At the outset of this article, it’s important that one thing is made unequivocally clear: I loved watching Luis Suárez play for Liverpool Football Club.
Internal conflict has shrouded my ability to put coherent thoughts together about his sale. On one hand, losing the Premier League’s best player is a huge blow. Suárez, with his 31 league goals and 12 assists without including penalties won (or tackles with his head), returned from suspension in late September to lead a surprise title charge that ultimately culminated in the iconic shirt-over-the-head picture of a disconsolate Uruguayan sobbing on the Selhurst Park pitch.
However, manager Brendan Rodgers may, in some small part of him deep down, express relief at the striker’s departure. During Suárez’s suspension at the end of 2012/13 and the beginning of the season just gone, Daniel Sturridge thrived when single-handedly spearheading the attack and only failed to score in three of the ten games his teammate missed.
With only one top drawer centre forward to choose from, Rodgers usually used a standard 4-2-3-1 with Philippe Coutinho as a number ten and Jordan Henderson shuttling out wide.
Suárez’s return was expected to come at the expense of Iago Aspas, who had started the 2013/14 season playing off Sturridge with Coutinho wide. The Brazilian was injured against Swansea in Liverpool’s fourth game and Sturridge and the rest of the team suffered in a drab one-goal reversal at home to Southampton.
Their talisman returned for the Capital One Cup tie at Old Trafford and Rodgers, who had deployed a makeshift defence comprised entirely of centre backs against the Saints with Glen Johnson injured, turned to a 3-4-1-2 system rarely seen in modern English football. Daniel Agger was the defender to miss out (through injury) and Henderson was shunted to right wing back with new signing Victor Moses an unorthodox trequartista.
The point of the formation was to pair Sturridge and Suárez in attack together. The pair were quiet in that game against Manchester United but both scored against Sunderland the following weekend and the formation stuck. Following the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal in November, Rodgers changed things again, reinstating Henderson on the right flank with Coutinho also available to line up on the opposite side as Liverpool went 4-4-2 for the 4-0 beating of Fulham.
The manager’s next attempt to accommodate his star forwards wasn’t until Sturridge had returned from injury after Christmas when he again tried a basic 4-4-2 at home to Aston Villa. The results were disastrous: the central midfield pairing of Gerrard and Henderson were overrun, the team was broken and only a half-time switch and a controversial penalty rescued a 2-2 draw.
Again, Rodgers tried something new. He began to play 4-3-3 with one of Suárez and Sturridge deployed wide opposite the resurgent Raheem Sterling. For games against Bournemouth, Everton and West Brom, it was the latter. Suárez ran the flanks against Arsenal, Fulham and Swansea.
When that didn’t work, in came the diamond. In theory, it was Rodgers’s best bet – it allowed the strikers to both play through the middle, it found room for both Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen to provide energy and it provided a platform for Sterling’s surprising emergence as a dangerous number ten.
Despite Liverpool’s form, however, playing a diamond didn’t seem particularly “Rodgers”. The form we saw the side produce in 2014 was often most lethal when playing on the break rather than the possession principles the manager preached so readily during his first season.
With Suárez in the team, it’s easy to see why his original idea went (somewhat) out the window. Few players in world football are so direct, so intent on attacking the other team’s goal. With the Uruguayan, everything is a dribble, or a long range shot, or a first-time pass. It’s what makes him such a frustrating player to watch when he’s off his game – when these improvised attempts at genius aren’t coming off, the ball is repeatedly lost, often in good positions.
I’m not here to criticize Luis Suárez’s style of play. Even in games where it’s clearly not gone his way, he has usually managed to produce something to change the course of proceedings.
It’s just that a Liverpool without someone so direct may suit what Rodgers wants to do better.
Firstly, Suárez’s absence allows him to play one main striker at all times. Sturridge is the centre forward, the fixed reference point, and everything else revolves around him.
It also makes the team that bit more cohesive. After the 2-1 win over Sunderland during the run-in, Rodgers described his strikers as two “soloists” rather than a great partnership. Ideally, Rodgers would probably prefer to have just the single soloist.
Whilst the SAS was hyped so much last term (and it’s not hard to see why, with 52 goals between them), the pair never quite hit it off. Sure, there were some flashes of brilliance – notably Sturridge assists for his partner against Cardiff and Sunderland – but both are ultimately goal-crazed egotists, exactly what you want a striker to be..
..but not a quality that is ideally replicated in a front two.
A Suárez-less Liverpool will probably result in sole responsibility on the 24-year old shoulders of Sturridge. His Anfield career thus far has been a little odd, with 36 goals in 49 games apparently not enough to warrant the hero status afforded to Owen, Torres and Suárez himself early in their respective times in red.
Is it his supreme self confidence? Is it the fact that he’s already played for all three of last season’s top Premier League clubs? Is it the dance?
Whatever the reason, the stage is set for all that to change. Supplemented by the attacking qualities of Sterling, Coutinho and Henderson, as well as new recruit Adam Lallana and probably Lazar Markovic too, Sturridge should thrive as a lone front man.
Replacing Suárez won’t be easy but for Rodgers, doing so doesn’t necessarily mean moving for a new centre forward to play in the diamond. It’s more about boosting Sturridge to Suárez’s 30-goal standard and adding another man who can get 20. That’s why the pursuit of Alexis Sanchez made sense – a player who adds goals but generally from a wide or withdrawn position. Xherdan Shaqiri is reportedly the alternative.
Liverpool will miss their Uruguayan genius in other ways – for all Sturridge’s class, does he score the curling header from outside the box against West Brom at home? Does he manage to stab the ball past Julian Speroni from a side-lying position like Suárez did in October? Does he tackle a Southampton player with his head whilst his team is winning 2-0?
Rodgers may well find it easier to set his team up without the Barcelona-bound man and his side’s best performances last season generally came when playing 4-3-3: away to Tottenham, with Sturridge injured, and home to Arsenal, with Suárez played wide.
He’ll try to find a way to replace the 31-goal sensation tactically, but replacing the madness (the good kind) will be the biggest challenge of all.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.