Four months into the season, and Liverpool still hasn’t deployed the first-choice XI thanks to injuries. And last week we got word that both Benayoun and Riera could be out for a month. Awesome.
Injury problems have consistently troubled Liverpool this season, but with those two missing, the left flank is a massive concern. Aurelio and Babel would be the only options on that flank, and neither seems a suitable replacement. Lucas played there a couple of times – notably, the 3-0 win against Sunderland in 07/08 – but hasn’t for over a year.
My advice? As much as it hurts to suggest, I’d copy the league leaders.
Oh yes, the much-maligned diamond formation. Even writing the phrase brings back bad memories of Sven-Goran Eriksson. Let’s soldier on, though.
Without wingers, the key to this formation is the fullbacks. But Liverpool already play with a variation on wingbacks in the 4-2-3-1, and in Johnson and Aurelio (or Insua), Liverpool have two excellent attacking fullbacks. The most frequent complaint with the 4-4-2 diamond is the lack of width, which shouldn’t be a problem with Johnson and Aurelio getting forward.
It’s a fluid formation that should allow for players to swap positions, as Benitez is wont to do in the 4-2-3-1. Kuyt, Gerrard, and Benayoun/Riera – as well as Torres – consistently change positions in the 4-2-3-1. Gerrard’s perpetually in a free role. Torres will drop deep or into one of the channels to link up play. The wingers switch flanks and drift inside. None of these facets are incompatible with the diamond formation.
At the same time, both Lucas and Aquilani are more mobile than Alonso, and have the versatility for this formation. We’ve seen how Lucas tries to get from box to box, and all reports suggest Aquilani plays similarly.
I’d also like to see how it affects Kuyt. The Dutchman’s disappointed for a few weeks now, since picking up a knock during the last international break. I wonder if moving him further upfield and more centrally will help his form. He’d have less defensive duties, and could focus more on attacking play. Plus, I’d like to see another striker shoulder some of burden on Torres, who hasn’t been fit enough to lead the line by himself. Yes, Torres is usually at his best as a lone striker, but if he’s not fully fit, he’s far less able single-handedly front the attack.
Now, this formation would put a lot of pressure on Mascherano and the centerbacks. In the 4-2-3-1, the wingers often drop deep to defend, especially if the fullbacks are upfield. With no wingers, it’ll be up to Mascherano and the centerbacks (and either Lucas or Aquilani, depending on which side of the field the ball is on) to cover the counter.
This admittedly worries me, especially given Mascherano’s form and Liverpool’s defensive fragility. It’s one thing to alter the formation when the team and players are on a hot streak; it’s another to use a new system when most if not all are struggling. But given where Liverpool’s struggled – reestablishing a dominant central midfield, scoring against packed defenses, and preventing stupid goals on the counter – it could be the remedy this team needs.
More importantly, the options are extremely limited without Benayoun and Riera. I’ve lost almost all faith in Babel, especially as a starter and on the left. Aurelio is a serviceable replacement, but he’s primarily a defender. Gerrard plays there for England, but Liverpool needs his talismanic performances in the middle, and the Gerrard/Torres pairing is what Liverpool needs to build around.
It doesn’t look that different from a Lampard-Deco-Ballack-Essien or Kaka-Gattuso-Seedorf-Pirlo midfield, both of which have given Liverpool fits in the past.
I doubt I’d argue for this formation if either Benayoun or Riera were available. But removing those two players severely weakens the team and the formation Benitez wants to play. Circumstances are what they are. Liverpool needs to do something to save the season, and using a formation that gets the best and fittest players on the pitch gives the team a fighting chance.