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A Comprehensive Half-Term Report on Liverpool’s 2013/14 Premier League Season

After their 2-0 home win over Hull City to start the New Year off with three points, Liverpool are now fourth in the Premier League table with 39 points from 20 games, and just over halfway into their quest for a return back to the Champions League.

All told, it’s been an encouraging season for Brendan Rodgers’ men so far, and with the prolific Luis Suarez in their ranks, the Anfield side currently boast the second highest goal difference in England’s top flight with +23 (46 scored, 23 conceded).

Most Reds fans—indeed, probably including the Liverpool management and players—would have taken fourth in the league at the start of 2014 if it could’ve been offered to them at the start of the season, yet how do they stand for the rest of the season?

In the following 10 slides you’ll find a comprehensive half-term report on Liverpool’s season halfway into the 2013/14 Premier League campaign, where we’ll assess different aspects of the club’s performance thus far, before arriving at a prediction on how far the Reds can go this season.

Enjoy, and give us your take in the comments below.

 

Formation and Playing Style

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBrendan Rodgers came to Liverpool in the summer of 2012 with a well-known fondness for a 4-3-3 formation favoring quick, short passes and constant movement of the ball. His Liverpool team showed unfamiliarity with his new methods and thus got the 2012/13 season off to a slow start.

A year on, his team roared to a perfect start to their Premier League campaign in a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Daniel Sturridge leading the line as lone striker in Luis Suarez’s continued absence due to suspension. Sturridge was to score his side’s first three goals of the season in three consecutive 1-0 wins.

Those three victories over Stoke City, Aston Villa and Manchester United were achieved in stark contrast to Rodgers’ slick possession-dominant style, as they reverted to defence first in the second halves and ground out the wins. A case of warming up to the new season, perhaps, but the Reds have only achieved three clean sheets in the league since then.

As Suarez returned in brilliant form, Rodgers encountered a selection dilemma, and eventually opted for a 3-5-2 to accommodate his free-scoring strikers and also take advantage of his strength in numbers in central defence.

Right when this surprise 3-5-2 formation was suggested as the Liverpool way of the future, Daniel Sturridge got injured, leading Rodgers to switch back to his favored 4-3-3, with Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling flanking Suarez as the central striker. This was the start of a scintillating personal campaign for Suarez that has seen the No. 7 score 20 goals in just 15 league games thus far, in the process becoming the fastest player to hit the 20-goal mark.

All this was achieved with a new withdrawn regista role for Steven Gerrard, who played alongside Lucas and provided a newly revitalized Jordan Henderson with the platform to charge forward. New signings Iago Aspas and Victor Moses both tried and failed the No. 10 role, while Coutinho has taken up a place on the left cutting in to support Suarez.

Gerrard’s relatively pedestrian contribution in the side could have been considered an antithesis to Rodgers’ all-action style, but his long balls and set-piece delivery in turn led to goals in every manner possible: Liverpool, having picked up a reputation for being weak defending set pieces, also became known for their goal-scoring prowess from free kicks and corners. (Luis Suarez’s deadly finishing from free kicks outside the box also contributed.)

When Gerrard himself was injured in the beginning of December and Joe Allen was fit enough to return to the starting XI, Liverpool began to transform into something more akin to a Rodgers staple. A midfield trio of Lucas, Henderson and Allen, while remaining in the 4-3-3 formation, pressed and harried opponents into losing possession, thereby sticking to Rodgers’ “death by football” mantra, and looks to be Liverpool’s image in the medium to long term, especially when Gerrard eventually calls time on his career.

In just six months at Anfield, we witnessed transformations and progress in Liverpool’s tactical setup and playing style while the points continued to be picked up. We’ll have more on each area of the field and Liverpool’s progress from last season in the coming slides.

 

Transfers

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Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesFor players who joined the club in the summer, find our grades and analyses on how they’ve done in their first six months at Anfield in our guide here, where we assess them on value for money, impact and potential.

We’ll cover most of the first-team players in the following few slides focusing on the Liverpool defence, midfield and attack.

 

Defence

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Clive Rose/Getty ImagesOne of the stories of Liverpool’s season thus far is the return to prominence of Martin Skrtel—if prominence can be measured by first-team starts.

Since his return against Manchester United early in the season, Skrtel has been a fixture in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, having made 18 appearances this season already with two goals to his name.

While he enjoyed a resurgence in form for a few months, in recent weeks he has committed a number of defensive errors—not least in the buildup to Samuel Eto’o’s winning goal against Chelsea on December 29—that have largely been glossed over. Questions will continue to arise of his blatant shirt-pulling in the box, as well as of the relative lack in vocal leadership and on-field organization when Skrtel is playing.

Alongside Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have taken turns as Rodgers’ starting left-sided centre-back with mixed results, as Agger—despite having been awarded the vice-captaincy in the summer after Jamie Carragher’s retirement—hasn’t been able to find the consistency and form that previously made him an Anfield icon.

