Liverpool’s march towards the title takes them to Norwich tomorrow, a different challenge from that posed by Manchester City last weekend, requiring a different approach, especially with Jordan Henderson suspended and Daniel Sturridge a doubt.
Brendan Rodgers will probably revert to the 4-3-3 system, which served Liverpool so well earlier in the season. This would mean a move for Raheem Sterling from his recent role behind the strikers back on to the wing.
For some youngsters, such versatility might be a curse, as they are moved around at their manager’s convenience. Sterling has confounded that and achieved something special. He has not only found his voice as a Liverpool player but done so in different positions, on either wing or at the tip of a midfield diamond. At 19 years old, he has become an indispensable man for the best team in the country.
That flexibility owes to a taught tactical intelligence that is vital for anyone who wants to play for Rodgers’ Liverpool. This season’s success has been based on the use of different systems – a 4-2-3-1, a 3-5-2, a 4-3-3 and more than one form of 4-4-2 – chosen to fit the opposition and the available players.
The philosophy and the style of play do not change, but the systems do. Staff at Liverpool speak enthusiastically about Rodgers’ hard work on the training ground and in meetings, instilling the players with the tactical intelligence and the knowledge of different roles. One of the benefits of no European football, as Rodgers admitted this week, is that he has more “coaching time” than expected, leaving him “able to get a few ideas into the players”. This helps them to respond to his tweaks between and during games.
No one has developed as much from this coaching as Sterling, now fully at ease with what Rodgers expects of him. It is a surprise, especially given his quiet opening to the season. Sterling did not start in the league until Liverpool’s seventh match, at home against Crystal Palace in October. He featured at right wing-back in a 3-5-2, having ended a League Cup game against Notts County there, but played poorly and with little confidence, and was dropped.
Sterling spent the next five league games back on the bench and there was even talk in the winter of a loan move. Rodgers told Sterling that his chance would come but when he next started, on the left of a 4-3-3 at Hull City, he was poor again, hauled off after 66 minutes and Liverpool lost 3-1.
It was almost surprising that Rodgers kept Sterling in the team for the next game, at home against Norwich, but it worked. Sterling scored and kept his place. The confidence was back and he showed just how damaging he could be two games later at White Hart Lane. Switched to the right of a 4-3-3 against Tottenham, Sterling humiliated Kyle Naughton so many times that the left-back was withdrawn at half-time for Ezekiel Fryers, who had never played in the Premier League for the club before. Sterling scored the fifth goal in a 5-0 win and Spurs’ manager, Andre Villas-Boas, was sacked the next day.
As good as Sterling was that day, on the right, it was only mildly surprising. He arrived at Liverpool as a left-winger who likes to cut inside. His technical ability is enhanced by athletic traits that make him explosive in wide areas. “His speed endurance is unrivalled in his position,” explained Liverpool head of performance Glen Driscoll recently. “I said to him last pre-season, I’ve never seen a winger with quite this gift. He can work and work with very little metabolic cost.”
If that was the second phase of Sterling’s season – he scored twice in the 5-1 rout of Arsenal in February – the third has been the most exciting yet. On 1 March, Liverpool went to Southampton and played a 4-4-2 diamond formation, initially with Philippe Coutinho at the tip. Early in the second half, Coutinho went off and Sterling took his place, playing for the first time in the role he has now made his own. His very first action was to burst through the middle, meeting Luis Suarez’s cross to score Liverpool’s second in a game they went on to win 3-0.
This new system, and Sterling’s surprising role in it, has been crucial to Liverpool’s unlikely title charge. For their next game they took it to Old Trafford, leaving David Moyes and Manchester United confounded, again winning 3-0. “I wanted to have superiority on the inside,” Rodgers explained. “I like to float numbers around the middle of the field to try to dominate the game.”
Rodgers had told Sterling that when Liverpool have the ball, his job is to run across the line to try to create overlaps on either side. Out of possession, he has to stay central so that when Liverpool win the ball back he can break through the middle. Imbued with new belief, it came easily to Sterling. “I had to be more confident,” he said recently, looking back on his improvements this year. “I said to myself I had to step up and start running at defenders again, taking responsibility.”
Ahead of the game at Old Trafford, Rodgers noted that the United centre-backs tend to drop off, so Sterling would have space to exploit in front of them. Sterling was brilliant, whether running at Nemanja Vidic or hassling Michael Carrick in possession. Like many footballers as gifted as he is, Sterling grew up playing with boys two years older than him, so he is not easily intimidated by physicality and relishes the defensive side of the game too, the pressing “like animals” Rodgers is so keen on. Driscoll even described him as “pound for pound probably the strongest in the group”.
Liverpool, of course, have now won 10 consecutive Premier League games and Sterling’s skill and understanding have helped to disrupt both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City when they were at Anfield. He scored Liverpool’s opener last Sunday, darting in behind Vincent Kompany and taking Suarez’s pass.
But that diamond system was built, in part, to provide a platform for Suarez and Sturridge, and with the latter unlikely to play tomorrow, Rodgers and Sterling will switch again.
Norwich dread Suarez visit
Norwich City will not be looking forward to seeing Luis Suarez tomorrow. The Uruguayan has scored 11 goals in his last four appearances against them, including hat-tricks on both visits to Carrow Road. He has scored two goals against them from the halfway line. At least they have been warned.
No say, Jose
It will be interesting to see if Jose Mourinho faces the press after Chelsea play Sunderland this evening. If he sends Steve Holland out instead, it will be for the fourth straight time. Mourinho is due to face reporters on Monday evening at Atletico Madrid, and Uefa press conferences are mandatory.
Reward the real rookies
Daniel Sturridge has had an excellent season but his nomination for PFA Young Player of the Year suggests the criteria are wrong. The 24-year-old made his Premier League debut for Manchester City in February 2007. The award should be for real rookies such as Everton’s Ross Barkley or Luke Shaw of Southampton.
McCarthy has momentum
If Ipswich Town win at Watford today they will overtake Reading and Brighton and climb into the play-off places with just three games left. Every year there is one team whose momentum takes them into contention, and if Wigan are worn out by their cup exploits, it could be Mick McCarthy’s side this time.
Looking up for Lambert
Probably the least certain place in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad is for the Plan B, old-fashioned, line-leading centre-forward. Andy Carroll is arguably the narrow favourite for such a role, but he is in no form at all; Rickie Lambert, facing a generous Aston Villa defence today, could well cash in.