A successful Europa League campaign may not top Brendan Rodgers’ priorities this season, but the Liverpool boss has already reaped rewards from continental experimentation this term. FourFourTwo staff writer Andrew Murray finds out how, using the free-to-download Europa League Stats Zone app…
Liverpool take their role as England’s most successful side in European competition very seriously. The Europa League may lack some of its big brother’s glamour, but it remains a prestigious trophy to win, and presents Brendan Rodgers with an ideal opportunity to allow his squad’s burgeoning potential to run unchecked.
Now an integral part of the Reds’ back four, 19-year-old Andre Wisdom made his first start of the season against Young Boys on matchday one, while Conor Coady, Jon Flanagan and Sebastian Coates have all enjoyed European exposure this term. Fringe players Stewart Downing, Joe Cole and Jordan Henderson have also featured.
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But Rodgers’ changes have unearthed more than just the odd nascent youth-team whelp or senior player with a point to prove. Experimentation of formation featured prominently, too, last time out against Anzhi Makhachkala.
With Downing and Flanagan deployed as wing-backs ahead of centre-half trio Wisdom, Coates and Jamie Carragher, Liverpool took to the field in Dagestan in an unfamiliar 3-5-2.
Though the Merseysiders lost 1-0 to Lacina Traore’s fine solo effort, both wing-backs’ forward forays provided Rodgers with much encouragement. Indeed, Carragher passing to Downing was the most common passing combination in the 90 minutes.
Come the following Sunday, and the Reds’ Premier League game with Chelsea, the back three remained, with Rodgers impressed enough to deploy the system after the Anzhi trial with Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique as the wide men.
What he encountered was a similar problem to the one he faced last season at Swansea: a chevron shape of passes in his team’s own half that fail to make an impression on the opposition’s defence.
Defensively sound for an hour with a back three but lacking in penetration, Liverpool pushed Enrique forward as an orthodox winger and brought on Suso to play just behind serial pest Luis Suarez. The difference was huge – the Reds played higher up the pitch, finding the equaliser and nearly a winner.
Such flexibility is what Rodgers demands from his players. Enrique was a constant outlet in the closing half-hour: Liverpool’s top two passing combinations featured the ball reaching the marauding Spaniard.
Enrique’s reinvention as a winger in 30 minutes against Chelsea, followed by a goal and an assist at home to Wigan, offers definitive proof of the Europa League’s merits. Persistent rumours earlier this season had the left-back leaving Anfield, but Rodgers’ use of wing-backs is ideally suited to the 26-year-old’s bustling talents. In short, he has grasped the chance to impress since his manager’s back-three experiment in Europe.
Thursday night will provide Downing, Henderson and possibly a returning Lucas Leiva with a similar opportunity to make an impact. Henderson has been quietly impressive in three group-stage appearances thus far, diligent in defence against Young Boys on matchday one and adroitly recycling the ball against Anzhi on matchday four.
Whatever the personnel or formation, a Liverpool win will go a long way to ensuring a place in the last 32 and give Rodgers more options with Sunday’s trip to the club he left this summer. Henderson’s industry could be just what Liverpool need at the Liberty Stadium.
Stats Zone is a free-download app from FourFourTwo and Opta, updated LIVE in-play. The Europa League Stats Zone is brought to you in association with Western Union's PASS scheme, which turns every completed Europa League pass into a day's education for young people around the world.
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