Sakho, on the other hand, established himself as first choice over Agger prior to his hamstring injury sustained at Stamford Bridge. In Sakho’s absence over the coming few weeks, however, Agger will have a chance to reestablish his place in the starting line-up. If he manages to sustain his performance against Hull City on New Year’s Day, Rodgers may well have more to think about when Sakho returns.

On the right flank, Glen Johnson has been ever-present, but sadly out of sorts at the moment, having put in a series of lethargic and uninspiring performances in recent weeks. A lack of genuine competition in the right-back slot hasn’t helped, but Rodgers will surely continue to look at Martin Kelly’s fitness and form to see when would be a good time to reintroduce him for some much needed competition to Johnson.

Jose Enrique had started to enjoy an improvement in his form at left-back before he was ruled out with a lengthy injury layoff in November. Jon Flanagan, a right-back by trade, came into the side after on-loan Aly Cissokho failed to assert himself, and the academy graduate grabbed the headlines with a standout performance in the Merseyside derby and an exciting first-ever senior goal in the 5-0 rout of Tottenham Hotspur. Cissokho’s decent display against Hull after Flanagan himself was injured will have been encouraging—and a relief.

Overall, Liverpool’s defensive record this season speaks for itself: A total of 23 goals conceded, just over a goal a game—with just six clean sheets—is not good enough, though an all-conquering strikeforce has rendered it a lesser concern for the time being.

Their proneness to concede from set pieces, as well as questioning positioning on counter-attacks—not helped by a gaping central midfield hole—will be two key defensive issues for Rodgers and his backroom team to iron out for the second half of the season.

 

Midfield

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Paul Thomas/Getty ImagesAh, the midfield—so important to the Rodgers philosophy and Liverpool’s style of play.

Before we elaborate further, we must first recognize the work and rise of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool Football Club. Just a year ago, Henderson had the choice of continuing his career at Fulham or fighting for his career at Anfield. He picked the latter, and Rodgers has been impressed enough to give him almost a permanent starting spot in his first XI.

Put simply, Henderson has blossomed. There is a newfound confidence, a refreshing swagger in his play, while he has been able to put his incredible work rate to good use in pressuring and harrying his opponents.

His passing has been positive, and his running in the advanced midfield position has been direct and threatening. If he adds the finish and the final ball to his game, Liverpool fans may finally forgive his £16 million price tag.

Alongside Henderson, another midfielder to flourish recently is Joe Allen, who is enjoying a new lease of life in his “second stint” at Anfield, if we can call it that after a lengthy injury layoff following a mixed half-season last year.

Having returned to the line-up after Gerrard’s own injury, Allen has upped his game considerably following a painful miss at Goodison Park and has become an integral part of the dynamic, interchanging midfield now delighting fans week in, week out.

And like Henderson, Allen needs to work on his composure in front of goal. As the midfield unit progressively moves forward on each attack, every midfielder has a chance to break through and arrive in the box. They need to take their goal-scoring chances.

Further back, Steven Gerrard and Lucas have had mixed seasons thus far. A common criticism leveled at the Reds this season is that their midfield has the tendency to implode against quick and powerful opponents, as was evidenced against Southampton, Arsenal and Chelsea. Both Gerrard and Lucas do not have the legs or the positional awareness to hold the midfield, and thus the central areas are badly exposed, especially against counterattacks.

Gerrard has contributed three goals and six assists in his 16 Premier League appearances this season, which suggests that he still has a big part to play at his club, but may not be a good fit in the Liverpool blueprint going forward. Lucas, meanwhile, may find his importance diminished and first-team status affected if Rodgers does sign a defensive midfielder in January.

In the first half of the 2013/14 season, we’ve seen a few different identities, as we laid out in the first slide on formation and playing style. The changes and variances are all anchored in and affected by the midfield: Gerrard’s presence allows for a more varied approach but with more potential to be overwhelmed, while the recent Lucas-Allen-Henderson combination gives Liverpool a more relentless image.

It will be interesting to see when Rodgers decides to use which option when all of his charges are back to full fitness.

 

Attack

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesIt would be fairer to start this section with Daniel Sturridge, who got Liverpool through the first couple of months of the season, but 2013/14 at Anfield has been all about one man: Luis Suarez.

Suarez, having publicly flirted with an exit from the club in the summer, was forced to buckle down, and buckle down he has. Not only that: He’s improved on almost every aspect of his play and seemingly on his attitude as well. A devastating improvement on his finishing has seen him rocket towards the summit of the Premier League scoring charts, setting records along the way.

In addition to becoming one of the most feared strikers in the world, Suarez has also kept his hardworking style, which makes him Liverpool’s defender from the front and an important component of a relentless, pressing unit. It’s just as well that they managed to sign him on a new and improved contract extension in December.

But before Suarez came back with aplomb, Sturridge was the one carrying the Liverpool team. With nine goals and two assists in just 12 league games, Sturridge has enjoyed a fruitful season as well, carrying on his form from last season—just not as stellar and exhilarating as Suarez.

A rapidly maturing striker in his own right, Sturridge will likely return to first-team action in January, giving Rodgers a tactical dilemma and opponents all the more reason to fear the Reds.

