So is it a case of a broken midfield?
Goals against Liverpool this season have come far too easily for the opposition.The triumvirate of Sahin, Gerrard and Allen has not been the poignant force that was hoped for when Rodgers sought to revamp a midfield that looked laboured when it featured Adam and Gerrard last season.
If Chelsea provided only one lesson for Rodgers on Sunday, it was that there is a problem in the current midfield and it needs to be resolved quickly before it turns into a crisis.
Time and again this season and Liverpool have been caught out directly through the middle of the park and Chelsea exposed the fractures in the centre with regularity. Oscar carved out his clear cut chance in the early minutes with a neatly played ball from Hazard, bypassing our midfield at a stroke and leaving our central defenders exposed. That he didn’t score was as much a mystery as a relief. Then Mata decided to take his opportunity to walk through the midfield uncontested and find space to again test the keeper. That he went for a ‘power blast’ as Niall Quinn described it, was enough to save the team from what would have become a certain defeat.
One argument could be that the system doesn’t work; the three midfielders are lost in a structure that relies on stretching the opposition with width and then closing opposition players down quickly if possession is conceded. If one player closes down the opponent with the ball the others don’t know which position to take up to squeeze the play. But I don’t buy that argument. It appears that there is another issue.
For one thing, Joe Allen offers very little going forward; his role is to dictate the play by moving the ball around to players near him while the more advanced players move to create space for a more probing pass. However, when he does get forward he invariably looks for a safe ball reducing the attack back to the start. This on its own is not a fatal problem but Sahin’s natural game is very similar, except that he will take on a shot when in a forward position and is more comfortable higher up the pitch.
This sounds like he should complement Allen’s play but it is exactly the opposite. He looks to take up the same positions as Allen and rather than help to create space or offer a better option he gets bogged down and stifles the attacking move, hence the superfluous performance at Stamford Bridge. Align this with Gerrard’s reduced mobility and we end up with a largely static midfield all taking up the same positions rather than a dynamic and fluid midfield – but that is when the players have possession; when we’re on the back foot, we are at our most vulnerable.
Each time Liverpool lose possession, no matter where they are on the pitch, they are always one pass away from being exposed. This is purely down to the midfield three being incapable of supporting the defence. This protection is a must in a team where both full backs are urged to get forward. Of course, the absence of Lucas in this department is a contributing factor but the midfield should not be designed as such to rely on one specific player to prevent the opposition from cutting the team open. He is not some divine deity beamed down to heed Liverpool’s call for a defence. He is a player that should reinforce and improve the team when he returns not someone whose absence makes the whole machine collapse. The key problem is that Gerrard, Sahin and Allen are all very similar players and while the Chelsea game was Allen’s worst by some distance and Sahin was invisible, it should not be viewed as a one off.
A player further forward makes all the difference and this is why Shelvey has looked far more dangerous in open play than any of the other three. He is much more mobile and positions himself far closer to Suarez making him a comfortable fit at the point of the triangle. With Shelvey further forward off the ball, it allows the other two midfielders to be more decisive in their defensive work, protecting the back four and making our formation more robust. Additionally, Shelvey has got into a number of scoring positions and although he has not been prolific, this is a good sign for both the team and the player.
For the team it is good because it shows that the problem is due to personnel rather than the system and with the right bodies in place, the midfield will be more effective. For Shelvey, it is good because it shows that he has the potential to get a lot more goals in a Liverpool shirt and if he can improve his current average for LFC of 1 goal every 6 games, he could be a superstar.
One thing that is clear is that Gerrard is not the link between the midfield and striker that he used to be. And while the Allen, Gerrard, Sahin threesome may have delivered our two Premier League wins of the season, it’s not the right fit.
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