The Evolution of Liverpool FC’s Forward Line in The Premier League Era

The Evolution of Liverpool FC’s Forward Line in The Premier League Era

In these unprecedented times of lockdown, sanitizer, empty stadiums and the Netflix / Amazon Prime binge, I’ve found myself often searching for new ways to occupy both my mind as well as my body. With the remarkable closure to a triumphant league campaign by the reds, the common football fan was greeted by the unique climax to the 2019/20 Champions League. For me, this end period of the European Cup began as a slow burn that ever so gradually sparked and grabbed my full attention. My constant delving into the BT Sports app had me browsing through their fairly vast back catalogue of finals since the inception of the Champions League format of the competition.

Through re-watching, this long list of finals, reminiscing and enjoying the abilities of players long since gone, I began to consider and explore internally how the evolution of the European elites forward lines had affected and morphed the attacking side of the game as a whole. How teams would come about their goals during this period, how they would line up to low block teams against masters such as Desailly, Maldini, Nesta and Baresi, how partnerships were formed both in the present and past, with the likes of Van Basten, Romario, Batistuta and Del Piero adorning my screen. For me personally, the 90s Serie A stands out amongst other league and players, with such variation of skill and tactician both on the pitch as well as the sidelines making the period and league remarkable.

Often times the leading striker for any successful side will receive plaudits of fans and sportswriters alike. The dramatic winning goal or that moment of genius to ultimately decide the game’s biggest finale will nearly always overshadow that of a remarkable defensive or midfield performance. This vision is simply the way the majority of fans see their idols, especially now with only snippets of games viewed on their devices that will show the beforementioned above all else. Punditry has become alarmingly inconsistent with a variation of views that are either derived from favour or simply a lack of real ability to break a game and its participants. The nature of the game and continued success of the Premier League is underpinned by that moment of brilliance by Sergio Aguero to close out a season, the trickery of Gianfranco weaving through a backline or the sheer and preposterous brilliance of Suarez, to name but a few. All these moments are memorably worthy of high acclaim and are part of the evolution of the English games attacking identity. The Premier League has been, may well possibly be now, and most certainly will be pioneers once more of the evolution of the game as a whole. The willingness to evolve through the ages, reinvent, rebuild and restructure entire teams was the key reason for the longevity and success of Sir Alex Ferguson. From the maiden season of the Premier League to only a few years ago, Manchester United fans were able to witness success after success as their side would dominate year on year, with strikers, forwards and players of brilliant attacking prowess often at their disposal. Whereas this piece will not centre on the success of others, as a true fan of both Liverpool Football Club and the game itself, I’m in no way ignorant enough not to admire success and how it’s achieved, even by the Red’s fiercest rivals.

The Premier League began in 1992 with the furore that surrounded the re-branding of England’s top division mirrored by Sky Sports’ campaign to glamourize the nation’s leading past time.

The previous season had seen Liverpool Football Club struggle to maintain recent glories, with the forward line strategy fully adopting the typical number 9 and one-off style as part of a 4-4-2 formation. This had worked gloriously through Liverpool’s dominant years. Keegan & Toshack, Dalglish & Rush, Dalglish & Aldridge, Beardsley & Rush. It was mouth-watering, effective and typical of English football powerhouse through the ’70s and ’80s. It worked.

However, in the period after the departure of the King and the subsequent squad upheaval by the Reds playing legend Graeme Souness, the identity of the team had shifted with lesser versions of the great centre forwards Rush & Aldridge being brought in and failing to aspire. We all know what the beforementioned brought, and this piece will explore specifically the players, partnerships and effects such things had on the team and surrounding players. We begin with the emergence of a young Robbie Fowler.

Ian Rush & Robbie Fowler (Graham Souness & Roy Evans)

With the veteran Ian Rush’s goal contribution on the wane, a new goal-getter was required for the coming seasons. This period saw the goal poaching, hardworking Welsh striker begin to lesson with his season tally. The formation continued with Rush trusted to lead the line, to stay within the lines of the 18-yard box and rely on service from both the flanks and whatever strike partner was chosen to work alongside or behind him, whether it be the ever-popular Ronny Rosenthal or the new number 7 Nigel Clough. Neither were able to replicate the levels of their predecessor Peter Beardsley, and the resulting fortunes up top showed.

The system incorporated was replicated throughout much of Europe with two conventional wingers built to supply the central striker and chip in with goals. The forward line would ultimately remain narrow and pressing would be mainly confined when the ball was within their space, so that fortune may prevail. Rush was a workhorse and his ability over the years to work off the ball a joy to watch. Tactically the job still at this point was for the leading striker to receive service and capitalise, especially with the Liverpool forwards of recent past.