But Liverpool fans had been looking forward to Sturridge’s return since the confirmation of his injury layoff, so why would it give Rodgers a dilemma? The answer lies in Raheem Sterling, who has come back into the first team and showed signs of continued development and growth with a series of exciting displays on the right of the frontline.

Sterling’s pace, trickery and direct running have caused opponents all sorts of problems since his own return to the first team, and his three goals in 15 appearances show that he is starting to add the final touch to his impressively all-rounded game, something that fellow attacker Philippe Coutinho also needs to work on.

It was always going to be hard for Coutinho to reprise his excellent first half-season at Anfield after signing for Liverpool last January, as opponents would have had six months to figure him out. With that said, while he has shown the vision, creativity and pace that were so threatening last season, he has yet to hit the same heights. A paltry sum of two goals and two assists this season sums up his difficulties, though he has largely been played on the left instead of in his favored No. 10 position.

With the league’s second most prolific scoring record, Liverpool have other areas than their forward line to worry about for the rest of the season. Their existing attacking setup will continue to deliver.

 

Strengths

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesSo with the lengthy summaries of each on-field department now covered, let’s move towards Liverpool’s strengths in their first six months of the season.

Without a doubt, Liverpool’s set piece mastery needs to be mentioned. For a team that struggles so regularly in defending set pieces, their prowess attacking form is surprising and quite extraordinary. Nonetheless, all three of their regular starting central defenders—and, of course, Suarez and Sturridge—have scored from set pieces, largely due to the world-class deliveries of Steven Gerrard.

The evolution in Liverpool’s approach play also deserves a mention here, as they have started to dominate games completely and blow away their opponents: Their “goals scored” column is so emphatic because they have really honed their craft going forward this season. They have now scored 87 goals in their past 38 league games, 10 more than their highest-scoring full season in the Premier League era.

A product—or perhaps the foundation—of such fearsome attacking play is their excellent home record this season. Anfield has well and truly regained its “Fortress” moniker, as the Reds have stormed to nine wins out of 10 at home this season, scoring 27 goals and conceding just six in the process. Their 27 points from a possible 30 at home this season is just behind Manchester City (30/30) and Chelsea (28/30).

Finally, we must devote some column space to the youngsters at Rodgers’ disposal: A young goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet and a future star in Mamadou Sakho; the pace, industry and massive improvement of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling; and the undoubted quality in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. This is a squad whose full potential lies ahead of them and whose young age needs to be regarded as a strong asset.

 

Weaknesses

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThere have been a few weaknesses of note evident in their season thus far, however.

Just as we started our coverage on Liverpool’s strengths with their set piece prowess, so we must highlight their vulnerability at defending set pieces and crosses into the box. The unconvincing defending and unsure positioning in such situations have caused panic to spread among supporters and manager alike in those situations—Rodgers had already outlined his concerns back in October, according to the Liverpool Echo.

We’ve touched on this in our slide on the midfield as well, but it bears repeating here: The gaps that open in the midfield area due to positional errors, pedestrian pace and a lack of specialist defensive midfielders can hurt Liverpool badly, especially on the counterattack.

Steven Gerrard’s return from injury may be a double-edged sword and must be managed carefully by Rodgers, who has seen a revolution in his midfield performances during the captain’s absence.

For a side that possesses such a fearsome scoring record and frontline, Liverpool could do with further improvement in their finishing across the squad. While this obviously doesn’t apply to Suarez and Sturridge, the rest of the team needs major work in this area.

Allen, Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling have all missed absolute sitters this season. It’s tempting to think where Liverpool would be at now, especially in terms of goal difference, had they scored at least some of them.

 

Results

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Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesOn to results, an area that has seen a massive improvement over last season, largely because of the improvement in Liverpool’s attack.

A prolific stretch that started in October and lasted all the way through December saw the Reds score 23 goals in just six home games, while a five-goal hammering of Tottenham on December 4 will go down as one of their best Premier League performances of all time.

It’s not for no reason that Liverpool finish round 20 in fourth place: They’ve simply outplayed opposition they’ve needed to beat and regained that useful habit of picking up points in winnable games on paper. An overall record of 12 wins, three draws and five losses in 20 games—including a few major refereeing controversies—is more than admirable.

So it is on those five losses that we will focus, but the surprising thing—and the silver lining—is that they can easily be remedied.

We’ve mentioned the Southampton and Arsenal losses in previous sections; hopefully further reinforcement to Liverpool’s midfield down the line will improve their record against teams strong in the middle of the park.

Lee Mason and Howard Webb’s officiating against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively drew widespread criticism from both Rodgers himself and the media at large. While Liverpool’s performance at Stamford Bridge wasn’t quite up to scratch—again, the midfield was at issue—their excellent display at the Etihad Stadium should have yielded at least a point, but for the referee’s whistle.

Which leaves the defeat to Steve Bruce’s Hull City, at the KC Stadium on December 1, as perhaps the lone outlier. The simple explanation is that Bruce’s side enjoyed a fine result and Rodgers’ men had an off day, and it wouldn’t be too far off as Liverpool just didn’t turn up for the match. A disappointing day out for the Reds, which fortunately hasn’t been replicated for the remaining matches until this point.

