As pre-season draws to a close following Liverpool’s dominant performance against Dortmund, focus turns towards the first fixture of the season as Southampton come to Anfield. Ronald Koeman’s side are in the midst of a major overhaul, with the sales of a number of the squad who took them to a credible 8th place finish in last year’s Premier League. Three of those sales were to Liverpool themselves, creating a rather interesting sub-plot for the league’s opening day.
While Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren cost a combined fee of approximately £45million, perhaps the most publicised move up north was that of Rickie Lambert. But this media exposure was more because of the romantic return for the Kirkby-born striker than his on-field assets.
Initial fan reaction to Lambert’s signing was largely positive but as pre-season has gone on and his goal ‘drought’ continues, the pessimism amongst Liverpool fans grows. With Liverpool reportedly in the market for another forward, it seems unlikely Lambert is to play a pivotal role, but what will he add when he is called upon?
Amongst mainstream media there seems to be this portrayal of Lambert as a traditional English number nine in the Andy Carroll mould. This is patently untrue. And a certain Brendan Rodgers agrees. While he couldn’t get rid of the £35million striker quick enough, Rodgers was incredibly complimentary of Lambert, prior to any real Liverpool interest.
“I’ve seen Rickie Lambert over the years and he’s one of those players that probably never got the recognition for what a really good footballer he is. It’s only late on in his career – at 29, 30, 31 – that people are really starting to focus on his qualities. He was probably seen as the traditional big number nine, a British striker that is good in the air. But he’s one of the most accomplished footballers I’ve seen.” - Rodgers on Lambert, 2013
So we’ve established Lambert is technically sound, but so is Daniel Sturridge and they’re quite evidently different players. However, one facet of their game that is similar is their off-ball movement. Both players enjoy taking regular touches of the ball and will often drop out of the regular centre forward position in order to aid the team’s build-up; the only area here in which they differ is that Sturridge will often drift wide and come back inside when he has the ball whereas Lambert’s movement will be focused more on the centre of the pitch.
Sturridge dropping deep and helping the team build play in the middle third is one of the major reasons he was able to link up well with Luis Suarez, as well as ensuring that Liverpool did not suffer the midfield overload that often comes with playing two up front. This was further supplemented by Coutinho’s progression into a fully-blown central midfielder, as his transformation from a 10 to an 8 nears completion. At times, due to his tremendous ball-carrying abilities, Coutinho would even drop alongside Gerrard at the base of Liverpool’s midfield and bring the ball forward, triggering wonderful fluidity from the midfield and forwards.
Much like Sturridge aids the Liverpool system, Lambert was pivotal to the success of Southampton. His impact was slightly different in that his dropping deep allowed Jay Rodriguez to play a far more advanced role on the Saints’ left-wing. Much acclaimed for a strong season, Rodriguez is simply a poacher that’s been positioned out on the left-flank and offers very little else other than finishing ability. Lambert’s movement gave Rodriguez the platform to succeed, and this capacity to augment the ability of his fellow forwards could be very useful with such talented players around him.
This tactical intelligence adds another feature to Lambert’s game. It’s fairly self-explanatory that we’re unlikely to see quick, flowing attacking transitions when he’s in the side. That’s not his game. But against the league’s smaller sides, that shouldn’t be Liverpool’s game either. The aim should be to take total control and try to break down an opposition’s deep defence, something we struggled with at times last year.
Against sides who organise with a ‘six’ at the back in defensive phases and drop very deep, it’s hardly ever helpful to have a central striker playing right on the last man. That’s why in scenarios such as this I’d even consider shifting Sturridge out to the right and playing him in the ‘Jay Rodriguez role’ with little else to focus on but finishing chances. The difference between this and Sturridge’s right-wing role at Chelsea would be the use of the central striker. At Chelsea, Sturridge often struggled on the right flank as their central striker would be Fernando Torres or Didier Drogba, both of whom would play on the last-man. If that space was vacated temporarily by clever movement (much like Sturridge does himself when he drifts out wide from the centre forward position) then he’s likely to be far more effective. With Jordan Henderson in behind him, Sturridge would also be well covered if he chose to drift out of his position.
With a number of physically quick & technically excellent players around him, Lambert could then be used as a ‘wall’, much like Arsenal use Olivier Giroud when in full-flow. Acting as something of an attacking pivot, Liverpool’s quicker players would be able play and receive the ball at pace, making it extremely difficult for the opposition defence, regardless of how deep they are. While Sturridge is an excellent player he’s more at home as the runner in a ‘one-two’ rather than as the passer, and these quick interchanges with Lambert could prove vital in breaking down tight defences.
Change of focus & direction of attack, such as this, is a far more effective ‘plan b’ than hoofing it into a big-man up front. What those who call for Liverpool to cross more are forgetting is that it would be a complete change in strategy and unlikely to actually succeed. Simply altering the line of attack, as illustrated above, allows for a slight change in approach but the ideals behind Rodgers’ underlying philosophy remain in play. And it’s got us this far.
If Liverpool could bring in another striker who is capable of playing off the last man, but also shift out as a wide forward at times, then the forward line would be complete. And given the links to the likes of Loic Remy and Samuel Eto’o, it seems the club have the right idea there. Whilst Lambert would provide an excellent option against the league’s weaker teams, in the big games he’s likely to be bypassed by the pace of Liverpool’s attacking transitions. If he’s to be seen as a successful signing then it’s important that he’s used correctly; and given Rodgers’ apparent dislike for squad rotation, this presents new challenges for Liverpool’s talented young manager.
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