A teenage Robbie Fowler coming onto the scene in 93/94 season was a spectacular moment for me personally, with my first memory being of the young predator’s maiden goal against Fulham in the early stages of the league cup that year. His name popped up on our Teletext that evening as part of a first leg 3-1 away win. It was the second leg that brings the more prominent memory, listening on the radio that evening as an 11-year-old boy as goal after goal found the net in a 5-nil drubbing. Young Fowler scored 5 that night and a ‘God’ was born.

Fowler much like Rush was a natural goal scorer that played through the middle, off the last man and could torment those tasked with marking him. His ability to take chances early was often the key to his success. Not gifted with lightning pace, height or strength, his sheer instinct within the penalty box made him unplayable at times, movement and intelligence off the ball were a huge ability in the young pretender’s arsenal.

Precision on crosses is always ideal, but Fowler’s mastery within this area could make every ball dangerous due to the young Liverpudlians’ fierce & precise finishing. With the introduction of this new marksman, a further addition to Liverpool’s forward line beckoned, with the first real evolution of the way in which Liverpool attacked starting to reveal itself.

Robbie Fowler & Stan Collymore (Roy Evans)

In the summer of 95, a major transfer rumour turned to reality with Liverpool’s addition of Nottingham Forest’s Stan Collymore. At an imposing six foot three, the young Englishman could well be considered a Toshack target man at a glance, though this was not to be the case. After an impressive Premier League breakout season, the tall Brummy footballer was in hot demand, with various clubs linked in the national papers and the Teletext rumour page. Eventually, Roy Evans got his man for a then-record fee of £8.5m, with the clear intent to find the perfect dance partner for his ‘Toxteth Terrier’ Robbie Fowler.

With Evans’ initial allegiance to Ian Rush as the new season began, it became apparent very quickly however that Collymore, when fit and firing, would complement Robbie Fowler ideally. This personnel change in the forward line tallied with a formation shift which saw the Liverpool shape adjusted to a 3-5-2 as Evans looked to re-establish his side amongst England’s elite. A continental slide away from the conventional & trusted 4-4-2 was certainly a risk, and various additions were ushered in who could adapt to this new set up over the coming seasons. Where wingers were once the creative wide players that were built to serve, John Barnes and Steve McManaman found themselves moving inside to allow the crossing creation to come from box to box wing-backs. Steve McManaman’s undeniable chemistry with Fowler had perhaps led to this evolution in order to bring the two ever closer. The loose position behind Fowler and the gifted Collymore made for exciting and expansive football with Collymore’s willingness to drift wide and provide for his strike partner a joy to see. The fluidity of McManaman, now not restricted to the right flank, made the reds the most exciting attacking force at times, their main issue being unable to maintain solidity in the backline with the dependable Mark Wright often injured.

The evolution of the side saw, perhaps, Liverpool’s greatest ever wide man John Barnes moved to a central playmaker role, sitting deep alongside Jamie Redknapp and adding calm and possession as his young teammates did the running, he was once most lauded for. This was post-Jan Molby, and perhaps a nostalgic Roy Evans looking to recreate what the great Dane had offered in a successful era pre premier league. Where Mark Walters and others had failed to ignite similar levels of a John Barnes prime, Rob Jones and Jason McAteer especially were the fundamental wide men tasked with yoyoing the flanks through this period as energetic wing-backs. McAteer’s strongest point was his energy and ability to deliver into key areas, and with Fowler prowling, often this was all that was needed. Service from wide, however, was not the focal point of this new attack, where Collymore could blast from long range, Macca could burst through defences and Fowler could do anything inside the opposing penalty area. This attacking system had few flaws and with luck and a little more defensive quality, it would have been a worthy league champion, something that of course did not transpire under Roy Evans, a wonderful man that brought a smile back to the Liverpool faces at least. The later introduction of a certain Gerard Houllier in 1998 was somewhat a logical step in order to bring order and direction to a multi-talented group. A brief partnership with Evans, perhaps born out of respect and loyalty for a long-standing member of the famed boot room, was followed by a tactical overhaul by Houllier, which leads to our next evolution.

Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen & Emile Heskey (Gerard Houllier)

The three names above never actually participated in any form of an extended run and were simply the key attacking players in the post-Roy Evans tenure. With Houllier aboard, the spice boys were no more, a continental manager was becoming more and more popular and the way in which players represented their club in the premier league was changing by the day. A tactical shift to 4-4-2 followed, with a deep-lying counter-attacking strategy used to overcome opposition sides. The previous season saw a small lad by the name Michael Owen score on his debut, similar to Fowler, and go on to become a player of magnificent striking prowess. The emergence in 97 of Owen was unfortunately followed less than a year later by that Robbie Fowler knee injury, from which I don’t believe he ever truly recovered, certainly in terms of his sky-high levels that had been set.