Liverpool quite clearly need further strengthening to their ranks, starting from this January, but their results thus far have highlighted areas they need to reinforce. Targeting those improvement needs should be able to bring about improved results for the remaining 18 games.

 

Progress from Last Season

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesTo gauge Liverpool’s position at the halfway point of the 2013/14 season, besides evaluating it against their immediate rivals and in the context of just the past six months, a useful barometer would be where they stood this time last season.

On New Year’s Day 2013, with 20 league games played, Liverpool found themselves in 10th place on just 28 points, with a goal difference of +5. A quick comparison to their current picture (fourth, 39 points, GD +23) shows just how far they’ve come in the past year.

Brendan Rodgers deserves massive credit for this turnaround in results, as does the transfer committee for securing two of Liverpool’s most exciting transfer signings in recent history last January in Coutinho and Sturridge, who have been instrumental in the Reds’ growth this calendar year.

Keeping Suarez in the summer was perhaps more important than any signing they would’ve been able to make, as he’s almost singlehandedly fired Liverpool to their lofty position this season, but even besides the impressive increase in goals scored, the maturity in their overall play—particularly in recent weeks with Rodgers’ blueprint midfield—has been evident.

No wonder they’re mulling a new contract extension for Rodgers himself (c/o Mirror).

 

Potential and Prediction for the Season

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWith a side capable of switching formations at will and changing attacking approaches when required, Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal a flexible, versatile and well-drilled unit that has the world at their feet and their best years ahead of it.

The key is to unlock his squad’s potential at the earliest opportunity possible, as this unpredictable and topsy-turvy 2013/14 Premier League season represents perhaps Liverpool’s best chance yet of getting back into the top four—perhaps their best chance in the coming years.

An impressive and encouraging first half of the season will need to be at least replicated for the next five months for them to have a shot at the Champions League places, but judging from the way they clicked after January last year, we can’t possibly put a limit on what they can achieve.

The key, then, is to have a productive January transfer window that will bring important new reinforcements to the squad capable of instantly upgrading the quality of the starting XI, which will be no easy task in itself.

20 games in, they’re just six points behind league leaders Arsenal, and just three games ago they entered Christmas Day on top of the tree. If they can build on their first-half successes and iron out their weaknesses, who knows how far Liverpool can go?

 

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

Grading Liverpool’s Summer Transfer Signings of the 2013/14 Season

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Welcome to January 1st, 2014, where a new year begins, the second half of the 2013/14 Premier League campaign starts—and the winter transfer window opens.

Back in September, right as the summer transfer window was still shaking from the emphatic way it slammed shut as it always does, speculation already emerged, as rumors started spreading regarding potential transfers four months on.

For Liverpool, especially given their recent injury crises, fans have been eager to discuss the names being linked with the club every week, as the Reds no doubt have to bring in new players to strengthen both their starting XI and their squad if they are to sustain their challenge for the top four and the title.

But just in case we forgot, Liverpool did actually bring in eight players in the summer. And with half a season gone and the prospect of new signings to arrive at Anfield this month, what better time than now to look back on how their summer signings have fared?

Here are our grades and analyses for all eight of Liverpool’s summer signings for the 2013/14 season. We’ve broken it down into four categories: value for money, impact, potential and overall grade. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Victor Moses: D

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Paul Thomas/Getty Images

When Victor Moses arrived on deadline day as a loan signing from Chelsea, he was on paper an interesting and exciting signing for Liverpool: He was always known as one of the brightest prospects in English football, and had just finished the season as an integral part of Rafael Benitez’s short tenure at Stamford Bridge.

When he came off the bench to score a brilliant solo goal against Swansea City on his debut, the hope was that he would go on and establish his place in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI as a pacy, tricky winger capable of scoring goals and in need of a sustained run in a first team at the top level—much like Daniel Sturridge.

Fast forward a few months, and he finds himself permanently rooted to the bench, and his substitute appearances are often met with groans and moans as Liverpool fans wonder why Rodgers doesn’t decide to send on a more productive player. Moses has failed to score since his debut and has generally appeared lethargic, uninterested and off the pace.

From an encouraging start to a dismal current state, Moses has lots in common with last season’s failed loan signing, Nuri Sahin. He’s even been played out of position, as Sahin was. Unfortunately for Moses, Sahin had his loan deal terminated halfway through the season and was sent from Real Madrid back to Borussia Dortmund to finish his season.

Now that Raheem Sterling has reestablished himself in the starting XI and rumors abound of other wing signings—including Mohamed Salah, according to the Mirror—Moses could find himself following in Sahin’s footsteps. What a disappointment he’s been.

Value for money: B. As a loan signing, Liverpool only had to pay Chelsea a loan fee of £1 million, according to BBC Sport. For a short-term signing, however disappointing he’s been, that’s not steep.

Impact: D. His debut goal hinted at a bright loan spell, but it’s all gone downhill from there. Restricted to sub appearances these days, and continues to underwhelm.

