5 Ways Liverpool Should Approach a Tough December to Stay in the Top Four
Second place, 15 matches played, 30 points, and a goal difference of +16. With four games left to go until the mid-season (and the January transfer window), Liverpool so far look in pretty good shape this 2013/14 Premier League season.
Their average of two points per game, if extended over the course a 38-game season, has historically been enough to secure a top-four spot by the end of the season—which, besides launching Liverpool back into the Champions League spotlight, should also be enough to secure Luis Suarez’s future at Anfield.
Before we look ahead to next May, however, let’s first acknowledge the obstacles to the Reds finishing their first half of the season in the top four—and there are many.
Starting with their remaining four fixtures in a busy December period—Tottenham Hotspur (away), Cardiff City (home), Manchester City (away), Chelsea (away), the latter two coming in the space of three days.
With Jose Enrique and Daniel Sturridge both out until at least January and Steven Gerrard sidelined for the Christmas period with a hamstring injury, according to the Telegraph, Liverpool’s problems are as much on the treatment table as they are with the fixture list.
But this is also a crucial period where Brendan Rodgers’ team will be tested on their ability to stay near the top, and where preliminary conclusions may yet be drawn about their quest to return to Europe.
Here are five ways Liverpool should approach a tough December ahead of them and still fly high in the top four come the start of January.
Keep Their Second-Half Setup Against West Ham
With the aforementioned Enrique, Sturridge and Gerrard out for the Christmas period, Liverpool’s best XI for the moment will have been their second-half, post-Gerrard substitution setup in Saturday’s game against West Ham United.
Glen Johnson seemed back to his best, and indeed was the provider of a very fine assist to Luis Suarez for Liverpool’s third goal of the night, while Jon Flanagan on the opposite flank stuck to his task and defended confidently.
Martin Skrtel looked more assured and assertive with the dominant Mamadou Sakho beside him, and with stability being the key in a defensive partnership, Brendan Rodgers would be wise to stick with them in the center, though the shambolic defending in conceding their own goal—in the process letting the Hammers back into the game—will have been a cause for concern.
Joe Allen in front of them was a livewire in midfield, seemingly over his catastrophic miss in the Merseyside derby a couple of weeks ago. If he continues his improvement, his probing passing and deceptively quick turn of pace should prove a very useful additional outlet in midfield, alongside the more workmanlike duo of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva.
Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez pick themselves in the starting XI, while Raheem Sterling deserves a run in the side for his upturn in form and encouraging showing on Saturday, especially with Victor Moses’ cameo once again not providing any kind of imagination, creativity and game-changing potential.
The only change that should be considered by Rodgers and co.—besides any enforced through injury concerns—would be to shift Johnson over to the left and put Martin Kelly in on the right, especially against pacy right wingers that Flanagan might struggle against.
Otherwise, this is a team that can be decent at the back, strong in the middle and incisive up front.
Adopt a Relentless and Interchanging Midfield Three
It’s hard to imagine a Liverpool midfield without Steven Gerrard in it: He’s been ever-present for the Reds this season, and is both their assists leader (six) and third highest scorer (three).
Whether his world-class set pieces and impressive long passes compensate for his decreasing mobility has been a hot topic for debate (and best left for another discussion), but his more withdrawn, “quarterback”-like regista role has come with a diminishing ability to take games by the scruff of the neck and drag his team to victory.
Which means that in his absence, Liverpool fans may yet catch a glimpse of an ideal Brendan Rodgers midfield. To be precise, a relentless, dynamic and interchanging midfield three capable of supplying incessant pressure on their opponents, recycling the ball among one another, and contributing comfortably to the attack.
After his aforementioned horror miss against Everton in November, Joe Allen has rebounded in terms of his confidence, putting in good performances echoing his encouraging start to life at Anfield back at the start of the 2012/13 Premier League season.
His reverse pass to Martin Kelly in the dying minutes of the West Ham match on Saturday was a particular highlight, but it was his forward-thinking passing, neat touches and ability to move the ball out of pressure that caught the eye.
Add in the dynamism and famous work rate, as well as the at-times scintillating passing (though consistency is necessary) of Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool have got a young, energetic and deceptively quick British midfield core. And while Lucas hasn’t fully reclaimed his excellent pre-injury form, his positioning and tactical awareness have been triumphed by Rodgers (and are debated constantly among Reds fans).
Altogether, the Gerrard-less midfield that will travel to such opponents as Spurs, City and Chelsea will exhibit a stark contrast to the captain’s prompting from deep.
Which can mean that Liverpool are short of a sure-fire set piece specialist. But also that their opponents now have to focus on defending against an interchangeable unit instead of one single playmaker.
