Tag Archives: Joe Allen

Liverpool 4-3 Swansea: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Thrilling Win at Anfield

Liverpool 4-3 Swansea: 6 Things We Learned from Reds' Thrilling Win at Anfield
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A seven-goal thriller at Anfield on Sunday saw Liverpool race into a 2-0 lead with goals from Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson, only for Swansea City to peg them back. A second from Sturridge took the Reds up at half-time, only for a Wilfried Bony penalty to level things up after the break, before Henderson scored the winner.

This was both an exhibition of a swashbuckling attack and a display of dreadful defending from the home side, while Swansea’s enterprising efforts and relentless energy troubled Brendan Rodgers’ side throughout the 90 minutes.

But a brace each from Sturridge and Henderson were just enough to see the visitors off as the Reds secured an important three points after results elsewhere this weekend had gone the way of the Premier League top three.

Here are six things we learned about Liverpool’s thrilling win over Swansea. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

A Defensive Shambles

A Defensive Shambles
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

For the first time this season, Liverpool conceded three goals at home: Once again, it was their potent attack that bailed them out from an abysmal defensive performance.

It seems that the Reds defence struggle badly against big centre-forwards: They’ve been troubled by the likes of Christian Benteke in the past couple of seasons, and on Sunday it was Swansea’s Wilfried Bony who asked plenty of questions of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger.

From Brendan Rodgers’ 63rd-minute substitution of Agger for the recently hapless Kolo Toure, it was fair to say that the vice-captain had failed to impress and that Bony had won the battle.

Not that Skrtel fared much better though. After a few months’ worth of shirt-pulling and tugging inside the penalty box had gone unnoticed, referee Mike Jones gave a decision that had been coming for a long time: a penalty on Skrtel.

In front of the defence, Steven Gerrard had one of his off days in the holding midfield role, as his tendency to roam forward to push the team on left gaping holes in the Reds’ final third. Jonjo Shelvey’s goal came as a result of the space afforded to him.

While Glen Johnson had a decent game upon his return from injury, only Jon Flanagan should emerge from the game with any credit. He grew in stature as the game wore on, and his work rate and commitment to the cause were crucial as Liverpool held on for the victory.

 

Contrasting Fortunes for Liverpool’s Strikers

Contrasting Fortunes for Liverpool’s Strikers
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Two goals and an assist for Daniel Sturridge made it 10 goals in his last eight league games, setting a record for Liverpool and opening a gap over Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero in the Premier League scoring charts.

Sturridge played the majority of the match on the right-hand side of the Liverpool front three, but his awareness and positioning to race clear in the 2nd minute and to head the home side back into the lead in the 36th minute had all the markings of a top Premier League striker.

Contrast that with Luis Suarez, who, despite putting in an exquisite cross for Sturridge’s second goal, failed to score once again. He’s only scored one goal in his last six league games, a far cry from his sizzling form in December.

As long as the SAS partnership remains productive and Liverpool continue to rack up the goals—and more importantly, the points—Suarez’s barren run will go relatively unnoticed, but this is not an ideal time for the No. 7’s shooting boots to go missing.

Liverpool fans and Suarez himself will look to Manchester United’s Robin van Persie as a study in “bouncebackability”: The United striker went through a mini-drought in the middle of last season as well, before storming back to take them to the league title.

 

Jordan Henderson Steps Up

Jordan Henderson Steps Up
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Almost three years since he signed for Liverpool, Jordan Henderson finally looked like he was worth the £16 million Kenny Dalglish had splashed out to sign him from Sunderland.

Having stepped up to the fore over the Christmas period when Steven Gerrard was injured, Henderson had quietened down just a bit and retreated into more of a comfort zone when his captain returned.

But when the situation at Anfield on Sunday called for a leader to rise to the cause, it was Henderson who responded with a stirring performance.

Two goals, a constant box-to-box presence, frequent marauding runs into Swansea’s penalty area and a match-winning goal: This was a performance fitting of Steven Gerrard at his finest.

It is just as well that Henderson has rediscovered his form, confidence and assertiveness on the pitch as Liverpool look to finish their Premier League season strongly.

With Gerrard taking more of a backseat role these days, it is up to Henderson to carry on his good work and affect his inspirational leadership on this Liverpool side.

Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool fans will be looking for more of the same in the weeks to come.

 

An Impressive Cameo from Joe Allen

An Impressive Cameo from Joe Allen
Jon Super/Associated Press

In hindsight, Rodgers made an inspired change just before the hour mark when he sent Joe Allen on for Raheem Sterling.

Swansea had equalized through a Wilfried Bony penalty, and Liverpool were looking just a bit jaded and nervous in the midfield, where Raheem Sterling’s influence had waned with the visitors’ rise in confidence.

Allen brought both composure and energetic pressing to the Reds midfield, both of which were integral to the home side keeping and recycling the ball, as well as giving Swansea a tougher time with their own possession play.

Allen took turns with Henderson going forward to the support the attack with his touches of the ball in advanced areas crucial to Liverpool’s attacking build-up.

As Liverpool enter the final 11 games of the season with less-than-desirable strength in depth, Allen provided a timely reminder of his qualities and potential worth to the side as a different option in the midfield.

However, his fellow substitute, Victor Moses, made the opposite impression with a lethargic display of poor invention and even poorer work rate.

If Allen made himself a real contender for the first team in the months to come, Moses surely moved himself further away from it with a disappointing 15 minutes off the bench.

 

An Encouraging Display from Swansea City

An Encouraging Display from Swansea City
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Garry Monk will have left Anfield ruing his side’s own defensive mistakes, as Swansea City had the chance to take a point or even all three home to south Wales.

But as the first side to score three goals at Anfield this season, Swansea will have been encouraged by their display: A show of energetic pressing and tidy passing put plenty of pressure on Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Michu’s loss for the majority of the season has been a huge setback for the Swans, but in his stead Wilfried Bony has started to look like the Premier League force he threatened to be in his first couple of months at the Liberty Stadium.

Strong, quick and clinical, Bony’s hold-up play caused plenty of problems for the Reds defence and opened up space for his midfield colleagues to roam forward and shoot on goal.

As Swansea find themselves much closer to bottom-placed Fulham than to ninth-placed Southampton, their first priority is to remain in the Premier League for the foreseeable future.

But as long as Monk continues in this mould, they should be looking at far more than staying in the league; they should be aiming at least to finish 10th.

 

Liverpool March on in Not-So-Impressive Fashion

Liverpool March on in Not-so-Impressive Fashion
Jon Super/Associated Press

When a Premier League side ships three goals to an opponent, “marching on” isn’t exactly the right term to use in the post-match reports, even if they’ve scored four themselves.

Yet “march on” is what Liverpool continue to do, and their nervy win highlighted attributes that they perhaps didn’t have previously: mental strength and a collective desire to finish in the top four.

Sunday was their ninth time scoring four or more goals in a Premier League game this season, and all three points in the bag, they have already equaled the number of wins they achieved last season—with 11 games to go.

Liverpool’s four-goal haul also makes them the highest-scoring side in the Premier League this season, overtaking Manchester City. No mean feat for a team that is still supposedly in a transitional season.

