With the recent collapse of the Remy deal, and the subsequent signing of Dejan Lovren (Liverpool’s 7th first team centre-back), there’s hardly a greater time to look at squad depth. An analysis of any squad’s depth can be tricky. A popular rule of thumb would be two players per position, but when I think about squad depth, I have always felt this rule was slightly inadequate.
How, for example, does this account for versatility among positions? With any one injury, a “2 men per position” squad would be left with limited options for substitutions or rotations in a tight schedule. A manager would be forced to throw a youth player into the first team, or adapt their formation to accommodate the available players. Of course a good manager will adapt as needed, but neither situation is ideal.
On the other side of the coin, a “3 men per position” squad would be ludicrous, to say the least. 33 players would be expensive, and impossible to keep happy with limited playing time.
The balance between these systems is of course, found in versatile players; players who are able to take up more than one position in the squad.
I’d propose an equation that would fall somewhere in between the two extremes of “2 per position” and “3 per position”; an equation that would also account for versatility among players who fill more than one squad position. It can be conveniently generalised with the following statement:
For every X number of positions, a complete squad requires (2X + 1) players
That is to say, a squad wanting to compete on all fronts will use, approximately, (2X +1) players per X number of positions. Deviating from this equation will lead to situations where Agger plays left back, or Sterling plays right back, or a youth player making the jump to the first team too early. Of course with injuries being unpredictable, this theory will not be correct one hundred percent of the time, but it provides a tool useful for analysing and evaluating squad depth, and it can lead to some interesting conclusions.
To elaborate a little on the “times two, plus one” rule, it would imply that each individual position would need three players; any group of two positions would require five players; any group of three positions would require seven players, and so on. This is not meant to comment on the quality of the depth, but simply the quantity. The usefulness of this equation may become more apparent through the use of examples.
Here is Liverpool’s squad, as it looks today:
In the graphic, I’ve assumed Rodgers’ favoured formation is the 4-3-3 we played to great success last season. (With the loss of Suarez, I’ve a feeling we will move away from the 4-4-2 diamond and return to the 4-3-3 when possible). I start by listing every player, in every position they excel at or are at least comfortable; a minimum of three players per position, and only using players that seem likely to have a chance at first team minutes. This means I’ve excluded most youth players. I’ve taken some liberties with the newer signings, as I’m far less familiar with their capabilities. I will be the first to admit I know little about Emre Can, and his ability to play DM, but I’ve heard he’s more than capable in that role.
The Back Four
When using this proposed formula to analyse a squad, it’s important to follow some sort of process. To look at each individual position alone can give a sense of false depth where players are stretched thin over multiple positions. Our full backs are a great example of this problem.
At Left-Back, we have three players: Enrique, Flanagan and Johnson. This sort of coverage is good, and as stated above, three players for one position is an adequate start.
At Right-Back, we also have three players: Johnson, Flanagan and Kelly. Again, we have fairly good coverage, but in order to account for the obvious overlap in personnel, we must look at the two positions as a group as well.
At full-back we only have 4 players. What appeared to be good depth in each position is actually, in my opinion, short by one player.
On the other hand to look at only a group of positions, without taking into account each individually can be equally misleading. It’s not hard to imagine a team comprised of 5 full-backs (enough bodies to cover two positions), but if 4 play on the right and only 1 is capable on the left, there’s an obvious problem.
To stress the lack of depth currently in the full-back position, imagine for a moment Johnson picks up a significant injury (not at all unlikely given his injury record). Regardless of quality, would only 3 players (Enrique, Flanagan, and Kelly) suffice for a tightly-packed Christmas schedule, or perhaps a midweek Champions League game? This would leave little to no rotation between games, and a second injury to the group could force a major reshuffle of either personnel or formation.
A left-back or a right-back signing would fill out the squad nicely, and complete the ‘times two, plus one’ formula, allowing for us to account for the inevitable injury, dip in form, or midweek rotation. The versatility of both Johnson and Flanagan is the key to satisfying the formula.
Of course I’d be foolish to not mention that depth needs to be balanced with available playing time. Juggling 5 players between two positions is more than possible with 4 competitions, in my opinion, but any one manager might disagree with me. In which case the “plus 1” player could be taken from elsewhere in the squad. That is to say, instead of relying on a 5th full back, who in a healthy squad, will spend a majority of time on the bench or in the reserves, the “plus 1” can be achieved by including Sterling or Henderson at right-back. The manager’s discretion is needed here. Is it worth the risk of sending Kelly out on loan, if it means that Henderson may need to be pulled out of position to cover an injured Johnson? Is Henderson’s regular position deep enough to allow him to be shuffled around? Is there a youth player waiting in the wings that the manager thinks will be able to make the step up if the situation calls for it? Does the manager have a formation available that would mitigate the loss of the right-back position?
What I am trying demonstrate is that if no other full-back is signed we run the risk of Robinson, or Agger, or Henderson playing full-back at a crucial moment this season to make up for the lack of depth. Is this a risk the manager is willing to take? One can only speculate.
But enough about full-backs, let’s have a look at our complicated centre-back situation.
Latest defensive signing Dejan Lovren is our 7th first team centre back, including both Coates and Ilori. I’m not here to address rumours of players coming or going, but I can speculate on what may occur, based on the numbers.
At LCB, Sakho, Agger and Lovren are clearly capable of being first choice at most clubs. Coates and Toure fill in the depth. 5 players for this one position is too much. But knowing both Toure and Lovren are capable right-sided centre-backs as well means that looking at this position individually is not the whole picture.