Continue to Refine Their Counterattacks
Pepe Reina he might not be just yet, but Simon Mignolet has been earning rave reviews for his improvements in distribution: A couple of quick long throws set up dangerous counterattacks for his teammates on Saturday.
(Needless to say, Mignolet’s shot-stopping has already far exceeded Reina’s levels of the past few seasons.)
And Arsenal they might not be just yet, but Liverpool have evidently worked on their counterattacking plays to make use of their pace in attack.
Previously it was in the 3-5-2 system that featured Suarez and Daniel Sturridge up top. But against West Ham, as in his stellar start to his Liverpool career, it was Raheem Sterling who frequently burst through the opposition midfield and rush onto passes down the center. If it weren’t for his lack of a clinical finish, the home side would have scored at least two more from those breaks.
As dominant as Liverpool aspire to be in ball and possession retention, there’s no reason to discourage them from working on breaking, attacking and scoring at speed. Even without Gerrard’s 40-yard passes to feet, they possess accomplished passers like Allen and Coutinho, and with the inventiveness of Suarez and Sterling, the counter should be a Liverpool staple.
Especially in away fixtures against teams who like to overload in the attack and pile up in their final third, exactly Liverpool’s big upcoming tests at White Hart Lane, the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.
If Liverpool can withstand some inevitably strong attacks from their hosts, they should look to capitalize on their relatively soft underbellies and hope to snatch goals—and points—that way.
Improve Decision-Making and the Final Ball
With 20 goals in their last five matches at home, it wouldn’t seem on the surface that Liverpool need work on their finishing and final ball.
Indeed, Luis Suarez needs to be given lots of credit for his massive improvement in finishing off his chances. In the context that he used to be a profligate striker who often frustrated Reds fans with his poor finishing, this article from BassTunedToRed.com tells us that his conversion rate has jumped from 8.2% in the Kenny Dalglish era to a staggering 25% this season.
But even though they scored four goals against West Ham on Saturday, there was ample evidence, especially in the first half when the visitors shut up shop in front of their penalty area, that Liverpool took one touch too many or played one pass too many.
Coutinho continually decided to attempt to play a colleague into space when shooting from range would’ve been more beneficial, while Sterling’s final ball, even when sent through on goal, seemed to be just lacking in confidence.
And we don’t have to go too far back to see a glaring example of Joe Allen’s composure in front of goal, or Jordan Henderson’s lack of an assured finish at the end of a lung-busting run at Arsenal, to know that this is an area where Liverpool still need to improve on.
Given their proneness to conceding from just one solitary defensive mistake, they should work on taking their chances when they create them. Against smaller teams that they’ve admittedly demolished in recent weeks, chances will come by simply because of their relentless pressure and approach play, but goal-scoring opportunities will be few and far between in the coming few weeks.
Of course, 1-0 is all it takes to take home three points, and Liverpool started their season off with three well won, if not entirely convincing, 1-0 wins, which featured lots of deep defending. But to do that, besides holding firm and keeping a clean sheet, you need to take that one chance when it comes by.
Approach Tough Away Matches Fearlessly and Confidently
With 34 goals scored in 15 league games thus far—the second most in the Premier League—it’s clear that when Liverpool feel like it, they can turn on the style and blow opponents away with their attacking play.
A large part of that—nine goals, to be exact—is admittedly down to the now-injured Daniel Sturridge and his impressive all-round contributions up front for the Reds this season, but Luis Suarez’s form and the overall cohesiveness in attack means that they remain an offensive force to be reckoned with.
So why did they go to the Emirates and come away with a comprehensive 0-2 loss when they could’ve started the game on the front foot if they’d been set up to do so?
A look at Roberto Martinez’s impressive setup at Everton shows that a consistent mental, technical and physical approach, once ingrained throughout the squad (which includes the coaching staff and management team), can take their game and impose it on whichever opponents they come up against.
They’ve done it against Manchester United, and they did it just this Sunday night with a fearless, confident and assertive display at the Emirates, when they forced a 1-1 draw against league leaders Arsenal.
Brendan Rodgers will realize that his squad has deficiencies—which squad doesn’t?—but he will also know that keeping the same identity in whatever fixture can reap large benefits and may even spring the odd surprise.
Just look at Liverpool’s trip to Manchester City last season. Granted, City weren’t managed by Manuel Pellegrini then, and Liverpool had a Steven Gerrard blockbuster to thank, but if Pepe Reina hadn’t rushed off his line, the visitors would’ve taken home an impressive 2-1 win.
More of that please.