Their unconvincing defence will continue to leak goals, but as long as their attack continues to fire and they have big-game players coming up trumps, Liverpool may yet have further statements to make.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Premier League Preview: How Liverpool Will Line Up Against Cardiff City

Hi-res-139974570-steven-gerrard-of-liverpool-lifts-the-trophy-in-victory_crop_650x440
Pool/Getty Images

The last time Liverpool played Cardiff City, it was in the Capital One Cup final in 2012, when Kenny Dalglish’s side ran out winners in a thrilling penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw in extra time. This Saturday will mark the Reds’ first Premier League encounter with the Bluebirds.

From Cardiff’s point of view, there couldn’t be a worse time to face Liverpool, who have been in rampant form at Anfield this season—Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 20 goals in their past five home games. Malky Mackay’s recent tension with his board, as reported by BBC Sport, can’t be a good distraction from their on-pitch duties.

As for Liverpool, Cardiff marks, on paper, a breather amid a tough December of fixtures. An away trip to White Hart Lane turned out surprisingly smooth for the Reds as they trounced Tottenham Hotspur 5-0, but trips to both Manchester City and Chelsea are on the horizon. A win against Cardiff would send them top of the Premier League, even if for only 48 hours.

But first, they must make sure they get all three points against Malky Mackay’s side, who are currently 15th in the table. Here is how Liverpool’s starting XI on Saturday might look like.

 

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet

Aside from Luis Suarez, Simon Mignolet is probably one of only two truly untouchable fixtures in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI.

On to the defenders then.

 

Right-Back: Martin Kelly

Having made his return to competitive action for Liverpool as a substitute in their 4-1 home win over West Ham United two weekends ago, Martin Kelly has been working his way back to full fitness from a knee injury.

A first league start since a home defeat against Manchester United last September would do wonders for Kelly’s confidence and match fitness, and would allow Glen Johnson a break from his regular right-back duties ahead of the crucial matches at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.

With injuries having hampered his development and undoubted potential at Anfield, Kelly will be looking to impress for about an hour or so—hopefully with the game safe and secure by the time he is substituted as Brendan Rodgers eases him back into the setup.

 

Left-Back: Jon Flanagan

With Jose Enrique out with injury and on-loan Aly Cissokho putting in woeful performances as a stand-in, Academy graduate Jon Flanagan has made the left-back slot his own in recent weeks.

His work rate and tenacity have impressed his manager and teammates alike, and he even ventured forward to score his first ever goal for Liverpool—a sweetly struck half-volley into the top corner—last Sunday against Tottenham.

He deserves another run-out against Cardiff as rich reward for his journey back into the Reds’ starting line-up.

 

Centre-Back: Martin Skrtel

Martin Kelly is a change on the right, but we advocate a regular centre-back partnership to continue building on its impressive recent form, and for that reason, we’ve continued with Martin Skrtel on the right side.

Per Liverpool’s official club website, Brendan Rodgers has said publicly that he has been impressed with Skrtel’s recent form and that he should be considered as one of the best centre-halves in the Premier League.

More of the same then, Martin.

 

Centre-Back: Mamadou Sakho

Rodgers continues to rotate his centre-back partnership, presumably to keep his players fit and happy, and as a result vice-captain Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have both enjoyed starting berths in recent weeks.

Sakho’s impressive display at White Hart Lane last Saturday, however, showed why Liverpool decided to shell out around £18 million on the ex-Paris Saint-Germain youngster in the summer. His physicality, positional awareness and technique all shone in a convincing and dominant display at the back.

For that reason, Agger should continue on the bench for another week as Sakho continues his rise as one of the Premier League’s best young defenders.

 

Defensive Midfielder: Joe Allen

Since his costly (and frankly quite unbelievable) horror miss against Everton a few weeks ago, Joe Allen has fully rebounded in form and has won over many a critic with a series of assured and assertive displays at the center of the Liverpool midfield.

His tidy passing, constant harrying of opponents and intelligent movement have caught the eye of manager and fans alike, and should continue to be a fixture in the starting XI, especially in the injury absence of captain Steven Gerrard.

Against Cardiff City, Lucas should be rested in preparation for the major clashes to come, and as a result Allen should move slightly back into the defensive midfield position.

 

Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto

And in Allen’s place in central midfield comes Luis Alberto, who would be making his first ever league start for Liverpool after impressing in brief cameos this season following a summer move from Sevilla.

Alberto has played in both a more withdrawn role and as an attacking midfielder in his previous appearances for the Reds, both in the league and during preseason, but he would be a perfect fit for the regista-type role Gerrard has adopted this season, and as such should fit into the central midfield alongside Allen.

Rodgers will hope that Alberto takes advantage of a rare league start and displays more of the intelligence that he showed against Tottenham, where he created Suarez’s second goal of the game.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson

A swashbuckling performance from Jordan Henderson on Sunday has seen the youngster grab the headlines—including this by the Telegraph’s Alan Smith—for all the right reasons.

Intelligent with his movement, aggressive in his pressuring and forceful in his running, Henderson was rightly named the Barclays Man of the Match in Liverpool’s demolition job over Spurs, where he also notched his first league goal of the season.

With movement, interchangeability and constant pressure a hallmark of Rodgers’ ideal midfield, Henderson has established himself as a vital cog in the Reds machine and will look to sustain his impressive form against Cardiff.

 

Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho

Our front three remains unchanged, simply because it has worked well in the absence of Daniel Sturridge.

On the left is regular No. 10 Philippe Coutinho, who normally operates best in the hole, but caused the Spurs defence all kinds of trouble with his close control, deft flicks and tidy passing from the left flank.

Coutinho, along with his colleagues across the frontline, will be a handful for the Cardiff defence.

 

Right Forward: Raheem Sterling

With two goals in his last three league outings, Raheem Sterling seems to finally have recaptured his impressive form at the start of his debut campaign last year, where he burst onto the scene at Anfield and catapulted himself into the England senior team.

He has emerged as a genuine outlet on the right flank, capable of both cutting in and bombing down the sideline, while his work rate and defensive contributions are both mature and underrated. And he has added goals to his game.

With Liverpool also developing a deadly streak on the counterattack, Sterling’s intelligent and quick runs past the last defender will make him a nuisance against Cardiff.

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

Is there any player more important to the Reds cause at the moment than Luis Suarez?

With 17 goals in just 11 Premier League appearances this season, not only is Suarez probably the most in-form striker in Europe, but he is on course to smash the all-time league scoring record, which would cap a brilliant season that—lest we forget—started with a five-match suspension.

With Gerrard out injured, Agger on the bench and other skipper options in Lucas and Glen Johnson rested for this game, Suarez may take to the pitch wearing the captain’s armband for the second time in his Liverpool career.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

5 Ways Liverpool Should Approach a Tough December to Stay in the Top Four

Hi-res-452750457-brendan-rodgers-manager-of-liverpool-looks-on-prior-to_crop_650x440
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Second place, 15 matches played, 30 points, and a goal difference of +16. With four games left to go until the mid-season (and the January transfer window), Liverpool so far look in pretty good shape this 2013/14 Premier League season.

Their average of two points per game, if extended over the course a 38-game season, has historically been enough to secure a top-four spot by the end of the season—which, besides launching Liverpool back into the Champions League spotlight, should also be enough to secure Luis Suarez’s future at Anfield.