Potential: E. The discussion among fans initially was whether or not Liverpool had a deal in place to sign him on a permanent contract at the end of his one-year loan spell. Now there are far better options who are actually contracted permanently to Liverpool for Rodgers to play.

Overall: D. Moses may return to Chelsea this winter, and no one at Anfield will be missing him. Surely that says enough.

 

Iago Apas: C-

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Iago Aspas has suffered from arguably the same predicament as Victor Moses: that of initial expectation and subsequent disappointment.

Aspas had enjoyed an impressive season with Celta Vigo last term, with 12 goals in 34 games as their talisman and having helped them avoid relegation on the final day of the campaign.

When he arrived at Anfield in June for a fee of £7.6 million (according to the Guardian), the common feeling was that Brendan Rodgers had secured one of La Liga’s top players and that Aspas would be one of the Premier League’s surprise bargains of the season a la Swansea City’s Michu a year earlier, albeit for a steeper price.

Aspas scored his first Liverpool goal in a preseason friendly against Preston North End, and even started the season in the starting XI, but showed signs that he would take time to adapt to the Premier League’s physicality. He has also been rusty in his finishing when provided the opportunities: His preseason goal remains his only in a Red shirt to date.

A thigh injury, sustained in October, brought Aspas’ first-team involvement to a halt but offered him a chance to take a breather and regain his confidence. In his absence, however, his colleagues have taken their chance to impress.

He is now being linked with a loan move away from Anfield—and in a twist of irony, Michu has said, according to ESPNFC, that he would welcome Aspas at Swansea.

Value for money: C-. For £7.6 million, Aspas won’t go down as one of Liverpool’s biggest ever flops, but none of it has been paid back on the pitch yet.

Impact: C. His early-season performances offered a glimpse of his ability and quality, but sadly his physique and finishing were not up to speed. His path to the first team now looks rockier than ever.

Potential: D. At 26 years of age, Aspas is considerably more experienced than some of his colleagues who have now taken his place in the first team. Only if he impresses majorly out on loan will he even be considered for the long term at Anfield.

Overall: C-. Not much better than Moses. Perhaps a move back to Spain, as has been suggested in the Daily Star, might resurrect his previously promising career.

 

Aly Cissokho: C

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After a summer of pursuing a new left-back to provide competition for Jose Enrique, Brendan Rodgers finally brought in Aly Cissokho on loan from Valencia in August for an initial loan fee of around £850,000, according to the Metro.

Cissokho’s debut came on the left wing, as he bumbled awkwardly through the Villa Park right flank as a substitute for fellow new signing Iago Aspas against Aston Villa. A subsequent ankle injury ruled him out for six weeks, and he has never looked too comfortable at the back since his return.

For a left-back boasting FC Porto, Olympique Lyonnais and Valencia in his top-flight resume, Cissokho has looked distinctly average in his six league appearances for Liverpool, though he did provide the assist to Luis Suarez’s brilliant 18-yard header against West Bromwich Albion.

He has since claimed that he would like to make his loan move permanent, according to the Mirror, but on current evidence, Cissokho would have to do a lot more before Rodgers even considers the possibility: That he lost his place as stand-in to Jose Enrique to youngster Jon Flanagan, a specialist right-back, says plenty about his Liverpool career thus far.

Value for money: B. Another loan signing, Cissokho doesn’t look dire enough to be shipped back to his parent club mid-season, especially considering the lack of left-back rumors despite the pressing need for reinforcement. A rumored fee of £4 million to make his move permanent, as reported by the Mirror, isn’t the steepest either.

Impact: C. Negligible at best, though given Flanagan’s recent injury he may enjoy a run in the first team in the short term. Needs to take this imminent opportunity with both hands.

Potential: D. On loan and at 26 years of age, Cissokho doesn’t look a Liverpool left-back for the long term. He needs to improve drastically to even be considered for the medium term, and even then, will face plenty of competition in his position.

Overall: C. Not Liverpool’s worst loan signing of all time, but not an inspiring acquisition either. At least he’ll probably have another six months at Anfield to prove himself.

 

Tiago Ilori: C

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September 2, 2013 was a busy transfer deadline day for Liverpool, who secured three signings before the closing hours of the summer window in Tiago Ilori, Mamadou Sakho and Victor Moses.

As reported by BBC Sport, Ilori cost £7 million from Sporting Lisbon, an indication of how highly rated he was at the Portuguese capital club, despite having only made 12 first-team appearances for them.

Known for his speed—he holds one of the sprint records at Sporting Lisbon amid famously quick graduates like Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, according to the Liverpool Echo—Ilori has taken his time to settle at Anfield and has put in a few assured displays at the back for the Reds’ under-21 team.

As Brendan Rodgers’ side continue to fight for a top-four place, first-team chances have been hard to come by for Ilori, and he’s been linked with a loan move, most recently back to his old club, according to the Independent.

Value for money: C.£7m for a young defender without experience in English football—and not much in senior football either—is undoubtedly a steep price. He may yet justify his price tag if he fulfills his potential, but he won’t be winning any awards for bargain transfers anytime soon.

