It may come as a surprise to you, but the fact that Andy Carroll did not start for Liverpool against Manchester United this weekend meant that Carroll, Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard went one more week without ever starting together in the Premier League.
Despite the fact that Gerrard, Carroll and Suarez have been at the club together for just over a year now, a combination of Gerrard’s fitness, Carroll’s form and Suarez’ suspension, has prevented the trio from ever starting together.
Although the drama and escalation of matters unrelated to football overshadowed any actual football matters this weekend, it was another game that exposed Liverpool’s lack of direction or tactical comfort with the players at their disposal.
Whether it is because of Steven Gerrard’s prolonged injury issues, and the loss of Lucas Leiva for the year, or the tip of an underlying issue just beginning to show, Liverpool’s additions to their squad during the Damien Comolli era appear to be lacking a clear direction.
Comolli’s era was ushered in with the marquee additions of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.
The thought process there was simple, one is a little ‘un, the other is a large ‘un. It was a combination established based on the inspiration of Jan Koller and Milan Baros, Robbie Keane and Niall Quinn or even Emile Heskey and Michael Owen.
There was only one problem….Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez both prefer to lead the line and are best suited to play on the last line of defense.
Suarez, despite his small stature and ability to run at defenders, has done his best work for Liverpool pressuring the last defender and making runs off the ball to latch onto passes. When he has played in space between the midfield and defense, he has more often than not made poor decisions and been less effective.
Carroll, on the other hand, has played deep more often than Suarez but never to great effect. The former Newcastle striker’s best play has come when he was looking to get on the end of moves rather than link up passes in space. He showed a lot of ability to hold up the ball against Tottenham on Monday night, but that came when he was retreating from an advanced position.
Both players excel as the furthermost forward on the field. As a pairing, it is difficult to see how you can get the best out of both of them.
The addition of Stewart Downing in the summer told me that Comolli, presumably after discussing with Dalglish, was looking to use Carroll to lead the line and complement the tall striker with a pair of wingers who would give him the service needed to soar up the scoring charts.
However if that was the case, Comolli would have had to have brought in another winger to balance the formation. Instead, he added more depth to an already crowded area of the field.
The signings of Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson meant one of two things. Either somebody was leaving, or Steven Gerrard was returning to the wing. Gerrard returning to the wing was something that I initially considered when Henderson was signed. Outside of his season playing behind Fernando Torres in the hole, Gerrard’s best work arguably came from a wide position when Mohammed Sissoko and Xabi Alonso manned the center of the field.
Of course necessity saw Gerrard eventually move out of both of those positions and fall back into a central midfielder.
Because Gerrard wasn’t healthy early on, and since his return Lucas has been lost, we will never know if Comolli had a clear plan with his signings or if he was just plucking the best available players from his list of targets. Henderson’s best position is in the middle but he has moved around more than a chess piece all season, while Stewart Downing’s best football has been seen on the right-hand-side of the field.
Having a clearly defined direction and philosophy to your transfer policy would prevent the ambiguity that has infected Liverpool’s level of play this season.
The philosophy is clear, buy British, buy young. However the philosophy without a direction is tactically is an unfinished product.
The two most successfully transfer policies in the Premier League right now aren’t the two teams with the deepest pockets. Spending a lot of money and overpaying for players but still getting some level of quality doesn’t make you a transfer genius.
In the Premier League, the best transfer policies lie with two very different teams.
Manchester City do indeed have the deepest pockets in the league, but Roberto Mancini has also incorporated a strong direction and team philosophy. When Mancini arrived in Manchester, he began to build from the back.
There were already some quality pieces in place such as Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany, but Mancini brought in players like Alexander Kolarov, Kolo Toure, Nigel De Jong, Gareth Barry, James Milner and Gael Clichy to build a defensive base.
Early in Mancini’s career, Manchester City were too defensive and didn’t show enough creativity in midfield or courage in attack. Mancini had a plan though. Once he had implemented center backs and holding midfielders capable of playing in the pressing defense that Manchester City run today, he was able to move onto stars such as Yaya Toure, Silva, Samir Nasri, Adam Johnson, Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero.
With each layer of the team, Mancini had methodically built with a purpose. Each signing was brought in to fill a particular role and contribute to the overall identity of the team. Of course, many will say that City simply bought a good transfer policy and it was easy for them with limitless funds to take certain types of players.
That is not the case however, because the other team with the best transfer policy in the league has very little money.
Tony Pullis’ Stoke City side have been in the Premier League since 2008. The Potters finished 12th in their first season, 11th the next and 13th last season, but with an FA Cup final appearance and place in Europe secured.
Stoke broke their transfer record when they initially moved up to the Premier League, bringing in Dave Kitson from Reading for £5.5 million. Bringing in big strikers is a staple of Stoke’s transfer policy. Their side is buit on strong center backs and center forwards with hard workers through the middle of the field.
On the outside, they have employed wingers to properly create opportunities for the big men upfront. Players like Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross weren’t heavy investments but perfectly fit the team’s defensive priorities.
Finding bargains in midfield has never been an issue with Wilson Palacios, Glenn Whelan, Salif Diao, Dean Whitehead and Rory Delap all being capable work horses to man the middle. With the structure in place, Pullis was able to concentrate more of his cash on bigger names for his attack.
Matthew Etherington was an inspired signing from West Ham who perfectly fit the needs of a Stoke winger, Jermaine Pennant may not have cut it at Liverpool but has been a consistent outlet for Stoke. Etherington and Pennant both love to get the ball in the box early and often, with Peter Crouch, Kenwyne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome all added, Stoke have the right blend to open up opposition’s defenses.
With Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll all fit and available for the foreseeable future, this may be the start of the few months which will tell us whether Damien Comolli is a man with a plan, or just a man who throws darts aiming for the most talented players he can hit.
The transfer market isn’t always about bringing in the best players available.