Liverpool have had a mixed start to their new season. In their four Premier League games played so far, the Reds have won two but suffered two defeats while their performance so far has yet to match the high standards they set last season.
The newcomers at the club are yet to settle down while injuries to several key players haven’t allowed Brendan Rodgers to stick with any particular formation.
Liverpool started the season with a 4-2-3-1 formation against Southampton. Lucas Leiva started in the defensive midfield role alongside Steven Gerrard while Daniel Sturridge operated as a lone striker.
Following an insipid performance from Lucas on the opening day, the Brazilian was dropped in the next match against Manchester City and was replaced by Joe Allen. Rodgers changed his formation to 4-3-3 but Liverpool were thoroughly outplayed as they lost 3-1 at the Etihad.
In the third match, Liverpool started with Balotelli and Sturridge up front in the 4-4-2 diamond formation. The system was highly effective last season as Liverpool got the best out of their two main strikers – Sturridge and Suarez – both contributing over 50 goals combined in the league. It proved effective again as Liverpool convincingly won 3-0 against Spurs at White Hart Lane.
Sturridge got injured whilst on international duty which forced Rodgers to abandon his diamond formation temporarily. He went back to 4-3-3 with Balotelli operating as a lone striker. Liverpool failed to score (lost 1-0) against Aston Villa and struggled to break Ludogorets’ defence in the Champions League. Only after Rodgers introduced Fabio Borini and changed the shape to a diamond, Liverpool looked more comfortable and in the end won the match 2-1.
Contrary to opinion that Liverpool may have signed a wrong striker in Balotelli, the Italian was actually brilliant in the last match. He was excellent in link-up plays with other attacking midfielders while has impressed everyone with his work-rate.
Rodgers has praised for his commitment to Liverpool’s cause and has urged him to replicate the prodigious work-rate of Luis Suarez.
“You saw his workrate against Ludogorets and, OK, the ball has bounced off him a couple of times and we’re trying to improve him in the transitions so that when he makes a mistake he can go after it, but I think you can see what he’s trying to put in for the team. That’s going to be very important,” Rodgers said.
“The crowd demand that, because the players who’ve been here in the past in that position have been non-stop, and he’s coming attuned to that. He’s aware of the demands and it’s going to take time, but if he continues to score goals and work hard like he has done in this game, he will be fine, because he’s obviously got the quality.
“He is a boy who’s really looked into the history of the club. He understands the great strikers of the past. We’ve spoken about Suárez and his time here, but if you’re clever, you’ll remember he’s still young and still learning the game, and he still has this hunger to do well.
“You see his work against Ludogorets, he’s put his body on the line and he needs to do more of that, but I think that will come as he gets fitter.”
Balotelli is a striker of different sort. He is mobile, physically strong and plays the role of a good target man. He won’t bring the same qualities that Suarez used to provide but will offer a different dimension to Liverpool’s attack.
The thing is Liverpool have had to adapt to Balotelli’s style in absence of Sturridge which has taken a toll on their performance level. In their past two matches, Liverpool have produced over 20 crosses from both the flanks from open play that only suggest they were looking to take advantage of Balotelli’s ability as a target man.
Unlike Suarez, who was capable of creating something out of nothing all by himself, Balotelli needs support from other attacking players. Therefore in theory, Balotelli should fit perfectly in Rodgers’ diamond system and would benefit with Sturridge playing alongside him.
Furthermore, the system brings the best out of young Raheem Sterling. Sterling’s game is based on raw pace and his dazzling skills. Although he is capable of playing out wide, he has the potential to wreak havoc when deployed in the #10 role. His performances against Southampton at St Mary’s last season and for England against Italy in the FIFA 2014 World Cup suggest so.
Having said that, the diamond has its own strength and obvious limitations. It narrows down the midfield which helps in dominating the centre of the pitch, but there is also a lack of outright width at the same time.
It shouldn’t be a problem for Liverpool as both Sturridge and Balotelli are mobile forwards who are willing to move wide allowing Sterling or even Henderson (note his run against Spurs from middle in the build up to the first goal) to run through the middle and create problems for opposition defenders.
And whatever little we have seen of Manquillo and Moreno, the two full-backs, is highly encouraging. They like to move forward at every possible opportunity and are good at providing measured crosses. The system allows the full back to make clever runs toward the flanks and have a shot at the goal – Moreno’s goal against Tottenham is a classic example.
A lot depends on how quickly Sturridge gets back into the team from injury. His strike partnership with Balotelli could have a major impact for Liverpool. But, even if his return to action is delayed, Rodgers must continue with the diamond.