New Sterling role could spell end to Liverpool's attacking issues
In the absence of the persistently injured Daniel Sturridge and the departed Luis Suarez, this season has been a struggle for Liverpool as manager Brendan Rodgers chops and changes from week to week in an effort to find a way of coping without last season's two best players. And while there is a pressing need to replace the goals they scored, his defence, too, are providing even greater cause for concern.
It hasn't really been clear at any stage of the season what kind of tactic or philosophy Rodgers has been propagating recently. The intensity of last season's front three has dissipated: Steven Gerrard's best position is anybody's guess and Raheem Sterling has played in no fewer than seven different positions already, with mixed success. Rodgers has already used five different formations this season in an attempt to find cohesion both in an attacking and defensive sense, and it seems he has settled on a new fancy in the past couple of games.
For the trip to Old Trafford last Sunday, Rodgers made something of a statement by opting to start without a recognised striker. Mario Balotelli had been out for over a month with an injury and was still yet to score a Premier League goal, so the Italian only made the bench. But the bigger decision was to leave out Rickie Lambert, who had been playing up front for the past few games (though with extremely limited success), while Fabio Borini remains a largely unwanted entity at the club. In starting Sterling through the middle, Rodgers was in a win-win situation. Either it failed and he showed the watching world and the powers that be at the club that strengthening was needed in that area, or it worked and he had found a solution.
After Wednesday's victory at Bournemouth he went as far as comparing Sterling in that role to Alexis Sanchez in that he "can get it, turn and go at defenders." He can indeed do that, and his two-goal haul against the Championship leaders will have buoyed him, his manager and fans that he is the answer until Sturridge returns. He is not Sanchez, though, and he showed that with some incredibly meek finishing and poor decision-making in defeat to Manchester United.
The wider talking point, though, was the 3-4-3 formation that Rodgers has twice used in the past week. He experimented with three at the back last season on quite a few occasions, but the only time he had previously used a back three this season was in a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle at the beginning of November.
It was thus a brave decision to make ahead of the trip to Old Trafford, but in the end it so nearly paid dividends, only for the contrasting efforts of the two goalkeepers and some of his players' poor defending to thwart them. Where they have so often looked bereft of ideas and creativity this season, the new formation afforded Sterling the space to do exactly what Rodgers had highlighted after the game.
With two deep central midfielders, Jordan Henderson at right wing-back and Alberto Moreno or Lazar Markovic on the left providing the width, there is more space for Sterling to drop into between the lines. Running at goal is where he is most dangerous and he caused both United and Bournemouth countless problems.
Liverpool had 19 shots against United and 16 at Dean Court, both up on their average of 14.2 for the season and some way above their average of 11 per away match. What is more, they averaged 2.5 clear-cut chances per game in this new formation (three versus United, two versus Bournemouth), compared to a rate of 1.4 per game previously this campaign. To make too big a conclusion from just two matches is clearly reductive, but anyone who watched these games and also saw the level of Liverpool's ineptitude in matches such as the goalless draw with Hull, the 1-0 win over Stoke and the defeat at home to Aston Villa -- among others -- will be able to affirm that the Reds looked markedly more dangerous with Sterling playing out of position as the farthest man forward.
What made Liverpool such a threat last season was the pace, intensity and fluidity of their front three, and it seems with this lineup that Rodgers is trying to rediscover exactly that with an attack in which Sterling is flanked by Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho. The trio dovetail to form a more fluid front line than this season's Liverpool have known all season. As can be seen from their touch maps from those games, all three roamed all over the final third.
The trial against United may not have worked -- it resulted in their seventh Premier League loss of the season; they lost only six in the entirety of last season -- but there were at least positives to take from it and glimpses of the Liverpool of old, even if there was a ruthlessness lacking.
If ever there was going to be hope for Liverpool, it was never going to lie far from the twinkle toes of Sterling. It might not be in the position that many -- including Rodgers -- had expected, but the 20-year-old could hold the key to an upturn in form for the Reds.
Next up for Rodgers is the mountainous task of solving Liverpool's issues at the back.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.