30 April 2010

Liverpool's Strongest XI

I was such a big fan of the 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard as a second striker/in a free role because it seemed to get the best of out Gerrard and Torres. That and it led to Liverpool nearly winning the league. But after how this season's gone, we rightfully have to wonder if that's consistently possible without Alonso.

The idea appeared to be that, while not a direct replacement, Aquilani would play in a 'similar' position to Alonso in the 4-2-3-1 when fit. Maybe he just hasn't been fit until recently, but I think he's shone in the "Gerrard role," whether it's been Torres, Kuyt, Ngog, or Babel up top (obviously to varying degrees of success based on the striker).

Rafa's been reluctant to play Aquilani deeper in midfield, even after he received a clean bill of health, and especially in "tough" matches. He didn't impress in the position against Fiorentina in December or Reading in January, and was left on the bench throughout the winter. But we started to see the change when Liverpool faced Spurs at the end of January, winning 2-0, with the first goal set up because Aquilani was further up the pitch.

But he's been increasingly pushed further forward, and he's looked increasingly dangerous in the position, especially against Atletico, Burnley, and Portsmouth, tallying 2 goals and 4 assists in those two games. With only seven starts and nine substitute appearances in the league, he has Liverpool's second-highest Premiership assist total with six. Only Gerrard has more – seven – with Insua, Benayoun, and Johnson on five. But for all his clever, close passing, sometimes it doesn't come off, and potentially goal-conceding giveaways tend to concede less goals when the ball's given away higher up the pitch.

That leads to the contentious Gerrard in central midfield debate. Is it his best position or not? Benitez seemed happiest with second striker, Capello plays him on the left for England. Still, there a few sights more pleasing to Liverpool fans than trademark Gerrard lung-busters and blasts from deep. Like when he played on the right in '05-06, what's best for the team and what's best for Gerrard might not necessarily be harmonious.

There's space for Lucas in this formation whether he's partnering Mascherano or Gerrard. He's been too much of a scapegoat as it is this season, which is why his two fantastic assists in the last two games have been welcomed. And he's shown more in both attack and defense as the season's gone on. But with Gerrard, Mascherano, and Aquilani on form, he's the odd man out, unless, of course, Mascherano's forced into right back.

Maxi, Benayoun, and Babel have all looked better of late with Aquilani in a more advanced position. His quick passing allows those smaller, clever players to dice through a rigid defense, leading to goals like Maxi's against Burnley and Aquilani's yesterday. Torres and Babel also linked up excellently against the likes of Lille, Pompey, and Sunderland before El Niño was ruled out for the rest of the season.

Kuyt/Maxi on the right and Babel/Benayoun on the left are still a lot stronger than most teams' flanks. But that Babel and Benayoun are primarily right-footed still leads me to believe that left wing is the most important upgrade needed over the summer – yes, that drum again – although I'm well aware that left-back and another striker are fairly key as well.

However, the above still looks like a fairly strong side to me, no matter this season's results. Which makes me wonder why Benitez (and Torres, and Gerrard) are talking about 'four or five' new players when all three know how tight money is. A winger, a back-up striker, and a left-back, in addition to continuing promising youngsters like Shelvey and Sterling, is what my shopping list would entail, even in the best of circumstances.

Last night aptly demonstrated Liverpool's squad isn't deep enough, but you have to remember how many players were missing: Torres, Skrtel, Insua, Aurelio, Kelly, Ngog, and Riera. That's a full bench, and even a couple of those players would have helped Liverpool's lack of depth last night. Plus, the likes of Pacheco, Shelvey, and possibly Nemeth and others, might be ready to make the leap into the first team.

Maybe my questionable optimism is misplaced. Chances are I think this squad is better than it actually is. And I'm well aware how bad this season's been. But are Liverpool really that far away? You're telling me the line-up at the top of the page couldn't challenge for the league with one or two more signings and a far better injury record?

I don't understand this game sometimes.

(FYI: Preview for Sunday's match v Chelsea will be late tonight or early tomorrow.)


Ed said...

Can't really argue with that formation, and I think something that lessens any controversy from the "Gerrard as CM debate" is the amount of overlap that such a formation allows. We saw plenty of forward movement from both Aquilani and Gerrard yesterday, even with the latter in a more withdrawn role, and the interplay was magnificent at times.

I think Gerrard will get forward no matter where you place him, but I don't know that Aquilani would, at least right now with his relative lack of familiarity and confidence. I think we've seen growth in both of these areas recently, and maybe part of that is being given a role that has a little more attacking license than a partnership with Masch/Lucas.

nate said...

I can't believe I'm succumbing to this armchair Football Manager nonsense already, but long story short:

Jovanovic + Riera replacement + Aurelio replacement + back-up striker (if not Jovanovic) + maybe 1 or 2 developmental players (like Shelvey) + more time for Kelly, Ayala, and Pacheco (and maybe Nemeth, etc.), building off the above spine, wouldn't be a successful summer? That team couldn't challenge for the title?

Money would have to be spent in replacing Riera and Aurelio, and strikers, even "back-ups" aren't cheap, but both Benitez and aforementioned senior players are making it sound like Liverpool's never been further away. I understand this year's been the season from hell, but is that really the case?

It is making me very concerned – and this is another topic entirely, one I'm almost suicidal in contemplating – that Rafa is planting the seeds of his exodus. Obviously, I really don't want that to happen, but as has become commonplace, Liverpool's quality on the pitch will probably be determined by matters off it.

It is going to be a long and bloody summer.

MisoSoup said...

@nate I echo your concerns re Rafa leaving. I hope I'm just being over-anxious but there is an absolute tidal wave of anti-Rafa nonsense in the press and across the internets. I just wonder how much more he will take.

As to the strength of the squad, I too think we have a decent core already and just need maybe 3 decent additions. Although this has not been a satisfactory season finishing in a Europa League place is not fatal - as long as we kick on next term and show all the haters that this season was (as I've argued all year) a blip.

drew said...

Just going to reiterate here that believing anything you read in the British press is madness. This goes double for directly attributed fragmentary quotations, because once they have those they can wrench them into whatever context they want. (It goes triple for anything translated from any other language, or said in English by a non-native speaker.)

British sport journalists are pallid, swollen parasites who feed on chaos and the excrement of whoever's on top at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Can't agree more.