Before we look ahead to next May, however, let’s first acknowledge the obstacles to the Reds finishing their first half of the season in the top four—and there are many.

Starting with their remaining four fixtures in a busy December period—Tottenham Hotspur (away), Cardiff City (home), Manchester City (away), Chelsea (away), the latter two coming in the space of three days.

With Jose Enrique and Daniel Sturridge both out until at least January and Steven Gerrard sidelined for the Christmas period with a hamstring injury, according to the Telegraph, Liverpool’s problems are as much on the treatment table as they are with the fixture list.

But this is also a crucial period where Brendan Rodgers’ team will be tested on their ability to stay near the top, and where preliminary conclusions may yet be drawn about their quest to return to Europe.

Here are five ways Liverpool should approach a tough December ahead of them and still fly high in the top four come the start of January.

 

Keep Their Second-Half Setup Against West Ham

With the aforementioned Enrique, Sturridge and Gerrard out for the Christmas period, Liverpool’s best XI for the moment will have been their second-half, post-Gerrard substitution setup in Saturday’s game against West Ham United.

Glen Johnson seemed back to his best, and indeed was the provider of a very fine assist to Luis Suarez for Liverpool’s third goal of the night, while Jon Flanagan on the opposite flank stuck to his task and defended confidently.

Martin Skrtel looked more assured and assertive with the dominant Mamadou Sakho beside him, and with stability being the key in a defensive partnership, Brendan Rodgers would be wise to stick with them in the center, though the shambolic defending in conceding their own goal—in the process letting the Hammers back into the game—will have been a cause for concern.

Joe Allen in front of them was a livewire in midfield, seemingly over his catastrophic miss in the Merseyside derby a couple of weeks ago. If he continues his improvement, his probing passing and deceptively quick turn of pace should prove a very useful additional outlet in midfield, alongside the more workmanlike duo of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva.

Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez pick themselves in the starting XI, while Raheem Sterling deserves a run in the side for his upturn in form and encouraging showing on Saturday, especially with Victor Moses’ cameo once again not providing any kind of imagination, creativity and game-changing potential.

The only change that should be considered by Rodgers and co.—besides any enforced through injury concerns—would be to shift Johnson over to the left and put Martin Kelly in on the right, especially against pacy right wingers that Flanagan might struggle against.

Otherwise, this is a team that can be decent at the back, strong in the middle and incisive up front.

 

Adopt a Relentless and Interchanging Midfield Three

Hi-res-454128347-joe-allen-of-liverpool-competes-with-mohamed-diame-of_crop_650
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine a Liverpool midfield without Steven Gerrard in it: He’s been ever-present for the Reds this season, and is both their assists leader (six) and third highest scorer (three).

Whether his world-class set pieces and impressive long passes compensate for his decreasing mobility has been a hot topic for debate (and best left for another discussion), but his more withdrawn, “quarterback”-like regista role has come with a diminishing ability to take games by the scruff of the neck and drag his team to victory.

Which means that in his absence, Liverpool fans may yet catch a glimpse of an ideal Brendan Rodgers midfield. To be precise, a relentless, dynamic and interchanging midfield three capable of supplying incessant pressure on their opponents, recycling the ball among one another, and contributing comfortably to the attack.

After his aforementioned horror miss against Everton in November, Joe Allen has rebounded in terms of his confidence, putting in good performances echoing his encouraging start to life at Anfield back at the start of the 2012/13 Premier League season.

His reverse pass to Martin Kelly in the dying minutes of the West Ham match on Saturday was a particular highlight, but it was his forward-thinking passing, neat touches and ability to move the ball out of pressure that caught the eye.

Add in the dynamism and famous work rate, as well as the at-times scintillating passing (though consistency is necessary) of Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool have got a young, energetic and deceptively quick British midfield core. And while Lucas hasn’t fully reclaimed his excellent pre-injury form, his positioning and tactical awareness have been triumphed by Rodgers (and are debated constantly among Reds fans).

Altogether, the Gerrard-less midfield that will travel to such opponents as Spurs, City and Chelsea will exhibit a stark contrast to the captain’s prompting from deep.

Which can mean that Liverpool are short of a sure-fire set piece specialist. But also that their opponents now have to focus on defending against an interchangeable unit instead of one single playmaker.

 

Continue to Refine Their Counterattacks

Pepe Reina he might not be just yet, but Simon Mignolet has been earning rave reviews for his improvements in distribution: A couple of quick long throws set up dangerous counterattacks for his teammates on Saturday.

(Needless to say, Mignolet’s shot-stopping has already far exceeded Reina’s levels of the past few seasons.)

And Arsenal they might not be just yet, but Liverpool have evidently worked on their counterattacking plays to make use of their pace in attack.

Previously it was in the 3-5-2 system that featured Suarez and Daniel Sturridge up top. But against West Ham, as in his stellar start to his Liverpool career, it was Raheem Sterling who frequently burst through the opposition midfield and rush onto passes down the center. If it weren’t for his lack of a clinical finish, the home side would have scored at least two more from those breaks.

As dominant as Liverpool aspire to be in ball and possession retention, there’s no reason to discourage them from working on breaking, attacking and scoring at speed. Even without Gerrard’s 40-yard passes to feet, they possess accomplished passers like Allen and Coutinho, and with the inventiveness of Suarez and Sterling, the counter should be a Liverpool staple.

Especially in away fixtures against teams who like to overload in the attack and pile up in their final third, exactly Liverpool’s big upcoming tests at White Hart Lane, the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.

If Liverpool can withstand some inevitably strong attacks from their hosts, they should look to capitalize on their relatively soft underbellies and hope to snatch goals—and points—that way.

 

Improve Decision-Making and the Final Ball

Hi-res-454129349-james-collins-of-west-ham-united-challenges-philippe_crop_650
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

With 20 goals in their last five matches at home, it wouldn’t seem on the surface that Liverpool need work on their finishing and final ball.

Indeed, Luis Suarez needs to be given lots of credit for his massive improvement in finishing off his chances. In the context that he used to be a profligate striker who often frustrated Reds fans with his poor finishing, this article from BassTunedToRed.com tells us that his conversion rate has jumped from 8.2% in the Kenny Dalglish era to a staggering 25% this season.

But even though they scored four goals against West Ham on Saturday, there was ample evidence, especially in the first half when the visitors shut up shop in front of their penalty area, that Liverpool took one touch too many or played one pass too many.

Coutinho continually decided to attempt to play a colleague into space when shooting from range would’ve been more beneficial, while Sterling’s final ball, even when sent through on goal, seemed to be just lacking in confidence.

And we don’t have to go too far back to see a glaring example of Joe Allen’s composure in front of goal, or Jordan Henderson’s lack of an assured finish at the end of a lung-busting run at Arsenal, to know that this is an area where Liverpool still need to improve on.

Given their proneness to conceding from just one solitary defensive mistake, they should work on taking their chances when they create them. Against smaller teams that they’ve admittedly demolished in recent weeks, chances will come by simply because of their relentless pressure and approach play, but goal-scoring opportunities will be few and far between in the coming few weeks.

