It was very obvious throughout last season that our team was anything but complete, but we went all the way to identify targets and had no problem bringing them.
The Comollian view that we’ve brought too many players this season is quite popular around the net, but I believe it was an absolute must. 5 new players in the starting 11 means half the team is new, yet staying without the upgrade in each position would most probably result in sub-par table position like last season.
I think that our title challenging team two seasons ago had a lot of cracks that were papered over by our amazing striker partnership, and that the main reason we didn’t win the title was depth.
This last season saw us with all the strengths of our title challenging season removed (Suarez gone, Sturridge missing out pretty much the whole season, Gerrard a year older and a year less competitive), and although we had brought some players that I still think will make it for us (Emre in particular), most of them were clearly going to impact in 2-3 years’ time, so hardly what we needed.
We had problems in each and every area: Defence, Midfield, but most importantly, our goals were taken away from us, and Borini/Lambert/Balotelli was practically a non-existent attack (we looked far more threatening when we were playing a front 3 of Coutinho-Sterling-Lallana.
So bringing 3 strikers to replace those, and trying to get Sturridge back fit was certainly the only option here.
I was on the fence about Benteke, but now that he’s here I feel he’ll make it.
I know it starts as a hope, but it certainly makes sense, in terms of Benteke being a consistent striker in the league with all sorts of goalscoring, and in the top 4 of EPL scorers since he came to England.
I think Origi has a bright future and will get good time to grow in the next few years, but at the same time can already impact as number 4 striker, and that Ings can impact earlier on and knows where the goal is.
If Sturridge can come in September/October and stay fit, we have a very decent quality mix of strikers, and without much doubt a better mix than last season.
Our midfield was also very problematic, and without many options.
More than any other issue, I felt that we had problems pressing, and that Coutinho was shut out of games by being the obvious creative force in midfield, so whenever the opposition players were committing to concentrate on stopping him it was making us look toothless.
And then there was the depth issue, which we knew would increase with Gerrard leaving.
But one game into the season, and we have the above concerns of last season addressed: with Milner and Firmino, two players that press and are defensively solid while being predominately attacking players, the pressing issue can only be better, especially with Henderson and Emre in the mix.
Now with Firmino, I really think we’ll see an even better Coutinho – opponents will be split between marking two creative players, not knowing were it’s best to focus.
I can’t wait to see Firmino in action too, but I truly believe his addition will do wonders for Coutinho’s game.
And the issue of depth: We had Gerrard-Henderson-Coutinho last season, with Lucas absent for a long period, and Emre mostly seen in defence, and with only Allen as a midfield option from the bench.
Even with Gerrard gone now, we have much more depth, even though we’ve only brought 2 players in midfield.
We have Henderson-Milner-Coutinho-Firmino for starters, where unless one of these 4 plays in attack, these can only fit in a diamond, and even there, we’d need a defensive midfielder.
I can’t imagine any of the 4 not starting most games (Henderson captain, Milner vice captain, Coutinho and Firmino, well, being Coutinho and Firmino). Which means Firmino was probably brought to play in a front 3 – still, his midfield contribution will be invaluable. Then, we have Emre primarily as a midfield option this season.
Lucas can hopefully stay fit for longer, and Allen is still here (currently injured), but unless Rodgers counts on Emre being the mainstay DM this season (and especially if Lucas is sold), we may still see a quality DM brought in before window closes.
And in defence, I really think it was more a width problem than it was a centre back problem in terms of players (and I do think it was more of a manager problem than it was a players problem in a more general sense), meaning that fullbacks/wingbacks were beaten or caught too far up the pitch when we were attacked, forcing CBs to often stretch and with no proper DM leaving the central area inadequately covered.
Clyne seems to be very solid there in defence, whilst still being very efficient in attack, and Gomez impressed at left back in pre-season and vs Stoke, leaving the defensively susceptible Moreno out of the equation for now (who, however, may not have been fully sharp to start anyway).
I don’t know how much better our coaching staff will be in sorting the defence, but it can only be better than the last 3 seasons, and hopefully the combination of new coaches and new defenders can help Skrtel-Sakho build a very solid partnership (or, as it seems, Skrtel-Lovren, possibly because Rodgers wants consistency and Sakho’s frequent injuries don’t help to build a partnership). A great DM will still make me feel more secure, but things look much improved here as well.
A note on wings: Markovic didn’t have the impact we expected last season, but he’s young and will probably need more time (and even though he looked already better in pre-season, it may take him at least this season to grow into what we need).
Lallana had bad luck with injuries just when he seemed to be clicking (after that great brace of his), but even though he looked sharper than ever in pre-season, he was anonymous vs Stoke. Hopefully he can raise his game, cause time is not on his side, age-wise.
Ibe will be better every season, and right now I feel the best way to use him is as an impact sub, with 20 minutes to go vs tired defenders, both for the best of the team and for his development. I don’t want to see him overused or played out of position like Sterling. I also want to see him start every cup game and a lot of EL games.
Firmino is also an option wide, and, although i don’t like it when he’s played there, Coutinho cutting in from wide is also an option in Rodgers’ plans, it seems.
But when these two are part of the front 3 in a 4-3-3 formation, it would ideally be more like a 4-3-2-1 behind Benteke, rather than either side of him, much like it happened a lot vs Stoke.
Sterling left us with a declining performance because of the idea of wanting to leave affecting his performance, but before that he was our best player on the field and striding fast towards world-class. I’m one that thinks he will make it with City, and although he was too a player of potential rather than near peak, and although he was at an age where finishing isn’t flourishing yet for another couple of seasons, we won’t have that now he’s gone.
