There’s some adage in football about waiting until 10 games into a new season to judge any given team’s title credentials. Maybe, maybe not. What’s for certain is that with Liverpool drubbing Watford 6-1 to end Matchday 11, squads are beginning to settle into rhythms and forge identities for the season. Early hiccups and adjustments are out of the way and it is safe to start drawing conclusions about what this year’s version of any given team is all about. Jürgen Klopp for one has built something thrilling and wholly unexpected at Liverpool, and the win at the weekend brought into play some of the leading storylines that will follow the team for the rest of the season. Here are a couple:
We are beginning to understand the organized madness of that front four
As Jamie Carragher noted in the Sky Sports broadcast following the season-opening 4-3 thriller at Arsenal, a feature of note in the magical front four of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Adam Lallana—five if you include the deeper-lying Wijnaldum—is how physically close they play to each other. While the designated “winger” will interchange heavily with the full back near the touchline, much of the attacking action is in the middle third with Mané for example taking up a lot of center forward-type positions of recent, including against the Hornets.
Whoever of the four has the ball is rarely ever more than a one touch pass away from the other three, meaning that the speed of the passing attainable, combined with the dizzying, positionally-agnostic movement and the sheer numbers of attackers in or around the opposition box leaves defenses confused and making errors as they track the wrong runs. Rather than simply a sum of individual talents, it is in fact the system, the type of players operating that system and the near telepathic understanding between each player both offensively and defensively that is so terrifying the Premier League.
So far, the “rules” of the system, if you can call them that, appear to very few:
- Neither Coutinho nor Mané can take up positions past the horizontal center dividing their side of the pitch, the Brazilian to the left and the former Southampton man to the right, unless absolutely necessary i.e. on the break.
- Only one central midfielder at a time, typically Lallana, is permitted to join the attack high enough up the pitch to essentially be an extra no. 10, under the condition that upon losing possession, the ground is made up to take up their original position.
- Jordan Henderson is only rarely allowed to not be the deepest-lying midfielder, usually when the opponent themselves are sitting very deep.
It is fascinating to watch. Structured chaos that is equal parts hypnotic in its fluidity, beautiful in its freedom and meticulous in it execution.
Daniel Sturridge is a striker...and that’s the problem.
And the prolific attacker is a rather good striker at that. Where he thrives is as the tip of the spear as the focus of the attack, making runs into space and peeling off the last man at the exact right moment for his midfield and fellow attackers to find him with the ball in and around the box, with the left-footed assassin, more often than not, sticking it into the back of the net. It must be reiterated: Daniel Sturridge is very, very good at these things.
Entering the rout of Watford on 70 minutes with his side five goals to the good, the Englishman was eager to join the samba party and get on the scoresheet himself, repeatedly stinging Costel Pantilimon’s palms as the Watford goalkeeper needed all of his gargantuan 6’8 frame to keep the striker from turning the scoreline from embarrassing to humiliating. However, Sturridge’s introduction late in the match along with Gini Wijnaldum and Premier League debutant Ovie Ejaria meant that three of the lauded front four had to come off, with only Firmino staying on.
The change in the style, tone and speed of play was nearly immediate. When a Liverpool player recovered the ball either around the halfway line or in the attacking third, Sturridge did what strikers are supposed to do: went to find the space near the goal where he would be most dangerous i.e. running away from the man with the ball. Players played further apart and the pace slowed. The level of play was far from poor, as attested to by the string of chances created leading up to Wijnaldum’s account-opening goal in the 90th minute; it was simply not the frenetic, free-flowing play fans have become accustomed to this season.
Nevertheless, it was easily Sturridge’s best league performance in what has been a stilted start to the season and he was unable to get the goal he deserved. Those goals will eventually come; but because of the traditional way in which he plays the position, the goals will most likely come from exquisite individual efforts rather than as the result of the sorts of flowing team moves viewers are coming to expect of this new look Liverpool. Again, this isn’t a bad thing: while the initial worry was whether the mercurial striker had lost his confidence and/or his shooting boots, the concern now is simply how, where and when to incorporate such a talent into the gameplan. A world-class (and do not think for one second that Daniel Sturridge is not world-class) match-winner who can come on as a change of style when Plan A isn’t working is an excellent option to bring off one’s bench. But it appears that, at least at the moment and for the sake of the transcendent football Klopp has this squad playing, that it is only from the bench Sturridge must come for the time being.
Jordan Henderson definitively claims the No. 6 as his own
As both Emre Can and Lucas Leiva sat out injured to start the season and young Kevin Stewart was deemed not quite ready for regular starts under the bright Premier League lights, many presumed that Jordan Henderson’s drafting into an unfamiliar deep-lying midfield role was one of necessity rather than choice. Maybe it was, especially after the Liverpool captain showed signs of what appeared to be a lack of preparation for the role, during which he struggled to read the game or adequately shield his defense early on in defensive struggles against Arsenal and Burnley.
However, Klopp’s persistence in keeping the former Sunderland man in the defensive role despite the full return of Can is a sign that the German manager sees Henderson as the best fit for a position many had thought Can was earmarked for. The Englishman’s tenacious tackling, lauded motor, underrated passing range and willingness to quell his attacking instincts for the good of the squad has seen him cement his place as one of the best in the league in a position he has spent less than a third of a season playing.
His positional intelligence and discipline (both of which at times have been marks against Can’s candidacy for the deep-lying role) as well as plays such as his assist for Firmino’s match-killing goal against Crystal Palace appear to be important factors in his continued presence at the base of midfield, a spell that incidentally also allows him to ride out the current rotation between Can and Wijnaldum. As long as it’s not broke...
There is surprisingly still plenty more to delve into as yet another tortuous international break begins: Can’s goals vs. Gini’s fluidity in the link up play, getting a chance to see Loris Karius actually make saves, Joël Matip defying the basic laws of economics that say nothing of great value can ever be free, Liverpool’s surprising recent success from set-pieces—but with a long two weeks ahead, there’s plenty of time for all that.