Michael Owen, despite what came later and the animosity that surrounds his future transfers, can only be considered for what he was throughout his Liverpool career when talking football. Michael Owen is perhaps the greatest academy player ever to emerge in this country and impact so spectacularly. His terrifying pace and ability to find the net was nothing short of sensational in the opening period of his career. Only recurring injuries and simply being overplayed so young was the key reason he will probably not go on to become one of the greatest strikers in history, in my opinion. His speed off the last man was key to Houllier’s attacking evolution, with Robbie Fowler perhaps more effective with service from both wide and his strike partners, Michael Owen was best utilised with space to attack and centre backs turning ever so uncomfortably as he sped past. The departed Collymore was replaced by the more functional if less gifted Emile Heskey after brief flirtations and good success with Karl Heinz Riedle and Patrick Berger utilised in the forward line. The departing Leicester striker was built to serve Michael Owens best attributes, play with his back to goal and occupy defenders to allow Owen to capitalise. The partnership was effective, if not as prolific as the forward lines prior. The system was more important to Houllier, and control of the pitch paramount, swashbuckling styles and 7 goal thrillers were not the norm anymore.

However potent the system adopted by Houllier’s predecessor was, it failed to achieve the silverware to which Liverpool had become so accustomed. A shift in style, with zonal control of the pitch in a rigid and organised structure saw possession and cavalier styles dropped for the big man, little man combination up top. This style required Heskey’s selflessness and Owens pace and killer instinct to be effective, making the returning Robbie Fowler if not obsolete, then certainly shifted to a third wheel role in the Frenchman’s squad. Throughout the entirety of his reign as manager, the rotation of the squad, the introduction of attacking names were both failures (Diouf, Pongolle, Camara, Cisse) and only relative successes (Anelka, Baros, Litmanen). The mainstays and forward line system was built upon Heskey and Owen and remained until his departure. Houllier enjoyed great cup success and his set up and tenure was a success given the trophy haul during this period. The wide roles were occupied by varying players of even more varying quality, that offered as much tactically as creativity in order for the system to work and succeed. The Frenchman’s well-documented illness and natural departure paved the way for a certain Spaniard to take the helm the following season.

Fernando Torres & Co.

In the summer of 2004, and after a season of lacklustre and often times drab football, Rafa was announced to the Liverpool helm after a brilliant spell with Valencia. A continental style and tactical awareness similar in parts to Houllier’s counter-attacking combo of Owen and Heskey was replaced with Rafa’s more technically gifted Garcia and the work rate of Milan Baros in the opening stages of his reign. Harry Kewell would often rotate from a wide position with Luis behind Liverpool’s leading striker. The evolution began to take shape only after the amazing night in Istanbul where European Cup number 5 was secured, with Fernando Morientes drafted in to bring both pedigree and finesse to the reds attack. A continued recruitment drive saw the like of Craig Bellamy, Peter Crouch and Dirk Kuyt brought recruited to help reinvent the way in which Liverpool goals materialised. With a more conservative budget at the Spaniard’s disposal, creation in the market was often required, with the success just about enough to hide those less effective signings. Each of Rafa’s new strikers offered different traits, Dirks work rate and perseverance, Bellamy’s tenacious style and pace and of course, Peter Crouch’s awkward on-field appearance and undeniable skillset all fell short of the legends that had come before. A system now fully incorporating either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, it would often see Kuyt and Bellamy operate in wide positions with Crouch the focal point. The three would very rarely start together find, with that amount of attacking profile perhaps too risky for Benitez. In order to compete with UTD, Arsenal and the now emerging force of Jose’s Chelsea, more firepower was needed to compete over the long seasons. Morientes was brought in as mentioned, however, his better days and quality were now on the wane and young blood was sought to give the fans their new striker to worship from the Kop.

Atletico Madrid had given a promising and exciting young talent a platform in which to show his striking prowess, Fernando Torres was hot property on the foreign market and available for a little over 20m, a sizable fee back then. With stronger English sides either sticking with their chosen forwards and deciding on more proven talent, Rafa was able to capitalise and snatch Torres from La Liga and bring him to Liverpool Football club in the summer of 2007. Liverpool had in his short reign won the Champions League, lost a further Champions League final just two years later and found himself in a position to strengthen with their stock relatively high. Ryan Babel was also purchased with Benitez clearly looking to modernise the Reds frontline.