Of course, 1-0 is all it takes to take home three points, and Liverpool started their season off with three well won, if not entirely convincing, 1-0 wins, which featured lots of deep defending. But to do that, besides holding firm and keeping a clean sheet, you need to take that one chance when it comes by.

 

Approach Tough Away Matches Fearlessly and Confidently

With 34 goals scored in 15 league games thus far—the second most in the Premier League—it’s clear that when Liverpool feel like it, they can turn on the style and blow opponents away with their attacking play.

A large part of that—nine goals, to be exact—is admittedly down to the now-injured Daniel Sturridge and his impressive all-round contributions up front for the Reds this season, but Luis Suarez’s form and the overall cohesiveness in attack means that they remain an offensive force to be reckoned with.

So why did they go to the Emirates and come away with a comprehensive 0-2 loss when they could’ve started the game on the front foot if they’d been set up to do so?

A look at Roberto Martinez’s impressive setup at Everton shows that a consistent mental, technical and physical approach, once ingrained throughout the squad (which includes the coaching staff and management team), can take their game and impose it on whichever opponents they come up against.

They’ve done it against Manchester United, and they did it just this Sunday night with a fearless, confident and assertive display at the Emirates, when they forced a 1-1 draw against league leaders Arsenal.

Brendan Rodgers will realize that his squad has deficiencies—which squad doesn’t?—but he will also know that keeping the same identity in whatever fixture can reap large benefits and may even spring the odd surprise.

Just look at Liverpool’s trip to Manchester City last season. Granted, City weren’t managed by Manuel Pellegrini then, and Liverpool had a Steven Gerrard blockbuster to thank, but if Pepe Reina hadn’t rushed off his line, the visitors would’ve taken home an impressive 2-1 win.

More of that please.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Everton 3-3 Liverpool: 6 Talking Points from Thrilling Merseyside Derby Draw

Hi-res-451536457-luis-suarez-of-liverpool-scores-his-teams-second-goal_crop_650x440
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Goals, drama and controversy. High tempo, high energy and intense atmosphere. Liverpool lead, Everton comeback and Liverpool equalize. Simply put, the 221st Merseyside derby had it all.

Philippe Coutinho got things rolling from a set-piece situation in a frantic opening 20 minutes, which saw Kevin Mirallas equalize before Luis Suarez’s exquisite free-kick saw the Reds enter the break 2-1 up.

Romelu Lukaku notched up two devastating goals for the hosts to seemingly complete a gutsy turnaround, only for Daniel Sturridge to come off the bench to tie things up right at the death.

Saturday’s Premier League opening game was a spectacle for Liverpudlians and neutrals alike, and displayed to a full extent the attacking philosophies of the respective managers on the Goodison Park touchline.

Here are six talking points from a thrilling Merseyside derby draw between Everton and Liverpool. Enjoy and let us know what you made of it all in the comments below.

The Spotlight Shines on Luis Suarez, Simon Mignolet and Romelu Lukaku

After Luis Suarez’s goal, diving celebration and non-goal in this corresponding fixture last year, we knew there wasn’t a chance he’d let this one pass him by either.

If his free-kick in the 19th minute—an expert low curler from outside the box—was impressive, equally eye-catching and perhaps even more important was his fanatical work rate, desire and commitment to the Reds cause.

Sergio Aguero would have had something to say about this after his barnstorming performance in Manchester City’s demolition of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, but there’s a very strong argument that Luis Suarez is currently the best player in the Premier League.

If Suarez is the best outfield player in the top flight, surely Simon Mignolet has an equal shout as the best shot-stopper currently in England.

Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool fans will, in the aftermath of the draw, look at the positive side of Mignolet’s nine saves and conclude that he has indeed been an upgrade on Pepe Reina, and ignore all the insinuations that come with conceding so many shots on goal in the first place.

Mignolet has won the Reds many a point and kept them in many a game this season, but Everton’s loan star Romelu Lukaku made sure that the Belgian goalkeeper would have to concede three times before making the return journey across Stanley Park.

The cream of the crop among some fine transfer window business by Roberto Martinez, Lukaku simply had too much for Liverpool as they looked to recover from Joe Allen’s horrendous miss.

With two goals in 10 minutes, Lukaku enhanced his burgeoning reputation as the premier target-man striker in the Premier League and he’s only 20 years old.

Liverpool Hurt by Kevin Mirallas, Phil Dowd and Joe Allen

Hi-res-451547825-luis-suarez-of-liverpool-lies-on-the-pitch-after-being_crop_650
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It wouldn’t be a Merseyside derby without its fair share of controversy and drama, and a single dose of Kevin Mirallas provided all the poison this traditionally fiery clash warranted—not that it needed it.

Currently doing the rounds on the Internet are comparisons between Mirallas’ knee-high challenge on Luis Suarez and the other noteworthy referee blunders of the weekend—starring Wes Brown’s sending-off and Wayne Rooney’s petulant lash—but he wasn’t finished there.

A further stamp on Suarez and a bloodying elbow to Jordan Henderson’s face ensured that Mirallas ended the game as the villain. So it was all too fitting that he’d opened the scoring for Everton before any of the above happened.

If Phil Dowd had stuck to the referees’ guidelines of sending players off for dangerous tackles to protect the recipients, perhaps this game would have turned out differently.

As it were, just as we predicted before the match, the referee’s decision and the Fat Lady came to the fore, like it did in both the derby fixtures last season. Mark Halsey was demoted to the Championship after his blunder against West Bromwich Albion a few weeks ago; Dowd might just be fearing the same.

Of course, Liverpool could’ve rendered any outside forces and chance to a mere afterthought if they had taken charge of their own destiny and made their own luck.

We’re talking, of course, about Joe Allen, who found himself clear with just the goalkeeper to beat from a mere 10 yards, and proceeded to fail to test Tim Howard so comprehensively that Everton—as though footballing karma actually exists—completed their comeback almost immediately.

Another “coulda-woulda-shoulda” for Liverpool, who, thanks to other results in the Premier League, keep their spot behind league leaders Arsenal for another week.

Time for a Change to the Reds’ Central Defence

After Mamadou Sakho’s heroics for France during their World Cup play-offs against Ukraine last week, one could’ve reasonably expected him to start in the derby with his confidence sky-high, especially against the sheer force that is Romelu Lukaku.

But marshalling the defence instead were Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, Liverpool’s tried and trusted central defensive pairing back in those days when they didn’t have any quality backup.

The problem, of course, is that the visitors do have alternative options these days, and in not playing Kolo Toure and Sakho, Brendan Rodgers opted—wrongly—for more of the same, and a continuation of old tradition.

Against a busy Lukaku and an energetic Everton midfield, and with a lacklustre and tired central midfield ahead of them, Toure and Sakho would have offered steel, composure, experience, physicality and pace as a defensive partnership.

Alas, the lack of strong defensive options meant that Saturday’s Liverpool had a soft core, and Everton’s approach play almost fully exploited it, like Southampton had done before them.

Without a strong right-sided central defender anchoring in beside him, Glen Johnson struggled as well, perhaps predictably, against the dynamic duo of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines, in a generally testy and nervy performance by the Liverpool defence.

We will reserve our compliments for Jon Flanagan, who, despite the pre-match doubts of almost all Liverpool fans, put in a shift that Jose Enrique would’ve been proud of. Aly Cissokho went on record stating his hopes of making his loan move from Valencia permanent (h/t Sky Sports)—on current evidence, he’ll need to work a whole lot more.

