleagues’, and Sturridge surely stands to benefit even further.

 

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

Collective Intelligence and Brilliance

Throughout his reign at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers has constantly and consistently championed the importance of the team over any individual, and that message was reinforced loudly and clearly when Liverpool confirmed Suarez’s departure in July.

But those who paid attention to Rodgers’ preparations last season will know that this wasn’t just a statement to appease Reds fans in the wake of a star’s departure; he has constantly set up his team to make the most out of their collective intelligence and brilliance.

Given Suarez’s goals and scintillating match-winning performances last season, this may appear to be a statement in vain, but a clear example of the varied attacking approach that Liverpool have adopted and introduced came last season in the form of set pieces, where they were arguably the most dangerous team across the Premier League.

The team’s movement and awareness is a product of their two years drilled in Rodgers’ system, and their fearlessness and dynamism were on show during their exciting 11-game winning streak from February to April last season, all of which will surely last the distance regardless of Suarez staying or leaving.

What Liverpool have lost is a genius and a maverick capable of breaking scoring records, but what they have potentially gained in return is a hard-to-beat mentality honed by a title challenge last season—with more quality still to be added. Only this time, it’s Daniel Sturridge who stands to benefit at the tip of everything attacking coming out of Liverpool’s half.

If it’s a team working for one another and who knows each other’s moves and contributions inside out that is capable of going places, then as much as Liverpool fans may miss the individual brilliance week in, week out—they will look forward even more to the success that the Suarez-less Reds are capable of.

Germany didn’t seem to mind earlier this summer.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

How Liverpool Can Get New Signing Rickie Lambert to 20 Goals This Season

With Luis Suarez’s departure for Barcelona and Iago Aspas’ likely exit from Anfield, per James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo, as it stands Liverpool’s senior forward options to start the new season are Daniel Sturridge, Fabio Borini and new signing Rickie Lambert.

On paper, a far cry from Suarez and Sturridge’s 52-goal partnership last season, which did more than just prove prolific: Their pace, movement and dynamic creativity struck fear into the hearts of opponents up and down the country.

With Alexis Sanchez, originally a target to be included in Suarez’s deal with Barcelona, having joined Arsenal, Liverpool have missed out on arguably one of their most attainable forward options in the summer transfer window.

Yet as Brendan Rodgers continues his scour for striking talent across the world, all is not lost: In Rickie Lambert, he has a talented, all-round striker who will be giving his all upon a dream return to his boyhood club.

And as the Reds fight on four fronts this season, whether they sign a new first-choice partner for Sturridge or not, Lambert might well have it in him to chip in with 20 goals in all competitions.

Here’s how.

 

Jon Super/Associated Press

 

 

The New SAS

Out goes one half of the famed SAS partnership; in comes another to replace him. Life goes on.

Suarez may be a once-in-a-generation kind of talent, and his performances last season certainly elevated him into the echelon of the greatest players ever to have played for Liverpool, but there was another “S” that blossomed last season, also with Rodgers’ coaching.

That player, of course, is Raheem Sterling, who, having spent almost a full season in the Liverpool first team and forcing himself into thePFA Young Player of the Year candidate pool, will be looking to take off and reach his full potential.

From being whispered in conjunction with a loan outside of Anfield to starting for England in the World Cup within just a few months, Sterling showed rapid enough progression last season to potentially win over even the toughest critics. He showed a turn of pace and the dribbling technique to rival Sturridge‘s, and his vision, work rate and interpretation of space perhaps even exceeded the No. 15’s.

With Rickie Lambert in the side, Sturridge and Sterling will be flanking him as the focal point of the Reds attack. Lambert’s first touch, close control, passing, positioning and chance creation will no doubt play a pivotal role in setting the platform for the new SAS to thrive.

In return for the space that he helps put them into, their pace and off-the-shoulder runs will occupy the attention of enough defenders to create enough space for Lambert himself to get into. And Lambert is as cool, calm and collected in front of goal as anyone in the Premier League.

 

Clive Rose/Getty Images

 

 

Movement, Movement, Movement

For all of the assists that Suarez laid on for his team-mates last season, he was the undisputed individual star of the team, who frequently passed to him and relied on him to bail them out of trouble or get through a sticky patch.

That is no criticism. Far from it; it is merely an acknowledgement of the individual brilliance that he brought to Liverpool, who will undoubtedly be worse off from a magical game-changer point of view.

Yet as hard as Suarez might’ve been to mark, potentially still harder is Liverpool’s collective movement that will be on display this season. Three years into Rodgers’ reign, his team finally look confident and comfortable enough to carry out his tactical and positional plans, and it’s no surprise he has signed players this summer that will help his team achieve that as a collective.

Adam Lallana, Lambert’s captain at Southampton, may always be considered overpriced at a reported £25 million, per Andy Hunter ofThe Guardian, but he dovetailed with Lambert to great effect at the Saints and will offer plenty of movement between the lines in Rodgers’ system.

So too the effervescent Jordan Henderson and the underrated Joe Allen, as well as the electric new signing Lazar Markovic.

If there is a style of play that Lambert thrives in, it is one that is based on sound movement and intrinsic understanding of each other’s positioning. And not only will Lambert be a creator of goals just like his team-mates; he will also score them.

 

Ian Walton/Getty Images

 

 

Set Pieces

There is also the small matter of set pieces, and Liverpool, with pace and technique coursing through their side, are one of the most prolific set-piece winners in the Premier League.

Not to mention one of the league’s best at scoring from them. And adding Lambert into the equation will only help things.

First, for all the talk about Lambert’s technical ability, passing and close control, he remains a fine option in the air. He might not be quite as aerially dominant as Anfield flop Andy Carroll, but his positional intelligence and timing more than makes up for it. Getting Lambert on the end of a Steven Gerrard corner or free-kick would be a quite sumptuous prospect for Reds fans.

Then there are direct free-kicks, another area of expertise for Lambert, who has scored a few screamers for Southampton in his two-year Premier League journey with the Saints, including one against Crystal Palace last September. Suarez’s exit has deprived Liverpool of a strong alternative to Gerrard on free- kicks, but Lambert may prove just as prolific from range.

Finally, Rodgers’ squad will be strengthened by the addition of another composed mind from the spot. With 48 penalties scored from 49 attempts over the course of his career, Lambert is arguably one of the finest penalty-takers in the Premier League; his record eclipses even that of regular specialist Gerrard. Could he even usurp his new captain on penalty duty?

Regardless, Lambert’s versatility and well-roundedness offers his boyhood club a valuable option up front, both off the bench and from the start. In a team that creates chances in abundance and almost oozed goals last season, even without Suarez, Lambert stands to thrive.

An improvement on his total goal tally of 17 across all competitions last season might not be too far-fetched.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.