At RCB we have Skrtel, Toure, Ilori, and Lovren; each individual position is more than covered, and giving a total of 7 centre-backs. The squad is clearly overloaded here, with 7 players filling in two positions. Unless Brendan has plans for playing 3 at the back for a significant part of the season, two of these 7 are likely to miss out on any playing time all together.
With Agger rumoured to be unhappy on the bench I wouldn’t be surprised if he is sold before September. Kolo is another CB with rumours of an imminent departure circulating. This isn’t a problem as the signing of Lovren covers Kolo’s versatility at playing both sides.
Both Agger and Toure leaving could imply that Coates and Ilori are here to stay (bar any further signings). Are they ready for that step up? Only Brendan can possibly know. But if one of the two young guys goes out on loan again, don’t be surprised to see Toure stay on for one more season.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the futures of many of our centre-backs, it’s hard to draw any sort of definitive conclusion on what will happen but I will be surprised if, come September 1st, more than 5 of those listed above are still in the squad.
That’s all for Liverpool’s defensive depth. Some of the conclusions drawn may seem obvious: we need a full-back, and we have too many centre-backs; but the basis of this article is to understand these conclusions, and also it can lead to some interesting observations.
Take Glen Johnson for instance. I know I’m not the only supporter who has noticed his steep decline in quality. But think for a minute, what losing Johnson could mean in terms of depth. He can’t only be replaced by another, more competent, right-back but would need to be replaced by another left-back as well; or by another equally versatile full-back. This could explain the manager’s reluctance to let Johnson go. Although it seems like his limited skill should be easily replaced, buying 2 players to replace him may not seem worth the trouble (or the money) to Rodgers. And finding a competent full-back, able to play both sides, may not be as easy as it sounds. His versatility may be what’s keeping him in a job.
The Front Six
Starting with Liverpool’s midfield options, there are three positions of concern: the deep-lying midfielder, and two central midfield positions.
At CM, I see no need to distinguish between the left and right, as any player capable of playing one is able to play the other. So for those two positions, there are 6 players: Henderson, Coutinho, Allen, Can, Lallana, and Suso.
6 players for 2 positions is a little heavy, but this list includes some of Liverpool’s most versatile players. Lallana, Coutinho and Suso all have a history of playing in the wide forward positions, and Can is able to play in the defensive midfield position, so before we can judge the effective depth of central midfield, we will need to look at our forward line and DM as well.
At DM, Gerrard is our obvious first choice, with Can and Lucas able to play there as well. One could argue that Allen would be fourth choice for that position, but he has always looked more effective further forward, so I’ve chosen to leave him off the list. Three players should be enough for that one position anyway.
With all the overlap in these positions, it’s prudent to look at the combined depth of the midfield-three before moving on. By my count, there are 8 players for 3 positions. Going by my formula, 7 players would be enough cover. Once again, before drawing any conclusions, further analysis must be done to include the overlap of the versatile forward players.
Much like the CM positions, I’ve no reason to distinguish between the two wide forward positions. Some players may have a stronger side, but in general these players can swap sides as tactics or formation requires. So for those two positions, we have Sterling, Lallana, Markovic, Ibe, Coutinho and Suso.
Six players for two positions appears to be enough coverage, but the real depth will only be revealed when looking at the bigger picture. Between Lallana, Suso, Coutinho and Can, we have overlap between 5 positions: DM, both CM spots and both WF spots. 5 positions require 11 players for adequate depth, according to my formula. By my count we’ve listed exactly 11 players in the first team to cover these positions. Looking at each individual position, and even in groups of two, the squad looked a little heavy. Concerns for playing time available for the fringe and younger players, such as Suso and Ibe, would have been understandable. The bigger picture tells a different story however. With the collapse of the Remy deal, there may actually be an opportunity for some valuable first team minutes this upcoming season for both Suso and Ibe.
Finally we get to the strikers. Between Sturridge, Lambert and Borini, there is enough coverage. With no overlap between positions, this one is simple. The plan to sign Loic Remy was scuppered due to an apparent failed medical. His signing probably would have seen the end of Borini’s career at LFC (which is still in limbo regardless). Remy would have been a perfect fit for the squad, taking up the final spot in the striker list, as well as filling in on the flanks. It would have allowed Ibe to go on loan, or at a minimum would decrease the probability of Coutinho being removed from his favoured and more effective central position. Perhaps the collapse of this deal was what spurred the club on to extend Suso’s contract?
I don’t want to dwell on a failed signing, but it does highlight the knock-on effect of any incoming player. For example, had we pursued Bony, he would have filled out the striker depth, but wouldn’t have had the same effect on the depth in the wide forward positions that Remy would have.
With the transfer window being far from over it can be hard to make any definitive statements on the squad, and I look forward to revisiting this analysis when the transfer window shuts on September 1st. But looking at the squad in this way can shed some light on a manager’s decision making. Can we expect Ibe to get first team minutes? Is there room in the squad for Suso? Should Agger be sold? Answers to these questions aren’t always apparent, and the unaccounted for variables over an entire season are impossible to predict. But looking at squad positions in groups, as I’ve shown, can reveal the factors behind a manager’s decisions during the transfer window.
Of course the “times two, plus one” rule isn’t meant to be gospel, and like most stats and numbers in football, is only meant as a tool to guide decisions, and aid in simplifying an otherwise complicated situation. Many would argue 3 strikers aren’t enough, or 3 DMs are too much. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I’m not interested in such definitive statements. Instead, I’d argue that abiding by this formula, will more often than not, lead to a good balance of depth versus individual playing time. Too often youth players go to waste sitting in reserves or star players feel neglected sitting on the bench, due to poor squad management.
Further analysis can be done on different formations, but that will be for another time. For now we’ll return to the madness that is the transfer window, and hope that we don’t open the season playing four centre-backs against Southampton.