A Tale of Set Pieces

Hi-res-183158799-steven-gerrard-of-liverpool-takes-a-corner-during-the_crop_650
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It is curious that one of Liverpool’s likeliest ways to get a goal these days is also one of their most vulnerable areas, and that the main protagonist in the former is also one of the main culprits for the latter.

Let’s mention attacking set pieces first, and salute the deliveries of Steven Gerrard time and again, for it was his corner kick that led to Philippe Coutinho’s opening goal, and it was his free-kick in the 89th minute that made Daniel Sturridge’s dramatic headed equalizer possible.

A week ago, of course, two Gerrard set pieces got the ball rolling at Anfield against Fulham. It’s no surprise that with the captain in such inspired form from these situations, he currently leads the Premier League in assists, with five.

On the flip side, as inventive and effective as Gerrard has been from set piece situations, he has unfortunately been equally lethargic and lacking in mobility as a central midfielder, which would be less obvious if a dominant defensive midfielder were supporting him.

As it is, the combined energy, pace and positioning of Lucas and Gerrard have created holes in the midfield this season that have let opposing midfielders run past them all too easily, especially those with the physicality and power to do so.

This leads to the unfortunate propensity of conceding free-kicks in the Red half. Not an ideal situation, especially given the set-piece frailties that still plague Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Liverpool fans will be fervently hoping that Yann M’Vila, spotted in the stands on Saturday, was doing more than just paying his friend Mamadou Sakho a visit, as was rumoured by the Liverpool Echo.

Young Blues Full of Pace, Power and Promise

According to the main events in the match, it seemed like Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku stole the spotlight for Everton and will be the Blues’ main men this season.

After all, both profited from defensive mishaps to score the goals to almost win all three points for the hosts, and with five assists and seven goals respectively, they are high in both charts thus far this season. Mirallas leads the assists table with Gerrard, while Lukaku is joint fifth in goals scored with Robin van Persie and Olivier Giroud.

But many of the excellent performances that Everton have put on this season have been down to their young midfield duo, Ross Barkley and James McCarthy, both of whom put in mature displays on Saturday in one of the biggest matches in the Premier League season.

Barkley’s driving runs from midfield were relentless as they were tormenting, while McCarthy’s composure alongside the experienced Gareth Barry set the platform for the hosts’ impressive second-half comeback.

Just as Lukaku has been a brilliant loan signing, so too has Barry been a real bargain for the Blues. Looking long term, the trouble is whether or not Martinez will be able to replace them in his starting XI. But that’s a problem for another day—for January, or for next summer, perhaps.

For now, this Everton side have added pace, dynamism and an aesthetically pleasing brand of attacking football to their play. Martinez’s philosophies—and his excellent summer signings—seem to have found their place at Goodison Park already.

Daniel Sturridge Has Much to Learn

Hi-res-451542451-daniel-sturridge-of-liverpool-celebrates-scoring-his_crop_650
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
With his match-winning goal-scoring prowess, affable confidence and crowd-pleasing dance celebrations, what’s not to like about Daniel Sturridge?

From Brendan Rodgers’ post-match press conference, however, it seems that this exact attitude may have found its way into Sturridge’s own head, with the Liverpool manager citing “different personalities, different types” while comparing Suarez’s competitiveness to Sturridge’s lack of fitness, according to the Telegraph.

It is indicative of Rodgers’ man-management approach that he has embraced the qualities of Sturridge—qualities that were evident as he scored a dramatic equalizer after coming off the bench—but also that he has seen fit to criticize Sturridge’s fitness in times like this.

When your strike partner is Luis Suarez, though, it means you almost have to improve in every facet of your game.

Suspended for the first five games of the season, Suarez has roared back into first-team action and is already currently tied with Sturridge on nine league goals (just one behind league leader Sergio Aguero). But Suarez also brings with him a tremendous work rate and an eagerness to compete, even in training, which Rodgers has brought to attention.

“A lot of players, especially the top ones, are never 100 percent fit. Suarez will never have been 100 percent in his time here.”

For all the right noises that have been coming out of Daniel Sturridge, there is still plenty for him to learn. Fortunately for him, he’s got the perfect role model alongside him—at least for this season.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Lucas Suspended: What a Lucas-Less Liverpool Lineup Could Look Like

Hi-res-150797826-lucas-of-liverpool-walks-off-after-sustaining-an-injury_crop_650x440

Michael Regan/Getty Images
 
 
In his sixth league game of the 2013-14 Premier League campaign, Lucas earned himself a one-match suspension after sustaining his fifth yellow card of the season against Sunderland on Sunday.

This means the Reds No. 21, who has won a recall back to Luis Felipe Scolari’s Brazil side ahead of their upcoming friendlies, will sit out Liverpool’s hosting of Crystal Palace on Saturday October 5.

A chance, then, for Brendan Rodgers to continue tinkering with his new 3-4-1-2 formation with the absence of his trusted midfield enforcer, who has been rather underwhelming this season with his performances alongside Steven Gerrard.

Let’s look at what a Lucas-less Liverpool lineup could look like in its current context—but also how the Reds’ strongest starting XI would be if Lucas weren’t a fixture.

Let us know your thoughts and picks in the comments below.

 

GK: Simon Mignolet

With his impressive shot-stopping performances since joining Liverpool from Sunderland this summer, Simon Mignolet picks himself as the firm No. 1 in the lineup.

There have been moments of uncertainty for the big Belgian keeper, but if he improves his aerial command of the box and his distribution, he could turn out to be one of the Reds’ best ever.

 

RCB: Kolo Toure

Arguably Liverpool’s stand-out performer so far this season, Kolo Toure has proven to be an inspired signing for Brendan Rodgers this summer—and on a free transfer from Manchester City, will turn out as one of the bargains of the season.

On current form, Toure is an integral part of Rodgers’ starting XI, and as the season progresses, his experience and leadership will prove just as important as his pace, stamina and physicality.

Martin Kelly is a fantastic prospect waiting on the sidelines to return after his injury hell, but he’ll have to wait before he can hope to dislodge Toure from the lineup.

 

LCB: Mamadou Sakho / Daniel Agger

B/R’s Karl Matchett has more on why a three-man defence could be the way to go at Anfield, but a key reason is that the Reds now have a plethora of options in central defence to choose from, and summer signing Mamadou Sakho is one of them.

A nervous debut at Swansea City has been followed up by two solid performances in the league, and with each passing game Sakho is starting to justify both the hype he had as a prospect at Paris Saint-Germain and his £15 million price tag.

With him continuing his imperious form with an impressive set of defensive attributes, vice-captain Daniel Agger will have to bide his time before returning to the starting XI.

 

CD / SW: Martin Skrtel / Daniel Agger

It could well be that Agger could make his return to the starting XI in a central sweeper role, but Martin Skrtel’s impressive form in the heart of the three-man defence right now means that may take a while to happen.

Martin Skrtel’s performance against Manchester United in the second league game of the season turned out to be the start of a very encouraging upturn in form, and his no-nonsense brand of defending will continue to be important to the Reds’ fortunes.