The system was persevered with, with only the apparent upgrade at number 9 the main alteration, and what an upgrade it was. Torres’s ability to ghost past defenders, hold up play and score a variety of goals was a blessed sight. A true elite talent was once more leading the famous forward line and his abilities saw him grow into a world-class striker that would eventually command a huge fee. With a midfield three comprising the roaming enforcer Mascherano, the deep-lying conductor Alonso and the attacking midfield powerhouse Steven Gerrard there was now a formidable look to Liverpool’s attacking build-up play as teams would often be swept aside by Gerrard and Torres’s double act of carnage. Perhaps the only real pity was the reserve back up throughout and inability to call on real quality from the bench when needed. Kuyt, Babel and Riera would occupy wide positions, though none could ever be called elite and often used more functionally to occupy wide zones of the pitch than cause terror as inside forwards that would later come.

Gerrard and Torres were the world-class pair that tore down UTD & Real Madrid but to name a few and at times would show what could have been if the manager had been backed further. The goals from wide would come in patches, and at one glorious point, Gerrard was utilised from the wide right position to incredible goal-scoring success. The pace at which Liverpool attacked was the key to garnering true success from both Torres and Gerrard, very little was expected of the full-backs where dependability was sought over creativity. The creation would often stem from Alonso, a man not heralded for large assist numbers but more a hockey assist merchant that would play a key role in transitioning the ball to the forward line. Fernando Torres was a hybrid type with the stature and strength of Ian Rush, the burst of speed akin to a young Michael Owen & the variation of finish similar to Robbie Fowler. Goals could come from off the defender’s shoulder, from a penetrating run off the left flank or from simple balls into the box. Playing to his strengths brought everything out of both Gerrard and the team, something Chelsea failed to realise upon his later move as their own patterns of play did not entirely suit Nando’s specific skill set. All-time great defenders such as UTD’s Vidic would struggle time after time to maintain the pace and power of the Liverpool front line, and only when either was missing from the side due to injury, did we truly realise the massive drop off in quality.

Robbie Keane was brought in from Spurs in 2008 to the add further quality to the attack, however, from the outset it seemed that he was not ideally suited to the Liverpool set up, with rather strangely suggesting the Irishman’s ability to play wide as well as up top as would be assumed. At Tottenham, Keane often excelled when paired with the brilliant Dimitar Berbatov, a false 9 type that would bring others into play and allow his strike partner space and opportunity to exploit opposition defences. Jermaine Defoe also benefited greatly from Berbatov’s exquisite forward play when paired with the Bulgarian and given that and Torres’s venom like potency in front of goal, similar to Defoe’s, the recruitment of the sublime Berba would have surely been more fruitful.

As a side note, Dirk Kuyt was allegedly signed ahead of Dimitar Berbatov in the summer of 2006, and though the Dutchman will always be helpful in high regard for his relentless work ethic, one can only imagine the joy of seeing Berbatov pulling the forward line strings for Fernando and Stevie to exploit. The Robbie Keane experiment did not work, the system was not altered or tinkered with to accommodate a further striker and the moments in which Keane and Torres did share the pitch did little to offer the belief that the two could work productively together. Much like when Keane and Defoe were paired, or even Fowler & Owen, the two simply did not gel with each looking to be the spear of the attack. Robbie Keane was ushered back to Spurs to some embarrassment just a few months later, and the opportunity to recruit smartly and close that small gap to the top, seemingly lost.

As ownership struggles and managerial issues took over the Anfield headlines, what was once seen as a true and significant forward pairing of Gerrard & Torres started to fade away. Injuries, lack and form, Gerrard’s dalliance with Chelsea perhaps disrupting any real attempts to reclaim the league title. Rafa Benitez left in the summer of 2010 to be replaced by the assumed safe hand of Roy Hodgson, who offered very little in terms of attacking ingenuity, with a continued preference to involve David N’Gog to partner Fernando. It worked not at all, the American owners lack drive in the transfer market and Rafa’s subsequent inability to further strengthen meant a drop off in managerial quality ensued. Hodgson, with a lack of attacking identity, and any past patterns of play coached out of the remaining players struggled to raise his squad’s levels to that which was required. With the acceptability of below-average performances and results, Roy was swiftly dismissed mere months after his appointment and replaced by the returning King, Kenny Dalglish.

In January of 2011, Fernando Torres was sold to Chelsea and the arrival of his replacement(s) brought the next evolution to the Liverpool attack, which will be explored in part two of this article.

The era of Luis Suarez & Co.

To be continued…