We’ll see whether these changes are enough to be addressing our issues. To achieve top 4, we need to be ousting one of Chelsea, City, Arsenal or Utd, and Utd have been pretty serious so far, and look to get even more serious now they have the di Maria cash. The other 3 are strong already, and may even add before window closes. I feel an added quality DM would help us challenge for that top 4 slot.
Our biggest drawback to last season’s top 3 is indeed that they’re teams whose starting 11 are playing longer together – we won’t have that drawback vs Utd – but I’m sure it would have been a much worse drawback staying with the starting XI of last season and hope they would get that much better.
Right now I feel the most vulnerable side to oust from the top 4 is City, but that doesn’t in any way mean that it’s an easy task.
Let’s see how Delph will impact their midfield, how Sterling will impact their attack, how fit Aguero can stay, and how well Pellegrini can manage this season (he seems to be doing worse and worse each season), but adding that final touch or two could make the difference, especially if it’s a world class or top quality addition.
Now on our line-up and formations
I think (probably contrary to what Rodgers seems to be keen on) that the Henderson-Milner partnership is at best in CM.
Either or both of them in DM is firstly restricting them deeper, taking away from their invaluable contribution in attack with their runs, and also, as much energy and press as they provide defensively, they are not DMs and they best do that in CM.
I ideally see them in front of Emre or Lucas in a 4-3-3.
Then in a few games when Firmino is match fit I’d have Coutinho and Firmino either side of Benteke (effectively morphing to a diamond as Coutinho would cut inside to operate centrally and as Firmino would end up almost next to Sturridge), or behind him in a 4-3-2-1 scheme.
The efficiency in attack would be then ideal, with Henderson and Milner making their runs in attack, Coutinho and Firmino creating in tandem and not allowing opposition to concentrate on either of them, and Benteke providing the physicality and the main scoring (with Firmino drawing defenders to create space for him).
The efficiency in defence would also be ideal then, as having Emre or Lucas shield the back 4 would allow Henderson and Milner to press near the central line (and also double the fullbacks when we morph to a diamond and they come forward), using their press without evacuating the DM area, and also having a proper DM there to read the opposition game and break up play.
We saw Milner advance forward to press, while Coutinho would withdraw to his place to build up play from deeper, joining the middle press line, and we may see this more often. It utilizes Milner’s ability to respond to press triggers and his energy capacity, and allows Coutinho to operate centrally and bring the ball forward when we recover the ball – this can transfer our counter very fast with perfect set ups by Coutinho.
The pressing by these 4 players (Firmino-Coutinho-Milner-Henderson) seems to be the pressing that we lacked so much last season, when we had just the two.
I think that (after the first couple of games) we’ll start the season with the back 4 of Clyne-Skrtel-Lovren-Gomez, then Emre in front of them (Lucas perhaps being the back up for now, and possibly replaced soon), then the partnership of captain and vice-captain in CM, and then a front 3 of Coutinho-Benteke-Firmino to complete a 4-3-3 that will either morph into a 4-4-2 diamond as Coutinho will cut in to get behind the front of Benteke-Firmino (or Rodgers will realise this will be the end result and start the diamond consciously to begin with), or behind him in a 4-3-2-1 formation.
So something like:
Now those are 4 players I normally can’t see dropped (Henderson, Milner, Coutinho, Firmino), unless something really foul happens.
But then a few scenarios shape up in October, upon Sturridge’s return, and on arguably our most crucial month in the first half of the season.
Sturridge will probably start the first few games off the bench, so the above team will probably still start, but more and more, if he does perform like we expect him to, and most importantly, if he stays fit, there comes the question of who will make way for him.
There’s three possible scenarios that I see.
1) Benteke doesn’t find his scoring boots yet, and Sturridge coming in as a sub for him and scoring in his first few games. A simple striker swap, and giving Benteke time to settle. Starting XI as it was, Firmino and Sturridge up top with Coutinho behind them in a 4-4d-2 morphed 4-3-3, or Coutinho and Firmino behind Sturridge in a 4-3-2-1.
2) Benteke is fine, having scored quite a few already in his first couple of months, and Sturridge looks like needing time. Starting XI as it was, with Sturridge given substitutions between the 65th and the 80th minute to get his sharpness up.
3) Benteke is fine, having scored quite a few already in his first couple of months, but Sturridge looks sharp in his substitutions as well. Rodgers immediately thinks of pairing the two up front. Which raises the question which of the 4 aforementioned “undroppable” midfielders to bench. Firmino gives way from being slotted up front then, but most probably either joins them in a front 3, or right behind them – unless he didn’t contribute at all those two months in our game (which I can’t think of right now). Coutinho we already know that is immense for us and I can’t see it happening (to bench him). Henderson is captain, and unless he has a really bad series of games, won’t happen either. Playing the 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 diamond without a DM would be a very bad idea in my opinion, but one that Rodgers may well chose if he is reluctant to drop either of his captains.
The most obvious option here is Milner, who even if playing well at that point, would be benched to accomodate the line up with two strikers.
That will see a line-up of
(or in 4-4-2 diamond)
Coutinho excelled in CM in our title challenging season, especially in the 4-3-3, and his central line pressing was a key part of that style. The partnership with Henderson is not a new one to risk wither. One possible variant I don’t think I’ll omit, although I don’t like the idea one bit, and I surely don’t want it to happen, is that either Firmino or Coutinho don’t perform for us those first two months, and we see one of the two benched in such a scenario (so a 4th scenario), which will see the Henderson-Milner partnership prevail, and one of the two Brazilians behind the Benteke-Sturridge partnership – the other benched. I don’t think this will be Coutinho, in such a scenario.
These are the most likely/ideal possibilities in my opinion, for now. But of course there’s many variables that may affect how likely these possibilities will prove to be. So for now, I’m only posting them as likely possibilities. We’ll see…