Liverpool are a frustrating team to follow right now -- we know what they're capable of but recurrent issues have prevented them from meeting their potential so far this season. Let's take a look at how Brendan Rodgers might solve his team's problems.
There's been a regression in goal production this season, and while that was somewhat expected after the departure of Luis Suarez, the magnitude of the issue is surprising. Daniel Sturridge's extended absence has been a primary factor in Liverpool's inability to finish off attacking moves, but there's more to it than that.
Mario Balotelli Pass Received Chart v. Real Madrid:
Raheem Sterling Pass Received Chart v. Real Madrid (Second Half):
One of the biggest issues for Liverpool's attack without Sturridge is vertical movement on the counter attack. Against Real Madrid, Mario Balotelli received only one pass in the box, which reflects his indirect style of play. He likes to either drop deep or drift out wide, but as a lone striker these tendencies inhibit the attack from stretching defenses vertically with over the top balls.
Raheem Sterling shifted to the lead forward role when Balotelli was subbed off at half time, and he was able to open up space with his speed and direct movement. Most of his received passes came through the center of the pitch, five of which entered the box. While it's unlikely that Sterling will see much more time up top, his effectiveness demonstrates the need for a more mobile forward to lead Liverpool's front line.
As SamFels discussed earlier this week, the answer might be Fabio Borini either as a lone striker or paired with Balotelli. Borini isn't an ideal option -- his Premier League scoring record is suspect and it's unclear if he can cut it at this level -- but what he does do is move well. And in a system that rewards incision, Borini deserves a chance to prove his worth.
Liverpool have plenty of talented midfield players, but the unit has yet to find consistency in this campaign. The main issue is in the defensive midfield where opponents have found too much space on the counter attack, causing an already questionable defensive unit to be unnecessarily exposed.
The root of the problem is simple, but it requires us to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth -- Steven Gerrard is old. Whenever he plays, Rodgers has to game plan around his deficiencies, which greatly diminishes the team's tactical flexibility. Don't get me wrong -- Gerrard is an absolute legend and one of the greatest players to ever don the Liverpool kit. His body of work makes him one of the most respected players in the world. But he's nowhere near what he once was, and the blind faith that Rodgers has continued to show his captain has led to a myriad of midfield problems.
Gerrard struggles to cover space, so problems surface for Liverpool when he's asked to sit in front of the defense against good attacking teams. Additionally, Jordan Henderson's impact is minimized when he has to spend most of the match covering for Gerrard.
Rodgers must rethink Gerrard's role if he wants the midfield to improve, which means either saving him for the big games or only using him in the smaller ones rather than asking the 34-year-old to play every match.
The best two striker formation for Liverpool without Gerrard (and probably with him too) is the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond. Rodgers has repeatedly turned to this set up over the past two seasons, and has found mostly positive results. As demonstrated in the above chart, Balotelli's propensity to drop deep opens up space for Borini's forward movement and vice versa. Raheem Sterling plays an essential role in the attack in this formation because of the lack of winger support, and from what we've seen so far in his young career he is up for the challenge. However, Philippe Coutinho can also play as the number 10. In this set up Henderson and Joe Allen are optimized as midfield shuttlers, and Emre Can becomes the anchor of the defensive midfield.
Here's a look at pressing/defensive responsibilities in the 4-1-2-1-2 against a 2-1 midfield. Matt Averna, a former contributor to this site, mentioned to me on the phone the other day that Real Madrid were able to expose Liverpool because they bypassed the Reds high press through side to side ball movement. His main point was that Coutinho struggled to cover the key zone that contained Modric and Kroos in the middle, and that Sterling's quickness could have been more effective in stopping Madrid's horizontal movement. There's some truth to that, especially when it pertains to the diamond, and so Sterling seems the superior option at the tip of the formation in terms of pressing effectiveness.
If Rodgers has had enough of Balotelli for now, he could look to use Borini as a lone striker in the 4-2-1-3. There's a lot to like about this formation because it supports both electric counter attacks and a more possession-based style, which allows Liverpool to switch between tempos over the course of a game.
In the 4-2-1-3, Adam Lallana fills the role of inside wing forward while Sterling is more of a conventional winger. Coutinho is the centralized playmaker, Henderson is the midfield runner, and Can is the ball retriever and defensive muscle. Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo are both expected to make runs down the wings, but Moreno's attacking role is slightly more important because of Lallana's inside movement.
There's not much that can change here in terms of personnel until Mamadou Sakho returns from injury, and when that happens the ideal move is to pair Sakho with either Dejan Lovren or Martin Skrtel, with the edge going to the man in better form. Also, less Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique will help the cause.
But the issues with the defense seem to go beyond formation or personnel, which is so frustrating because the back line is Liverpool's biggest source of concern. Rodgers needs to sort out the mental errors that every defender that he's employed since coming to Liverpool has repeatedly committed. It's incredible really that a group of professional defenders continue to struggle with the most basic aspects of the game. Perhaps Rodgers needs to buy a legitimate star for the defense (although one could argue that Sakho has the talent to become that), but I get the feeling that he can do more to get the most out of the group he has.
There are potential in-house fixes to most of Liverpool's problems, but Rodgers must be willing to experiment if he wants to uncover them. The Reds have the talent to do great things even without Sturridge, although it's hard to see them getting out of this rut if Rodgers refuses to put his players in the right positions to succeed. After a humbling defeat to Real Madrid, it's time to turn this ship around.
*Formation graphics from outsideoftheboot.com
**4-2-1-3 graphic based on a more generalized graphic from tactical article on Tomkins Times by Mihail Vladimirov.