 

RWB: Glen Johnson / Raheem Sterling / Jordan Henderson

With Glen Johnson injured for at least another few weeks, Brendan Rodgers has been using Jordan Henderson as a right wing-back in his 3-4-1-2 formation.

Lucas’ suspension, however, may change the first-team setup a bit, and perhaps for the better.

We’ll touch on what we think could be a useful role for Henderson in a few slides.

But we posit that young winger Raheem Sterling could be an interesting experiment in a slightly more defensive starting position, given his pace, work rate, surprising upper body strength, and well-known penchant for bombing down the flanks.

Given a few more weeks for the rest of the team to settle into this formation, however, when Johnson—a player tailor-made for a wing-back role—makes his first-team return, that’s when things could well and truly become exciting.

 

LWB: Jose Enrique / Glen Johnson

Jose Enrique is a player capable of two extremes: the brilliant and the downright frustrating, such are his attributes as a left full/wing-back.

His defensive qualities, barring a very apt use of his size and strength, are at times suspect (especially his positioning), while his crossing, shooting and decision-making leave much to be desired. But it’s no doubt that he offers a useful outlet on the overlap and a valuable contributor tracking back.

This is why a three-man defence, with Mamadou Sakho being another man supporting him from behind, could be the key to unlocking Enrique’s finest form.

Johnson, on the other hand, showed himself to be a more than competent left-back—in some quarters one of the league’s best—when standing in last term, but will only be moved over if other options on the right flank don’t work out.

 

CM: Steven Gerrard

Whisper it quietly, but though he delivered the corner that Daniel Sturridge turned in for Liverpool’s first goal against Sunderland on Saturday and the breathtaking diagonal pass to send Sturridge on his way for his side’s second, Steven Gerrard has been far from his best form this season.

How much this has to do with Lucas’ underwhelming form beside him, or with his own ageing years, we’ll leave for another debate.

But for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that in the context of Liverpool’s young team and Brendan Rodgers’ inexperienced side, the club captain remains indispensable at the moment.

With a more energetic and positionally smart central/defensive midfielder beside him, Gerrard could rediscover his playmaking form of old, dictating matches week in, week out.

If anything, his set-piece prowess still sets him out as one of the Premier League’s finest in that regard.

 

CM: Jordan Henderson / Joe Allen

Enter Jordan Henderson, who has continued to justify his selection every week with steady, consistent performances in an attacking midfield role.

Given Lucas’ suspension, however, this could be a good time to try the No. 14 back in his favored central midfield position. Here, the Reds could use some good positional and tactical sense, excellent work rate and tracking back and, most importantly, the stamina and pace to track midfield runners and close down shooting opportunities from opposing teams.

Henderson’s tidy passing and ability to deliver a neat first-time through-ball also adds to the reasons we suggest him as a potential partner for Steven Gerrard, while Joe Allen’s form in this position early last year also means he could be an interesting contender for the role as well.

 

CAM: Philippe Coutinho / Victor Moses / Joe Allen

There’s no doubt that when fit, Philippe Coutinho will start in his favored—and strongest—No. 10 position supporting the striker(s).

Given his injury problems at the moment, Victor Moses has been used in this position, but has been relatively underwhelming due to his natural tendency to stay wide and influence proceedings from the flanks.

It’s fair to say that while Moses has an array of tricks that make him a dangerous winger, he doesn’t quite have that ability to unlock a defence with a composed pass or a delicate piece of skill that a Liverpool No. 10 should.

While Henderson has been used in that position with some success as a pressing No. 10, we suggest that Joe Allen, who was deployed in this role to good effect over the course of preseason, be given a run-out, especially if Coutinho is still injured when he returns.

 

ST: Daniel Sturridge

When fit, the front two in this 3-4-1-2 system picks itself.

Daniel Sturridge, currently top scorer both for Liverpool and in the English Premier League, has shown even while not fully fit that he is maturing into a top well-rounded marksman.

He is likely to remain a key player for Brendan Rodgers for a few more months to come.

 

ST: Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez has come straight back into the Liverpool XI after his 10-match suspension even given his public protestations this summer, but it was always too big a temptation to resist.

Following up a lively performance against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup with a two-goal display at Sunderland, Suarez has played his way back into the hearts of the Liverpool fans again, and will play an important role for the rest of the season, at least.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Joe Allen: 5 Areas of Improvement Next Season

Hi-res-155103416_crop_650x440

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho, Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson, Luis Alberto, Stewart Downing, Joe Allen.

Discounting the versatile Luis Suarez, who might be on his way out of Liverpool anyway, the anonymous Oussama Assaidi and reserves Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe and Jonjo Shelvey, that’s six players considered first-team options in Liverpool’s attacking midfield.

And that’s also excluding Daniel Sturridge, who has experience drifting in from wide, and Steven Gerrard, who has been moved back to a more withdrawn playmaking role.

After an excellent start to life following his £15 million move from Swansea City last summer, Joe Allen’s form dipped spectacularly as he transitioned from a mainstay to a passenger to an observer. (We placed him in the attacking midfield bracket above as he cameoed in such a role in the second half of the season, though he will obviously also be considered in a deeper position.)

With such formidable competition in the first team next season, how can the Wales international keep his place in Brendan Rodgers’ team?

Here are five areas of improvement for Joe Allen in the coming season.

 

Fitness

The first order of business is physical fitness.

Joe Allen notably struggled with a shoulder injury since October, according to the Liverpool Echo, which impacted his performances for the club as he gradually diminished in influence and physical presence.

Early in the season, when Liverpool struggled to adapt to Brendan Rodgers’ new system, Allen was the standout performer in the heart of the midfield, and even when Lucas was out due to injury, he filled in as a defensive midfielder with impressive ease.

When news emerged of his injury troubles, his drop in form became understandable, but the bigger question was why Rodgers continued to play him despite the shoulder problems.

Allen ultimately missed the end of the season, so he will have had a full summer of rehabilitation before returning to action in the first team.

If he does get over his injuries, perhaps Liverpool fans can see Allen return to his previous good form?

 

Tackling

Standing at a diminutive 5’6″, Joe Allen’s size does not constitute as an advantage considering that he plays at the center of midfield in a physical and fast-paced league.

While the aforementioned shoulder injury had a part to play in his less wholehearted physical performances after October, the turning point for his confidence (and subsequently, his form) was arguably the 2-2 away draw at Everton on October 28, when Allen proved an unfortunate mismatch against the formidable Marouane Fellaini.

What Allen lacks in stature, unfortunately, it seems he also lacks in tackling. In the previously listed EPLIndex analysis piece, in a comparison with 13 other Premier League central midfielders, Allen’s tackle success rate was the lowest, at a mere 64.81 percent.

That he conversely ranked near the top for minutes per possession won (10) had a lot to do with his interceptions, for which he deserves credit. But he also placed bottom in the minutes-per-defensive-error chart (384), which will be a cause for concern.

If he is to establish himself in a high-energy, pressing midfielder who’s focused on winning the ball back, he will need to rely on far more than just his anticipation.

(Stats from @Kopology‘s excellent article in EPLIndex.)

 

Transitioning in the Counterattack

Early last season, when Brendan Rodgers’ new Liverpool side was largely focused on replicating his Swansea successes, much of the approach play was concentrated in short passes and dominating possession in the midfield.

