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Liverpool Could Look to Sterling to Lead the Line

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With the attack struggling, Brendan Rodgers seems intrigued by the idea of playing Raheem Sterling in the nine—and increasingly disinterested in changing things to help Mario Balotelli.

Clive Brunskill

The big advantage of having seven games in 21 days, at least if you're a fan and things aren't going so well, is that it doesn't leave a lot of time to wallow in the misery of a poor result. For the players and manager, of course, that also means that they don't get much time to work on fixing any problems before the next match rolls around.

Problems like a leaky defence on pace to concede more goals this season than it did last. And problems like a misfiring attack that has so far this season failed to bail out the defence as last season's attack did. In part the latter is due to Mario Balotelli's disappointing—or, when considering only league play, non-existent—return in front of goal.

In part, though, it's a structural problem. Balotelli arrived with question marks surrounding his suitability as a line-leading striker, and everything seen from him at Liverpool so far only supports the notion that he isn't suited to that roll. For that, the blame doesn't sit with Balotelli but rather with the manager who continues to try and play him as such.

There are structural problems when one begins to look behind Balotelli, too. Last season, the likes of Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson regularly ran past the strikers—even when those strikers were Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, aka the league's two top scorers. This season, so far at least, that hasn't happened nearly often enough.

Liverpool look lost in attack, both because Balotelli is out of his element in the roll he's being asked to play and because last season's most important support players appear to be equally uncertain of how they should play off of him. It's a situation that seems to have Brendan Rodgers considering using Raheem Sterling as a line leading striker.

"He's a very talented young player and has played as a striker as a youngster, so he understands the position," said Rodgers at his pre-Hull City press conference. "If we feel it helps the team get the result then it's something we'll look at. On Wednesday I felt it was something that could help us at the half, and it's something I'll consider in the future."

Using Sterling up top would help Rodgers to get all of his creative players on the pitch at the same time, instead of having to choose between Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho as he did on Wednesday. However, it seems an approach set on ignoring the reasons behind Balotelli's misfiring play and Liverpool's path to success last season.

Last season's success was built, tactically at least, on the 4-4-2 diamond. And so far this season's best moments have come with it. Yet rather than playing Sterling or a striker right alongside Balotelli, Rodgers seems intent on reforming Liverpool into a side that plays with one striker. With the team struggling, rather than falling back on what worked, he's casting about for something new.

Things may not be able to get much worse for Liverpool's attack, but given signs that the diamond could be effective with Balotelli and that many of Liverpool's players had success in it last year, it seems an unnecessary gamble. Sterling may take instantly to the lone striker role despite that it's entirely new to him at the senior level, but it's riskier than the alternative.

It also does no favours to Balotelli, who has become a scapegoat for everything wrong with Liverpool this year despite that there's quite a lot of blame to go around and that many of his problems are not of his own making. And when it comes to Balotelli, Rodgers disappointingly admits he has no idea what the answer is, which will likely only make things worse for the striker.

"They'll be there," Rodgers' said when asked about the questions and controversies surrounding Balotelli. "If you're not scoring or the team isn't playing well, as a striker they'll be there and you have to accept that. The boy is genuinely trying very, very hard. Whether that best turns out to be enough remains to be seen, but that's the same for any player."

When you're struggling to fit in at a new club and into a role you're not comfortable in, that's probably not what you want to hear from your manager. It also doesn't make it sound as though that manager is much interested in finding a way to change his approach to get the best out of you.

So. Step forward, Raheem Sterling, it sounds as though it might just be your turn to take a shot at leading the line.