The Need for Adaptation in Liverpool’s Strategy
In the last two games, we have seen Harvey Elliott undertake some form of audition for a role that should have been his for the next month or so. As soon as Mohamed Salah departed for the 2024 African Cup of Nations, there was always going to be a player shuffle or system alteration that would be need to be undertaken. In losing the Egyptian King from the starting eleven (till some point in early February), it meant losing the reds best source of goals and perhaps creation. That issue was increased further, when both Dominik Szoboszlai and Trent Alexander Arnold, succumbed to injuries in the short period thereafter. This predicament only added to the additional loss of Japan’s Wataru Endō (to the Asia Cup), which means any plan to facilitate the absence of Mo, is now likely redundant.
The Challenge of Replacing Mohamed Salah
I believe Harvey Elliot was always the likely right wing / forward replacement, essentially given that he matches up best to how the role is usually played. That plan would have seen the Hungarian skipper, Dominik Szoboszlai, playing in behind and supporting him, with Trent operating that bit deeper in his hybrid role. By losing both elite assets (for perhaps the remainder of the month of January), it has seen Harvey struggle to impact against either Arsenal or Fulham. Both those cup ties (FA & EFL Cup, respectively) saw the former Fulham winger starting in that more advanced position, before being either shifted into midfield, or merely removed from the pitch altogether. As a result of losing the much-required supporting assets around him, that role may now require more of a maverick to occupy the right flank in the upcoming games, as the reds look to safely navigate the next clutch of matches.
Those matches are listed below, which will take the Liverpool fixture list to the end of both the AFCON and Asia Cups.
Sunday – 21st January – Premier League
Bournemouth (Away) 16.30 kick off
Wednesday – 24th January – EFL Cup Semi
Fulham (Away) 20.00 kick off
Saturday – 27th January – FA Cup
Norwich or Bristol City (Home) 15.00 kick off
BBC (TV Coverage TBC)
Wednesday – 31st January – Premier League
Chelsea (Home) 20.15 kick off
Sunday – 4th February – Premier League
Saturday – 10th February – Premier League
Burnley (Home) 16.30 kick off
Strategic Prioritization of Competitions
The next four out of five games are critical to maintaining momentum across two competitions, with the FA Cup utilised mainly to field the fringe players. Ultimately, the listed importance of the reds season should be as follows.
1 – Premier League
2 – Europa League
3 – EFL Cup
4 – FA Cup
Game Management in the Absence of Key Players
The fact that the FA Cup is sandwiched in between the EFL Cup semi-final 2nd leg and the visit of Chelsea, means whichever first players need a rest before Chelsea and then Arsenal (just four days later), needs to be undertaken during the FA Cup 4th round weekend. It will be on that weekend that I hope to see minutes for returning players that have been injured, so that other squad members can rest up for the more vital encounters.
How Should These Games Now Be Navigated, Without Mohamed Salah…?
I was born in 1981, therefore, my first absolute footballing memories would have been a decade later, after the initial reign King Kenny. I was more than aware of the controversial Grahame Souness reign, yet my first absolute wow moments with Liverpool Football Club, would have been created by the breathtaking wing play of Steve McManaman. I like to write at least one article a year that contains the current BT Sport commentator, to remind the younger members of the fanbase, that this very average football pundit remains one of Liverpool Football Clubs greatest ever players. One game does stand out for me, where I was pitch side at Portman Road (Ipswich Town) and able to see Macca utterly terrorise whatever left back was unfortunate enough to be marking him that night. Much of the nation was fascinated by Ryan Giggs at the time, yet for me, it was all about Liverpool’s world class number 7 (he may have been 17 at that point), who could dribble the length of the pitch, move inside or outside, whilst not losing either speed or control of the ball. Around 18-months ago, Liverpool signed a winger that was starting to show that kind of beautiful wing play, until injuries, the corroding squad of 2022, and later personal circumstances, saw his form and wizardry fall away. That was until recent few weeks, where brilliance and creativity appear to have been revived.
The Potential of Luis Díaz as Liverpool’s New Maverick
With continual game time and the trust of the reds German manager, Luis Díaz has once again emerged as that unpredictable talent that is almost impossible to contain. His arrival from Porto (in January 2022) saw him ushered into the left forward position, as Sadio Mané migrated inside, before eventually leaving the club. Both the Senegalese forward and Bobby Firmino were visibly regressing by this point, therefore new blood and talent was actively being sought. For Luis, his initial half season on Merseyside was successful, within a team that knew how to operate against teams that would often fear real engagement. The next season, however, all adversaries became quickly aware of the pandemic of regression in the Anfield ranks, which meant the likes of Luis Díaz and Darwin Núñez struggled to evolve as expected.
Recent weeks and games have me itching to see the Colombian flyer unleashed onto the right wing (against the grain of modern football and inversion), as a right footed right winger. This alteration would mean switching Darwin to the left forward position, allowing Diogo Jota to terrorise in the central area attack. Cody Gakpo could offer relief to all, whereas Harvey Elliott would once again enable commendable support from the bench. This endeavour is something we have yet to see, essentially as Mohamed Salah has nearly always been available for selection. A five – six game window of experimentation should be carried out, which may offer the returning Egyptian a chance to play through the middle. This further alteration may be something that suits the 31-year-old as he progresses into his thirties. That scenario is clearly something for down the road, however, the thought of a rampaging Darwin Núñez on one side, opposite a dribbling sensation, Luis Díaz, on the other, could be the kind of unexpected tinkering which can carry the title chasers through the coming weeks.
Predictably became one of the major Liverpool v1.0 faults, alongside tired legs that simply could not outrun the opposition anymore. This season, we have seen a more proactive version of Jürgen Klopp, especially regarding his in-game changes. My hope is that he at least considers the idea of switching his Columbian forward, something which could create both short- and long-term gains. Form is most certainly with the newly turned 27-year-old, therefore, the moment could be ideal for both player and club.
Once upon a time, Steve McManaman was able to demoralise the opposition and enthral a captivated support, with right wing antics that only few could ever dream of. I believe Liverpool v2.0 may well have their own version of that all time legend, the manager just has to see it, as it could be exactly what is needed.