By Séamus Leonard
Liverpool has never been at the pinnacle of the English Premier League after five matches since the league’s inception in 1992. However, a victory over Southampton on Saturday afternoon will ensure that the Reds will be leading the way when top striker Luis Suarez returns from his suspension next week.
The Merseysiders’ 100 percent start to the season was halted by Swansea City on Monday after a captivating 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium. It was a bizarre game, and one dominated by the brilliance and bizarreness of midfielder Jonjo Shelvey. The former Liverpool man scored against his old teammates inside the opening 90 seconds only to subsequently provide assists to both Daniel Sturridge and Victor Moses to help the visitors into a 2-1 lead. The 21-year-old refused to buckle, though, and his deft header put Michu in to fire past Simon Mignolet in the second half and leave both sides with a share of the spoils.
The point lifted Liverpool above Arsenal and Tottenham in the table, and left supporters bemused. It is great to be top of the table, but there were a number of negatives to take from the performance. One of the clearest problems is the axis of Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva in central midfield. As has been pointed out time and again on excellent The Anfield Wrap podcast, both players are struggling to last 90 minutes and their tiredness is a major factor in why Liverpool has repeatedly dropped back too deep in all this season’s games to date.
In a strange way, Philippe Countinho’s enforced lay-off offers manager Brendan Rodgers a way out of this quandary. One of Gerrard’s best seasons came in 2008/09 when then boss Rafael Benitez deployed the number eight behind Fernando Torres in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Like Torres, Sturridge makes excellent runs off the back of central defenders and there are few better than Gerrard to pick those movements out. Jordan Henderson has been in excellent form recently and he could slot back in beside Lucas. The former Sunderland man certainly has the ability to get up and down the field and such energy would be the perfect tonic for Lucas, who is still edging back to his best.
Coutinho isn’t the only injury concern for Rodgers, of course, with full-backs Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho also sidelined for a few more weeks. Vice-captain Daniel Agger missed the trip to Swansea after sustaining an unusual injury last weekend. The center back’s misfortune opened the door for Mamadou Sakho to make his Liverpool debut. The Frenchman was perhaps a little too over-eager at times, but his aerial ability and excellent ball control suggests he is a serious rival to Agger for that left-sided position. Rodgers may opt to retain the former Paris Saint-Germain man for the visit of Southampton, if only to counteract the physicality of Saints striker Rickie Lambert. Sakho’s recent encounter with a weights machine suggests he will be more than able to cope with the demands of the Premier League that so many commentators are quick to suggest foreign players will struggle with.
There is another defensive decision to be made at right-back. Andre Wisdom started there against the Swans and although the youngster did fine defensively, he didn’t offer the attacking threat Liverpool has come to rely on from Johnson. Martin Kelly had an excellent game for the U-21 side in its 5-2 win over Sunderland on Tuesday, but he still might be just short of being ready for a first team start at this juncture. Kolo Toure came on for Wisdom in the closing stages at the Liberty Stadium, and Rodgers might be tempted to select the Ivorian in order to get his leadership and enthusiasm back on the field.
Southampton was a difficult nut to crack at Anfield last season and it required an Agger header to break the Saints’ resolve. The Reds fared even worse at St Mary’s in March when a 3-1 reverse effectively ended any hope of a Champions League spot. The south coast club strengthened again during the summer, with the capture of striker Pablo Daniel Osvaldo from Roma the most eye-catching. However, the additions of Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama were also notable and brought Southampton’s spending to around the £35million mark. Mauricio Pochettino has done a steady job as manager since replacing Nigel Adkins in January and with a win, two draws, and a defeat from the opening four games, the Saints have started the current campaign in a similar vein.
If Liverpool is to make a serious challenge for a top four spot this season, however, these are the kind of games it really needs to be taking three points from. And while injuries will force a change in personnel and perhaps also formation, Rodgers will know the feel-good factor from a good start can easily disappear with just a couple of poor results. There has been much discussion of Liverpool’s second-half fade outs, and it is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Rodgers cannot ignore what is obvious at the moment, and that is his charges are visibly fatigued at a crucial period of any game. It may be as simple as being more proactive with substitutions, rather than waiting until it is too late to reverse the trend of a match as happened on Monday. But whatever the cause, Liverpool needs to find a solution sooner rather than later, and certainly before it starts costing points.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports Network, with coverage starting at 1000 EST.
Liverpool v Southampton
When: Saturday, September 21, 1000 EST/1500 BST
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Swansea City 2-2 Liverpool, Southampton 0-0 West Ham United
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 1st (10 points), Southampton 11th (5 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Toure, Skrtel, Sakho, Jose Enrique
MID: Sterling, Lucas, Henderson, Gerrard, Aspas
Subs from: Jones, Agger, Wisdom, Kelly, Flanagan, Ilori, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Allen, Moses
Projected Southampton Starting 11
DEF: Clyne, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw
MID: Lallana, Schneiderlin, Wanyama, Rodriguez
FW: Lambert, Osvaldo
Subs from: K Davis, Gazzaniga, Fox, Yoshida, S Davis, Ramirez, Chambers, Ward-Prowse, Do Prado, Hooiveld, Cork, Lee
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard