Friday, July 29, 2011

Into Row Z - Liverpool’s Midfield Problem

 Liverpool’s opening transfer of the summer took everyone a little by surprise, taking Sunderland’s rising star Jordon Henderson away from the Stadium of Light. The second player to join the Reds was anything but a surprise, with the seven month chase of Charlie Adam finally resulting with the Scot signing a 4 year deal with the Reds. Both Henderson and Adam go into pre-season training with Liverpool on the backs of two fantastic seasons, but no matter their quality, adding two new central midfielders to a squad so clearly lacking in depth in other areas is going to be seen as a strange move.         

Speaking to many Liverpool fans over the past few months, the number one thing that they consider the team to lack is width. The arrival of Stewart Downing will go a long way to rectify this, but the team is still in desperate need of an opposite player to go on the right – a true winger – not a forward or midfielder forced to play out of position. Equally, if Liverpool want to catch the teams above them in the league, they need some way to replicate the attacking fullbacks that are becoming so important in recent seasons, and a left-back has to be a priority buy.     

So why was the first £47 million of Liverpool’s summer cash spent on an area which looks saturated already? Let’s take a look at who the Liverpool squad contains, and who is likely to make-it or break-it this season.  

It’s been a while since we saw Steven Gerrard smash a goal in from 30 yards out, and while his influence on the pitch has certainly diminished, his inspiration and leadership remain intact. He is, and will be for several more years, the heartbeat of this team, and when he’s fit will be first first name on the team-sheet. Perhaps second, but only behind Pepe Reina.

But here is where the certainty ends. With a combined total of £78 million spent on Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in January, we can predict that Kenny Dalglish sees these two playing the majority of matches together. Assuming (fairly confidently) that Liverpool play with four at the back, this leaves just another four spaces in midfield, three when you place Gerrard into his preferred central role. Add to that the £20 million acquisition of Stewart Downing to run down the left wing, the spaces may be limited to two. For a team which currently houses Adam, Henderson, Lucas, Meireles, Aquilani, Shelvey, Spearing, Poulsen, Joe Cole and Maxi Rodriguez, the problem of keeping a steady and reliable team becomes apparent. 

Charlie Adam can feel more confident than the others of a starting position. With set-plays contributing to some 30% of all goals scored in the Premier League last season, his left foot will likely see him starting a high number of games, especially while Fabio Aurelio remains perennially injured.        

Lucas is another who is unlikely to miss too many games. Winning Liverpool’s Player of The Year by a massive margin, Lucas achieved some 172 successful tackles last season, more than any other player in the league. As well as this he completed over 300 passes more than any of his team-mates. Lucas is completely unspectacular in what he does, but he does the job that needs to be done extremely well, and the Liverpool midfield would miss him far more than they realise were he to be replaced by someone with a little more flair.    

Meireles enjoyed a decent first season at Liverpool, but there’s already talk of him leaving, and this is simply because he is too good not to start thirty or forty games a season.  It would be through no fault of his own if his Anfield career was limited to just a year, but he suffers greatly from the fact that his best position is the same attacking midfield position as Gerrard and Aquilani. Aquilani had a successful loan spell at Juventus and looks to have shaken off his injury problems which caused his season in a Liverpool shirt unfairly labelled as a “flop”. So far in pre-season he has continued his Italian form with Liverpool. Against a Malaysia XI, there were times when Aquilani looked visibly angry at the lack of performance by his team-mates, and in the 45 minutes he played, he single-handedly dragged a lacklustre team and pushed them forward into one that scored 6 goals. Aquilani himself was instrumental in 3 of the 5 goals he was on the pitch for.        

Along with Downing, this probably sums up the men that are realistically fighting for a genuine chance of starting the majority of the games. It’s hard to imagine that both Aquilani and Meireles will both be at the club next season, and perhaps what will be most interesting is who will play opposite Downing on the right wing – a position which has been given to Dirk Kuyt in recent seasons. However, now with the wealth of talent the Liverpool Midfield possesses, it’s highly likely that Kuyt will be pushed back into being a striker, swapping in and out with Carroll and Suarez. Henderson has played on the right before for Sunderland, but Liverpool have already stated that he is “one for the future”, and it’s doubtful whether he’ll start too many games in his first season – another suggestion that Liverpool could well buy a right winger.  After this, there are a number of fringe players to consider. Jovanovic looks to be close to a move away from Anfield, while Joe Cole has been promised he still has a future at the club. And we can say what we want about Poulsen’s performances at Anfield so far (and they have been poor at best), but he remains the only rough, combative midfielder that Liverpool have, and so continues to offer something different to those around him.    
What is certain however, is that this collection of similarly positioned players cannot be good for the youngsters in the squad. The emergence of Jay Spearing as a real first-team player last season will surely come to an abrupt end if there aren’t a couple of departures elsewhere – a shame as he is a real favourite among the crowd. Similarly Jonjo Shelvey, Joe Cole and Maxi Rodriguez are going to struggle for game time, and it will almost certainly mean the end of Anfield careers for the players even further on the fringe such as young Dani Pacheco.

It’s close to impossible to predict just how Liverpool plan to cope with this problem, but a lot of it is down to other clubs. Fiorentina continue their interest in Aquilani, while Meireles has certainly gained some fans in Milan. There’s no guarantee of either leaving, but it’s likely as least one will.
It is certain that while Andy Carroll is on the pitch, Liverpool need wide men to feed him, meaning that Downing is likely to get a lot of regular game time. After this, the rest could be down to form. With many of the fringe players desperate to have one final chance to prove themselves at a big club, it’s possible that a few may wait until January before making a final decision, and Liverpool could find themselves with a very large squad at the beginning of this season.

By David Astley