That Liverpool signed Daniel Sturridge in the January transfer window was no great surprise. Following the loaning out of Andy Carroll in August and the failed attempt to sign Clint Dempsey as a replacement, Brendan Rodgers endured the first half-season of his Liverpool reign with only two senior forwards. In theory Sturridge seemed well suited to Rodgers style of playing, being quick, comfortable on the ball and capable of playing wide or through the middle. Yet there were issues with the forward that still made the move a little curious, and questions were raised about how exactly he would fit into the Liverpool side.
At Chelsea Sturridge complained about being positioned wide and failed to embrace former manager Andre Villas-Boas’ demands for energetic pressing, both of which were likely to be asked of him at his new club. Rodgers has relaxed his pressing game at times this season but it is reasonable to expect its return once the players have adapted to the manager’s expectations. Similarly Rodgers’ preference for a front three and Luis Suarez’s form through the middle suggested something of a compromise would be needed. However Liverpool’s manager was keen to stress that Sturridge would play centrally, so aside from concerns about his defensive aptitude the main query was what role would Suarez adopt.
Thus far Sturridge has applied himself well to Rodgers’ defensive instructions, applying pressure from the front against Norwich and in the early stages of games against Arsenal and Manchester City before being instructed to drop deeper. Yet it has been his positional influence over his new side that has been most impressive, not to mention his 3 goals in his first 4 league games. In fact the ease at which Sturridge has settled into his new role as the focal point of the Liverpool attack has allowed Rodgers far greater flexibility with his front line than he has been used to, resulting in the application of a variety of tactical systems that may have seemed unlikely given the manager’s commitment to a 4-3-3 variation.
Sturridge’s first league appearance for his new club came as a second half substitute against Manchester United, a game that Liverpool trailed and required another attacking option. Therefore his first start at home to Norwich a week later offered a better indication of how Rodgers would rearrange his side. Perhaps it was the identity of the opposition – Liverpool had scored 5 against them earlier in the season – but Rodgers opted to field Suarez behind Sturridge in an attacking 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 system. Essentially Liverpool’s usual front three remained – Stewart Downing supported from the right while Jordan Henderson occupied an advanced left position – but Suarez’s withdrawn role made him the link between midfield and attack. The arrangement worked well – Sturridge’s threat in behind Norwich’s back four forced them to defend deep, creating space in midfield that Liverpool were able to exploit.
It wasn’t an entirely new system. Earlier in the season both Jonjo Shelvey and Nuri Sahin had played at the top of a positive midfield triangle on numerous occasions, but the team still contained a three man midfield and three forwards. Suarez is clearly not a midfielder, meaning against Norwich Liverpool had four attacking players in advanced positions on the pitch. If Rodgers’ lack of forward options had seemingly forced him into more conservative line-ups previously, this was a sign that with his new addition he would be willing to go on the attack when the opportunity arose.
Following the Norwich fixture, Rodgers reverted to his customary 4-1-2-3 formation away to Arsenal, no doubt looking to compete in midfield with Lucas in a deeper position. With the exception of Pepe Reina returning in goal, the same players started as against Norwich, but Henderson tucked into a central midfield role alongside Steven Gerrard and Suarez moved out to the left.
As the season has progressed Liverpool have looked more comfortable with Rodgers’ preferred 4-1-2-3, but Suarez’s move to a wide forward position gave the side more intelligent movement between the lines. Liverpool’s other wide options this season have been either natural wingers more comfortable staying wide – Downing, Raheem Sterling – or converted strikers – Fabio Borini –none of which are adept at finding space in dangerous central areas. Suarez is a far different proposition and has the movement to evade opponents and the ability to take the ball past them. In this arrangement Sturridge’s impact was more direct, constantly looking to run into the channels when Suarez moved centrally to offer a target for through balls. This was a particularly impressive contribution given Sturridge lacks the experience of playing a lone forward’s role and such a system can often leave the front man isolated, but his intelligent movement throughout the game dragged defenders out of position and once again created space for his teammates.
Finally Liverpool’s most recent game away to Manchester City involved a further tactical switch, this time with Suarez returning to a central role behind Sturridge and the wingers dropping into midfield to create a 4-4-1-1 shape. No doubt Rodgers had his reasons for the move, possibly to combat the threat of City’s full backs whilst maintaining a presence between the lines. Still, it is always interesting to see a team change shape for three successive games, especially one managed by such a systemic manager as Rodgers.
Yet once again Liverpool’s players adapted well, and the partnership between Sturridge and Suarez was more pronounced than in their previous appearances together. Whereas previously Sturridge had either opened up space for others to work in or looked to run onto balls played behind the defence, against City there was evidence of a real partnership emerging. The pair interlinked throughout the match, causing City problems in front and behind their central defenders. The midfield adapted well also – while Gerrard has largely played the same role in the three games, Downing and Lucas have had to alter the depth of their positioning according to their role in the side, whereas Henderson has seamlessly moved between an advanced, a central and a wide midfield position. Just as impressive as Rodgers’ willingness to change approach has been his players’ ability to do so.
Sturridge has now created a longer-term tactical dilemma for Rodgers. The Liverpool manager has long favoured a Barcelona-inspired 4-3-3 formation based on short-passing possession football – Rodgers had great success with the system at Swansea and in his first few games at Liverpool attempted to replicate the tactic. Liverpool’s summer transfer dealings were designed to aid this – neither Borini nor Joe Allen were signed to strengthen the squad but having worked with Rodgers previously were considered suited to his gameplan. Yet while Liverpool have begun to look comfortable with their new passing and pressing instructions, the formation has begun to look more flexible. Whether Rodgers continues to adapt his system remains to be seen – he may be simply adjusting his tactics to suit the players at his disposal until he has a squad capable of playing his preferred approach.
There is one final notable point. Rodgers has often been praised this season for identifying tactical errors in his side at half time and rectifying them for the second half of games, yet simultaneously criticised for making the errors in the first place. With his new willingness to change shape so radically from the outset, inspired by the addition of Sturridge and the versatility of Suarez, there now seems an indication that he is making more successful decisions prior to games, especially those against major opponents. Rarely has a single signing been so influential.