Impact: D. A lack of first-team chances has limited Ilori to Liverpool’s under-21 side, where he has impressed. Liverpool’s early exit from the Capital One Cup also deprived him of potential first-team opportunities in one of just two domestic cups they will be competing in this season.

Potential: B. The jury is very much still out on Ilori, and we can’t accurately judge his potential until he plays a few games for the Reds’ senior team. But whispers in Sporting Lisbon and Liverpool suggest that he’s one to keep an eye on.

Overall: C. Ilori may well go out on loan in January and try to establish his place in the senior squad next season. Watch this space.

 

Luis Alberto: C+

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Luis Alberto became Liverpool’s first midfield signing of the 2013/14 season when he arrived at Anfield from Sevilla for a fee of around £6.8 million, as reported by BBC Sport.

Alberto arrived with a reputation as one of the hottest up-and-coming midfield talents in European football, as he scored 11 goals in 38 games last season on loan at Barcelona B.

With a host of midfield options ahead of him, Alberto was expected to take his time to bed into the squad, and his first-team appearances have been restricted to second-half cameos as he continues his acclimatization into English football.

A few encouraging appearances over pre-season in a variety of positions—second striker, central midfielder and deep-lying playmaker—showcased his versatility, while he showed his creativity and awareness with an excellent assist for Luis Suarez’s second goal in the 5-0 rout of Tottenham Hotspur in December.

Recent injuries to Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson may mean more first-team chances for Alberto. He’ll be looking to push on and secure a place in Rodgers’ squad.

Value for money: C. As with Ilori, Alberto came with an exciting reputation but also a quite considerable price tag. At this stage, he is still ways away from repaying his £6.8m fee.

Impact: C. Alberto has already made eight Premier League appearances for Liverpool this season, though mostly at the final stages of games. His assist against Spurs was encouraging; Rodgers will be looking for more of the same.

Potential: B. From what we’ve seen so far from him this season, Alberto has the technique, composure and passing ability to be a natural fit for this Liverpool side. He’ll have to fight off heavy competition from fellow midfield starlet Suso, impressing on loan at Almeria this season, and other potential midfield signings, if he is to establish himself as a first-team fixture.

Overall: C+. A depleted Liverpool squad means that Alberto will likely get more chances in the starting XI. There should be ample opportunity for him to improve on his current C+ rating.

 

Kolo Toure: B+

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

How will we replace Jamie Carragher’s experience in the Liverpool defence?

Thus went the common question and worry among Liverpool fans in the wake of Carragher’s announcement of his impending retirement last season, but they didn’t have to wait long for the answer.

In late May, the club announced an agreement in principle with Kolo Toure, then of Manchester City, to sign on July 1. Fears were allayed, and hopes were raised again.

Because Toure, an experienced defender with Premier League titles from his time at Arsenal and Manchester City, would bring not just the know-how of fighting at the top end of the table, but also a strong presence in the dressing room and vocal leadership on the field.

In his 11 appearances for Liverpool this season, Toure has marshaled his defence superbly and hasn’t shown many signs of age catching up to his speed, physicality and aerial ability.

Rodgers’ starting centre-back partnership may be Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho at the moment, but he knows that in Kolo Toure, he has a reliable stand-in when required. He will be an important part of the Liverpool squad for at least a couple of seasons.

Value for money: A. You can’t do much better than to bring someone of Toure’s caliber and experience on a free transfer. Top marks to the Liverpool management for securing his signature early on in the summer window.

Impact: B. Toure arrived at Anfield and instantly went into the starting XI, forming an integral part of the early-season mean defence that kept three clean sheets in a row. He has returned to the bench of late, but his versatility makes him a valuable option in the event of injury or rotation.

Potential: B. At 32 years of age, Toure is most definitely on the wrong side of 30, so won’t have too many years left at the top level for Liverpool. However, his experience and presence in the dressing room will be important in grooming an exciting crop of youngsters at Anfield.

Overall: B+. An injury to Mamadou Sakho and the loss of form of Martin Skrtel may lead to Kolo Toure regaining his place in Liverpool’s first team. They could do a lot worse.

 

Mamadou Sakho: B+

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

All summer long, amid rumors linking the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Diego Costa to the club, Liverpool fans were hoping for a “marquee signing” that would show their intent at returning back to the elite of English football.

Mamadou Sakho, according to Managing Director Ian Ayre, was that “marquee signing,” as reported in NESN, and while he’s not an all-conquering forward, there is every sign that Sakho will become a fixture in the Liverpool defence for years to come.

The youngest first-team captain in Paris Saint-Germain history, Sakho was a proud graduate of the PSG youth academy and quickly established himself as one of the brightest defensive prospects in all of Europe. That he was allowed to leave the French capital club at all was a mystery to many.

But PSG’s loss was Liverpool’s gain, albeit at a steep price of £18 million, according to BBC Sport, as the French international has slotted seamlessly into the Liverpool defensive line with a series of composed displays.

A unique and impressive combination of brute force, physicality, technique and elegance, Sakho has also scored once for the Reds and came close to his second with a headed effort against the bar at Stamford Bridge last week.

