Brendan Rodgers will enter the opening weekend of the Barclays Premier League with bad memories of his side’s 6-1 humiliation by Stoke on the final day of last season.
As he prepares for the corresponding fixture this time round, he faces a tough task of ensuring he makes the correct tactical decisions to avoid further criticism from Liverpool fans.
His decision to use a midfield four of Lucas, Allen, Henderson and Gerrard in that forgettable game represented an unusually rigid and boring approach by a manager who supposedly strives to incorporate a no fear, attacking attitude.
Ideally, Liverpool fans would favour the use of a midfield three consisting of Emre Can, James Milner and Jordan Henderson against Mark Hughes’ side. The use of Emre Can as the defensive midfielder would almost create a five man defence with the bonus that the German International has the freedom to drive forward with the ball when given the chance, knowing that one of James Milner or Jordan Henderson will drop in and cover him defensively.
In the defeat at the Britannia Stadium last season, we lacked serious mobility with Allen and Lucas both being physically exposed by the power and athleticism of Steven N’Zonzi and even Charlie Adam at times. The inclusion of James Milner against a physical Stoke City side is vital as he promises to bring a greater focus on retrieving the ball in addition to his famously high fitness levels that will improve the side’s chances of winning the midfield battle.
Winning the physical battle in midfield is key to Liverpool winning as a fighting display will help diffuse the inevitably electric atmosphere inside the Britannia on the opening day of the new campaign. James Milner’s winning mentality and experience of playing at the very top means he must start as he can be useful in helping Emre Can understand his responsibilities in his holding midfield role.
Defensively, it is difficult to predict who Brendan Rodgers will opt for in terms of centre backs, however I am fairly certain Nathaniel Clynne will immediately make his full debut at right back. Already, he poses as an improvement to the side and will be valuable to counteracting Stoke’s use of wingers such as Marko Arnautovic, who previously gave Emre Can a torrid time at right back.
If Jon Flanagan was fully fit, he would get my backing to start at left back over the defensively frail Alberto Moreno. Flanagan is far stronger defensively which is pivotal against a side known for its strengths down the flanks. Despite this, it looks as though Moreno will start, which makes the use of three central midfielders even more important as one can offer defensive support to the left back while also slotting in to allow the Spaniard to use his attacking abilities.
At the moment, a central defensive partnership of Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho looks the most likely option unless further reinforcements are brought in. Skrtel’s must become more reliable in order to cement his position. His experience and organisation will hopefully work well with the power and tenacity of Sakho in order to over-power the aerial Stoke carry with them in the form of Peter Crouch. Alternatively, last season’s defeat displayed our defence as slow in movement and reaction, allowing the likes of agile figures such as Mame Biram Diouf and Jonathon Walters to capitalize on these faults. With this in mind, the door could potentially open for a younger face to start the game such as a Thiago Ilori or a Joe Gomez with both capable of bringing more pace to the Liverpool back line.
The imminent departure of Raheem Sterling makes Brendan Rodgers’ decision slightly easier in terms of who will be used as the attacking midfielders. The use of a midfield three and a defensive quartet means Rodgers could choose between using one attacking midfielder behind two strikers, two wingers beside a main striker or two attacking midfielders behind the striker.
If Rodgers were to opt for two strikers, I would like to see either Divock Origi or Mario Balotelli partner either Roberto Firmino or Danny Ings. Balotelli would offer a much needed strength against a physical Stoke side, as would Origi. It just comes down to how reliable Balotelli is and while it remains unclear as to whether he will remain at Anfield or not, I believe Origi has a strong chance of starting up front. The height and power of the Belgian will give Ryan Shawcross something to think about in terms of a physical challenge- something that Liverpool missed last season. Danny Ings can offer Premier League experience and the simple ability to hit the back of the net. Despite being far cheaper than Roberto Firmino, he, perhaps, emerges as the more reliable option at this point due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the Brazilian striker.
There is a greater chance of Firmino starting the game if Rodgers opts for two attacking midfielders as he would most likely partner his fellow Brazilian, Philippe Coutinho. Moreover, the use of wingers could see Jordan Ibe feature, which would be an extremely positive move for the side as his pace and power is capable of really troubling the Stoke backline. One thing that is for sure is the use of Philippe Coutinho from the start. He is the main man and the best chance of Liverpool winning.
Ultimately, a 4-3-3 formation looks to be the most likely option when you consider the players Rodgers has to choose from. A win against Stoke is massively important as it will give Brendan Rodgers and his players a huge confidence boost.