Joe Allen, who thrived in his debut season in the Premier League in such a system, unsurprisingly stood out as the player most comfortable on the pitch. Even the likes of Steven Gerrard struggled at the beginning, when Liverpool were trying to find form on the pitch.

As the Reds’ identity began to change during the season, however, things started looking different.

There was much more variability to the attack. While keeping possession was still an important facet of an evolving Liverpool, more long balls were used, especially as Gerrard got into his rhythm of spraying passes all over the pitch from his deeper playmaking position, while counterattacks became much more efficient and devastating.

Add in the speedy January signings in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, and suddenly, Liverpool became a team that pounced on the break and could break past opponents if necessary.

A Joe Allen who is most adept at recycling the ball soon found himself out of the team (though his injuries had played a major part as well).

To get his place back, he will need to make up for lost time and catch up with a new, slicker Liverpool.

 

Final Ball

Stewart Downing made the headlines in his first season at Anfield for notching zero goals and assists, despite being known as a fine crosser of the ball.

So a Welsh Xavi that draws blanks in both areas (in league play) will be equally frustrating and surprising.

It’s not that Allen isn’t good at passing. He is: At an average 89.7 percent pass success rate, he was the most accomplished passer in the midfield and forward areas.

But a simple drill into passing statistics explains his lack of a telling contribution to the Liverpool attack: With 0.8 key passes and zero through-balls per game, Allen just didn’t impress. Compare that to Steven Gerrard, who averaged 2.6 and 0.3, and Philippe Coutinho (1.5, 0.8), and the difference becomes clearer.

A single-faceted midfield player may thrive in a single-minded game, but in an ambitious Liverpool side aiming to vary attacking approaches, Allen needs to vastly up his impact in terms of the final ball.

(Stats from WhoScored.com.)

 

Shooting and Goalscoring

Now, it’s all well and good for a central or defensive midfielder to play a simple game and not manage a single goal throughout a league campaign. (Joe Allen did score two goals elsewhere, against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup and against Zenit St. Petersburg in the Europe League.)

But as a player who has the positional and technical awareness to cameo as an attacking midfielder, and as a central/defensive midfielder lacking in the previous attributes, perhaps a little more contribution in terms of goals is in order.

Joe Allen simply does not possess the power in his shots to contribute goals from long range, nor the composure and finishing required to put away clear-cut chances. His usual position further behind the attack prevents him from getting in the thick of the action.

Who wouldn’t welcome a Joe Allen who added goals to his game?

But focus on improving the first four aspects and that will already be enough to secure Allen a place in the first team this season.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Ranking Liverpool’s Central Midfield Options

With less than two weeks to go until the summer transfer window closes, Liverpool are still active in the market, having confirmed on Tuesday the signing of French left-back Aly Cissokho from Valencia on a season-long loan, as reported by Andy Hunter in The Guardian.

In less encouraging news for the Reds, Brendan Rodgers’ high-profile move for Shakhtar Donetsk winger Willian has apparently fallen through due to interest from Tottenham Hotspur, according to BBC Sport.

However, Liverpool’s transfer activity this summer has meant that all positions have been strengthened at the club, barring one: central midfield.

As we ponder whether this is down to Rodgers’ confidence in his own options or that he is still scouring the market for a quality addition, let’s take a look at the central midfield options currently at his disposal—and why not rank them in order of importance?

Read on and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

5. Luis Alberto

Hi-res-174333997_crop_650

 Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

At a Glance

New signing Luis Alberto, who arrived from Sevilla this summer after spending last term on loan at Barcelona B, comes in fifth on our list, simply because his status is still as a young squad member.

Alberto honed his skills at the Sevilla academy, making 77 appearances and scoring 25 goals for Sevilla B and graduating to the first team, before heading out to Camp Nou on loan.

Strengths

Comfortable on the ball, both in dribbling and passing, and with a knack for scoring goals—he scored 11 goals while on loan at Barcelona B last season—the versatile Alberto is capable of filling in across the midfield and forward lines.

He was played in a deeper, more withdrawn position during Liverpool’s preseason tour and provided glimpses of a typical Spanish cultured midfielder, also scoring a goal in a friendly against Valerenga.

Weaknesses

What counts against Alberto at the moment is his lack of experience at the top level of club football. While he made a few appearances for the Sevilla first team, he’s done most of his goalscoring and made most of his impact playing in the B level in Spain.

We would also expect that Alberto undergoes some strength training so that he won’t be overwhelmed by the physicality of the Premier League.

Importance

At £6.8 million, his transfer didn’t come too cheaply for a reserve, so we wouldn’t be surprised if he made appearances off the bench or in domestic cup competitions, but he will have to deliver consistently impressive performances to force his way up the ladder.

 

4. Joe Allen

Hi-res-155063493_crop_650

 Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

At a Glance

A key cog in Rodgers’ Swansea City side, Joe Allen was his first signing after his appointment as Liverpool manager last summer, and cost a cool £15 million.

After starting last season in inspired form alongside Lucas, Allen’s confidence petered out after suffering near-total domination against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby.

Asked to fill in at defensive midfield following Lucas’ injury, Allen’s form continued declining with a reported shoulder injury, before the Brazilian’s return allowed Allen to finally cut his season short and go under the knife.

Allen has started the season well, performing to rave reviews in Liverpool’s preseason tour, buthe  was an unused substitute in their first league game of the 2013/14 season against Stoke City.

Strengths

Allen’s biggest strength is undoubtedly his comfort and technique on the ball, which means passing is his strongest suit. Early last season when he started his Anfield career, his short passes enabled an effective recycling of the ball in the midfield, whereas his long passes reminded the Kop of former favorite Xabi Alonso.

As a player who came of age in Brendan Rodgers’ passing system, Allen was the first to arrive with the philosophy ingrained in his midfield play and is deployable in all three lines of the midfield: defensive, central and attacking.

Weaknesses

His diminutive stature, however, continues to be a glaring weakness, especially against more physical sides that take advantage of their height in the Premier League. This was presumably one of the reasons he wasn’t chosen in Liverpool’s first league game this season against Stoke.

For a midfielder in a dynamic and interchangeable team, Allen’s goalscoring leaves much to be desired. He has improved his attacking presence, however, and scored a goal in Steven Gerrard’s preseason testimonial against Olympiakos.

Importance

While his form after the opening few months of last season left a poor impression on many Reds fans, he displayed his undoubted quality before sustaining his shoulder injury.

A passing team like Liverpool will always have a place for technically gifted and composed midfielders like Joe Allen, and his ability to play further up the field will work in his favor, but the reality is that Allen is very much a squad player at the moment.

 

3. Jordan Henderson

Hi-res-165120142_crop_650

 Stu Forster/Getty Images

At a Glance

Following the departures of Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson is the only “big-money flop” left at Anfield from the financially disastrous reign of Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish.

The quotes are in place in the previous paragraph because of the way Henderson has turned his Anfield career around. From being offered to Fulham as a makeweight in a deal for Clint Dempsey (which ultimately fell through), Henderson has stormed back into first-team contention and has impressed Rodgers with his work rate and ability, so much so that he was awarded a start in Saturday’s match against Stoke, where he put in an impressive performance.