His relatively immaturity and hot-headed brand of defending was on full display in a Chelsea counterattack that saw Simon Mignolet save from Samuel Eto’o, and he will have to work on his composure game by game.

Value for money: B-. Sakho’s arrival was not just about his ability on the pitch; it came with a statement that Liverpool were intent on bringing in the most promising players from all over Europe. £18m remains steep but may look a bargain if he stays at Anfield for the next decade.

Impact: B+. In 12 Premier League appearances for Liverpool, Sakho has shown his quick acclimatization to English football and has put in several excellent displays for Liverpool. He just needs to cut out a few tackling tendencies that may leave himself and his defensive colleagues exposed.

Potential: A+. It seems as if Sakho has been around for a while, but in actuality he is just 23 years of age. If he continues to improve and fulfills his potential, he could go down as one of the great Liverpool defenders by the time his career comes to a close.

Overall: B+. A hamstring injury sustained against Chelsea will rule him out for at least the short term, which may allow him to take a breather and reflect on his season so far. He has already ousted Daniel Agger from Rodgers’ starting XI: The future is bright for Mamadou Sakho.

 

Simon Mignolet: A-

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Julian Finney/Getty Images

When Liverpool confirmed the £9m signing of Simon Mignolet from Sunderland in June, as reported by BBC Sport, eyebrows were raised: They had signed one of the brightest young goalkeepers in Europe, but he would now have to compete with Pepe Reina, a Liverpool favorite and one of the best in Europe in his own right.

But any debate was quickly settled as Rodgers shipped Reina out on loan to Napoli and gave his confidence to Mignolet to be the Reds’ No. 1.

And he’s repaid his manager’s faith, starting with a dramatic penalty save at the death in his first match at Anfield to win all three points for the home side.

Having established himself as an integral part of the Liverpool defence, Mignolet has saved his team precious points so far this season with his exemplary shot-stopping, while he has already shown signs of improvement in his distribution.

Recent errors against Manchester City and Chelsea have highlighted the high level of performance and consistency that the Belgian No. 2 must display in between the Liverpool posts, but he has done enough to show that he might just be Anfield’s first-choice keeper for years to come.

 

Value for money: A-. It wasn’t long ago—six years ago in fact—that Craig Gordon’s £9m move to Sunderland made him the most expensive goalkeeper in Britain, but Mignolet has easily been on at least a par with Manchester United’s £18m David de Gea. An outstanding piece of business for Liverpool.

Impact: A-. His recent errors against City and Chelsea potentially cost his side two points in total and has brought any impeccable rating down a notch, but Mignolet has been an excellent addition to the Liverpool defence. That Reina has not been missed is a testament to how well his successor has performed.

Potential: A. At just 25 years of age, Mignolet could well hold the Anfield No. 1 gloves for the next decade if he continues his improvement and fulfills his undoubted potential.

Overall: A-. Easily Liverpool’s best signing of the summer, Mignolet made an all-important double save on his league debut and hasn’t looked back. He is just one of the many exciting young players at Anfield, and will end the season as one of the Premier League’s best signings of the current campaign.

 

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

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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.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch on Sunday

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

This Sunday, Liverpool travel to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham Hotspur in a clash that could see the Reds go just two points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal if results go Liverpool’s way. However, if the home side are victorious at White Hart Lane, Spurs will draw level with Liverpool on 30 points.

Not so long ago, a crisis was being touted at Spurs, and Andre Villas-Boas’ job was rumored to have been in danger, according to ESPN. Two wins on the bounce see them climb back up to sixth in the league, just two points off fourth-placed Manchester City, but first they must welcome the visit of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League on Thursday night.

Tottenham’s recently creaking defence will be coming up against a Liverpool attack firing on all cylinders: Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 34 goals in 15 games—the second-highest tally in the league—and boast an in-form Luis Suarez spearheading their strikeforce.

As Arsenal travel to the Etihad Stadium, Chelsea take on Crystal Palace and Everton play Fulham this weekend, Tottenham-Liverpool may yet have wider ramifications on the top-four race—and the European credentials of either side.

As we look forward to an exciting match on Sunday, let’s preview six key battles that will be taking place on the White Hart Lane pitch that may just hold the key to all three points for either side.

 

Hugo Lloris vs. Simon Mignolet

If it weren’t for Tottenham’s six-goal thrashing at the hands of Manchester City a few weeks ago, they’d still have one of the meanest defensive records in the Premier League. As it stands, with 16 goals conceded, they have the fifth-best defence this season, two places ahead of Liverpool with 18 let in.

A large part of Spurs’ defensive record has been down to their impressive French No. 1, Hugo Lloris, while Liverpool are indebted to Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet for pulling off the third most saves thus far this season (55 in comparison to Lloris’ 39) and helping them to second in the league.

So White Hart Lane will feature two of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. Given Luis Suarez’s form and confidence, and Tottenham’s fondness for long-range shots—according to InfoStrada Sports, 55 percent of their shots are from outside the penalty area this season (via TheScore.com)—they’d do well to be on their best form on Sunday.

