In the latest Talking Reds column, Kate Cohen analyses Liverpool's opening to the 2013-14 season...
The international break is a good opportunity to look back and review Liverpool's season so far in the Premier League.
There has been a plethora of opinion blogs on why the 3-5-2 is the way forward for Liverpool, and more duly popped up when Liverpool switched back to a fluid 4-4-2 formation. The truth is, neither are the sole answer that will return Champions League football to the club, but the flexibility that they allow for are.
Last season, Brendan Rodgers' first, Liverpool predominately played either a 4-3-3 formation, or a 4-2-3-1 where the midfield triangle was flipped. But Rodgers proved that he was more flexible than given credit for when implementing his preferred style of play. Against Everton last season, Liverpool switched to a 3-5-2 formation to nullify the aerial threat of Marouane Fellaini; and with a difficult away trip to Russia midweek, Rodgers chose an experimental 3-5-2 formation (which fascinatingly reverted to a 5-1-4 formation in the defensive phase of play).
Just as with every aspect of the game, what ultimately matters are the players at the manager's disposal and the opposition. Rodgers himself explained as much when speaking to the Anfield Wrap last season, emphasising how the players' profiles dictate which formation is used:
"If you talk in terms of a 1 and a 2 (4-3-3) and a 2 and a 1 (4-2-3-1), normally [in a 4-3-3] you'll play with [the deepest midfielder] who's really dominant with the ball - controlling, facing back - so [the deepest] guy dictates the rhythm of your game, the tempo of your game. These two [more advanced midfield] players here, they then have to have the capacity to control but also run and get forward and also get back in. So if they don't have that it's very difficult for it to function... if you haven't got those profiles of players it's difficult to play that."
Since Rodgers first took over the job, he has been able to introduce different players to the squad which allow for different formations. The signing of Philippe Coutinho gives the squad a talented playmaker who can play in the 'No.10' role in the 3-5-2, but he is also capable of playing as a left-sided midfielder, cutting in in a 4-4-2. Daniel Sturridge's signing has given the squad the ability to play with two strikers up front, forming a deadly combination with Luis Suarez. But both Suarez and Sturridge are equally capable of playing as a lone striker if form, injuries or tactics require a switch. Whilst the off-season signings of Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure give Liverpool the cover and flexibility to revert to a back three if required.
Just as the players matter, and everyone hopes Liverpool will strengthen further in January, so do does the opposition. There will be occasions where 3-5-2 is the formation that suits, where the additional defensive cover at the back it provides is necessary. There will also be times, such as Fulham at home, where a 4-4-2 is the best for the occasion.
I like to think of the ability to switch between formations as a different way of tackling the same problem - how to win. Sometimes you need a 'No.10' and wing-backs, sometimes you need inverted wide players and overlapping full-backs. The real beauty is the flexibility that this squad allows us.
The key combination
The combination that everyone is talking about is Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez - SAS. Both Sturridge and Suarez have scored eight goals already and are all the rage in the media. Liverpool have a genuinely world-class strike partnership, but it is the immediate chemistry between the two that has amazed. Suarez and Sturridge have played together 16 times in the Premier League and have scored a staggering 22 goals between them (Suarez with 13, Sturridge with nine). The best thing about the duo is their unpredictability - both are capable of stretching the play in behind, dropping short and linking up between the lines and pulling wide - and sheer desire to score goals.
There have been plenty of positives for Liverpool so far this season, and there is a sense of optimism amongst the players and the fans. With the international break coming to an end and players returning to Melwood, arguably the most difficult part of the season is upon us. The upcoming six weeks leading up to the New Year will see eight games and include away fixtures at Everton, Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea. The form and confidence that has culminated right up the top after 11 games, but the next eight could shape Liverpool's season. Four losses could put a massive dent in the aim to reach the top four, 20-odd points could make Liverpool genuine title contenders.