Which makes us think if Henderson hadn’t been bought for £16 million, he might even be seen as a shrewd capture now.

Strengths

The first thing that comes to mind regarding Henderson is his sheer persistence, hard work and professionalism, making him a likeable character and a player who has come through adversity and an underwhelming first season with aplomb.

But there are other clear factors that work in his favor: His technique is underrated—his passing and finishing abilities can sometimes go under the radar—whereas his work off the ball is instrumental in putting pressure on opposition midfields and defences, a key facet of Liverpool’s current approach. His positioning has also improved by leaps and bounds, and with an evident rise in self-confidence he is much more likely to assert himself on a match.

There’s also his versatility. While Henderson started his career as a central midfielder, he was played predominantly on the right in his final season at Sunderland and in his debut season at Liverpool, and he has also featured on the left and in the central attacking midfield positions under Brendan Rodgers.

Weaknesses

While Henderson has a variety of skills and is a valuable squad player, he can only be classed in the “jack of all trades, master of none” category at the moment: There isn’t any outstanding attribute in his locker that elevates him towards a permanent first-team starting place just yet.

Importance

It is precisely due to this versatility and all-roundedness as a midfielder that has seen Henderson become an important part of the squad, and his attitude and improvement have considerably moved him up the pecking order.

Liverpool’s pursuit of Willian outlined Rodgers’ wishes to strengthen his attacking midfield, and it’s probable that he will look to strengthening the center of his midfield down the line, so the 2013/14 season might prove to be make-or-break for the No. 14.

But there’s no denying how far he’s come from the shy, gangly and often-criticized youngster that came from Sunderland on a price tag that was simply too big.

 

2. Lucas

Hi-res-159717858_crop_650

 Mark Thompson/Getty Images

At a Glance

At this point, we’ve all heard of the journey that Lucas has taken from Liverpool scapegoat to Anfield hero. The Brazilian midfielder, who arrived as a 20-year-old prodigy from Gremio in 2007, has undergone a near-complete transformation in his Anfield fortunes.

From being fourth-choice in a formidable midfield lineup under Rafael Benitez featuring Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, Lucas backed his claims for a first-team place with his hard work and attitude, and as the latter two left, he became first-choice for the defensive midfield position.

Since then he has also gained recognition at the international level, as he has taken up the famed No. 5 jersey for the Brazilian national team on many occasions.

Strengths

Starting out as a box-to-box midfielder in Brazil, Lucas has since been recalibrated as a defensive midfielder at Anfield. His short-passing skills have carried through, while he’s massively improved his tackling—he frequently tops the charts with the number of tackles he commits for his club.

The No. 21 might be more famous for his dedication to the cause and professional attitude, as he finally won over the Reds faithful with his hard work. The Brazilian went from being cast aside as not good enough at the beginning of his Reds career to being voted the Standard Chartered Fans Player of the Year of the 2010/11 season.

Weaknesses

Despite such an impressive turnaround, to a certain extent Lucas has combined two of the weaknesses of the box-to-box and defensive midfield positions.

His goalscoring, while never prolific even in Gremio colors, has been almost non-existent for Liverpool, and his preference to stay back and anchor the play, while an important element of the midfield, has deprived the team of an extra source of goals.

In addition, while his tackling has often been praised, his positioning is still yet to match that of top-notch, world-class defensive midfielders. His tendency to play reactively has led sometimes to gaping holes in the center of midfield, allowing opponents to attack through the middle of the park. His turn of pace has also come under the spotlight in duels with fast and physical attacking midfielders.

Importance

There’s no denying that Lucas assumes an important place in Liverpool hearts: Fans have taken to him after his “transformation,” whereas managers and coaches have always been a big fan of his attention to detail and willingness to learn. The fact that Brendan Rodgers has not been linked with a defensive midfielder this summer indicates the trust that he has in Lucas.

However, Lucas’ second place on this list hasn’t come about solely because of a complete skill set or a reputation as a world-class defensive midfielder. Rather, it is because he is the sole member of the Reds midfield that has a more defensive or destructive tendency.

 

1. Steven Gerrard

Hi-res-176699001_crop_650

 Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

At a Glance

Steven Gerrard, the boyhood Liverpool fan who has become a Reds icon, one of the greatest midfielders in his generation, a proven match-winner and big-game player, and arguably the best Liverpool player of all time.

Our recap of his greatest achievements at Anfield would serve as a better tribute (or introduction) to the current Liverpool skipper.

Strengths

Simply put, Gerrard has it all: pace, power, dribbling, passing, finishing, long-range shooting, set-piece delivery, heading, tackling and—most important of all—the ability to inspire and lead his teammates to victory.

At his peak, Gerrard was one of the premier midfielders on the European continent and frequently won Liverpool matches singlehandedly.

Weaknesses

As he’s aged and as he continues to age, however, Gerrard has moved into a more withdrawn position in the midfield, and his direct match-winning influence as waned.

His tendency to adopt a freer role and relative tactical indiscipline have also been put forth as weaknesses in his game, especially in a metronomic current Liverpool setup.

Importance

There have been many false seasons of transitions at Anfield in recent years, but as Brendan Rodgers’ revolution shapes up and enters a critical year, the leadership of Steven Gerrard is needed more than ever.

He continues to dictate results from a deeper position in the midfield—his nine league goals and nine assists last year are a testament to his continuing importance—and his status as a role model serves to inspire new generations of talent and act currently as the best ambassador for Liverpool Football Club.

 

Further Additions Needed?

As in any positional analysis, besides dissecting the merits and roles of each player currently available, an additional exercise is needed: introspection on whether further strengthening is needed.

There is a host of midfield options, with a vast array of talent and attributes, currently at Brendan Rodgers’ disposal, and he has duly taken advantage of these resources by deploying different midfield combinations in different scenarios.

However, it is clear that to move forward as a club and regain the formidable dominance of years gone by in the middle of the park, additions are needed at Liverpool.

Let’s look first at the defensive midfield position, for which Lucas may be the only specialist currently at the club.

We touched a bit on his weaknesses—areas that a high-caliber signing like Tottenham Hotspur new boy Etienne Capoue could have addressed impressively—and while he has been on his way back from injury and into peak form, a top-tier defensive midfielder must be brought in sooner or later, if Liverpool are to succeed on the domestic and European levels eventually.

Then there’s the matter of Steven Gerrard’s ageing years.

It would be silly to expect anyone to go in and replace Gerrard and his talismanic, near-superhuman powers when he eventually retires, but the effort must be made to secure this long-term replacement before the need becomes urgent.

The likes of Luis Alberto and Joe Allen do not offer the same completeness that Gerrard has for many years. Jonjo Shelvey was once tipped as the captain’s successor, only for high expectations and underwhelming performances to lead to a summer move to Swansea.

Which leaves Jordan Henderson, and at this point in time, the No. 14 still has plenty of work to do before he comes remotely close to inheriting Gerrard’s position.

There are, of course, prospects in the Academy that have been earning rave reviews: The likes of Jordan Rossiter, Jordan Lussey and Daniel Trickett-Smith have been touted for big things, but surely time has to be afforded to these young talents.

For the time being, what’s clear is that Liverpool presently have a good array of options in the midfield, but to push on and secure a bright future, more work has to be done.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.