Lloris will be wary of repeating his blunder against Sunderland on Wednesday for sure.

 

Michael Dawson vs. Luis Suarez

From Tottenham’s point of view, Liverpool’s danger man will undoubtedly be Luis Suarez. Hardly a surprise, of course—he’s leading the Premier League goalscoring charts with 14 this season, despite missing the first five games of the campaign.

He’s improved on his conversion rate to an impressive 25 percent (via BassTunedToRed.com). He’s added the free-kick to his arsenal of tricks. He’s cleaned up his act and cut out the petty moaning and unsavory simulation from his game.

In short: He’ll be a handful for Michael Dawson, to say the least.

Spurs skipper Dawson has put in some steady performances this season, but the Tottenham back line have already capitulated once against quality opposition (Sergio Aguero of Manchester City) and will be on their toes to prevent the same thing from happening at the hands (or feet) of Suarez.

A lot will thus depend on the midfield.

 

Kyle Naughton vs. Raheem Sterling

Before we get to the midfield, though, we have a Liverpool wing to address, and on their right flank, Raheem Sterling will come up against Kyle Naughton in a clash between two hot young English prospects.

Villas-Boas’ stand-in left-back Naughton will likely start in place of the injured Jan Vertonghen, while Sterling should reprise his starting—and starring—role for Rodgers for his fourth game in a row.

In particular scrutiny will be AVB’s fondness for a high defensive line, especially at home: As Liverpool showed against West Ham United on Wednesday, they’re capable of building quick counterattacks that tear through opposition midfields. Sterling himself burst through the middle and went clear on goal on several occasions, only for his finish to let him down.

Just like Philippe Coutinho on the opposite flank, Sterling’s cutting infield will mean that Naughton will likely be dragged inside with him on multiple occasions, leaving Glen Johnson to storm down the Reds’ right flank as a dangerous attacking outlet.

 

Paulinho vs. Lucas

The midfield battle won’t just be Paulinho vs. Lucas, of course, but this particular matchup—where both protagonists are not your stereotypical Brazilian flair players—is very much symbolic of the respective midfields on show this Sunday.

Paulinho’s brand of physicality has been a hallmark of the Spurs midfield play this season. Whether he’s been supported by Mousa Dembele, Sandro or Etienne Capoue, his barnstorming style lacks the intricacies and deft touches of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, yet Tottenham’s midfield domination over Swansea City at the beginning of the season provided a glimpse of the new Spurs.

By contrast, a Lucas-Steven Gerrard axis has more often than not been pedestrian and offered far less of a physical control in the middle of the park. Against sides with more robust midfields, such as Southampton, Liverpool have had their weaknesses exposed.

The injury absence of Gerrard—and Jordan Henderson’s fitness permitting—should see Joe Allen retain his spot alongside Henderson and Lucas slotting back in. The hope is that they will be able to offer the dynamism and relentless movement while Gerrard is out.

Villas-Boas has constantly rotated his midfield three this season, but whichever combination he puts out on Sunday, it will surely be a huge challenge for Lucas and Co.

 

Aaron Lennon vs. Jon Flanagan

Just as Sterling will prove a test for Naughton on Liverpool’s right flank, so Aaron Lennon will be a fearsome opponent for Jon Flanagan over on Tottenham’s right.

Martin Kelly’s return to fitness is a welcome boost for Brendan Rodgers, but he will likely keep his faith in young Flanagan, a right-back by trade, and reward him for a series of solid performances in an unfamiliar position with another start on Sunday.

That will suit Lennon down to the ground. In recent weeks, the Spurs No. 7 has regained his starting slot on the right wing at the expense of Andros Townsend, and his propensity to bomb down the touchline will take advantage of Flanagan’s weaker side. And there’s also his pace.

A Liverpool left flank of Flanagan and Coutinho may offer far too little in terms of physicality and defensive presence—the injured Jose Enrique will be fondly remembered—to rein in the likes of Lennon and right-back Kyle Walker.

Without a doubt, this will be a problem position for Liverpool.

 

Jermain Defoe vs. Mamadou Sakho

Prior to Tottenham’s last three matches, where they scored a total of four goals, they had scored just a solitary goal—from the penalty spot—in four games.

It would be unfair to heap the blame on four-goal, £26 million striker Roberto Soldado, but his replacement, Jermain Defoe, has seemingly won back his manager’s faith in recent fixtures.

It’s been well documented that an isolated lone striker has been at the root of Tottenham’s scoring problems this season. The lack of a Gareth Bale-like attacking midfielder capable of transitioning smoothly into the forward lines has been made clearer by the lack of mobility, and involvement in overall play, of both their strikers, who belong in the same “predator” category.

So while the Spurs midfield may well overwhelm Liverpool’s, the hosts’ strikeforce (if we can call it that) may not pose enough of a danger to a defence expected to be marshaled by the imposing and improving Mamadou Sakho.

Better for Sakho and Co. to focus on stopping the tidal wave coming in from the Tottenham midfield, then.

 

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

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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.