When Liverpool confirmed the signing of Daniel Sturridge, most assumed Brendan Rodgers would seek to fit his new arrival around Luis Suarez. Instead he may look to do the exact opposite—and his job could depend on the gamble paying off.
Luis Suarez is a world class attacker. Even the Uruguayan's most fervent detractors would have trouble arguing otherwise. For Daniel Sturridge on the other hand, no matter what he may be or may yet become, world class and the 23-year old Englishman are two things very few would today seek to fit into the same sentence. Luis Suarez is also the player of the season right now in England. And as a general rule, one tends to consider attempts to change something both working and world class to be flirting with disaster.
Yet despite that Luis Suarez at striker is about only thing that’s worked consistently and well for Liverpool so far under manager Brendan Rodgers, flirting with disaster seemed to be exactly what he had in mind when he chose to discuss the potential roles Suarez and Sturridge might fill in his new look Liverpool as he seeks to guide the club away from a shaky first half and back towards the promise of European competition.
"I spoke with Luis at length on it a number of times," said Rodgers of the possibility of moving Suarez away from the middle to make room for Sturridge centrally. "This has been in the plans for a few months. When he played at Ajax he played in behind as a Number Ten, in between the lines, and he [also] played as a reverse winger from the left side so he wasn't quite out wide—he was tucked in round the corner. Wherever he plays he will make the same movements and he will find the space because he is a world class player."
Suarez may be able to find space anywhere he's played, yet his effectiveness in attack this season has stemmed from the way his role has allowed him to attack from literally everywhere. He’s dangerous from the wings, yes, but it’s wings plural. He’s also dangerous from everywhere else in the final third. So certainly he will still find the space to be dangerous somewhere if Rodgers removes him from the central role he has played up until now, yet doing so risks removing his ability to be dangerous from everywhere—or at least makes it harder, with Suarez now tasked with working around another player rather than asking that player to work around Suarez.
Perhaps more importantly, in the 433 as Rodgers has spoken about it at Liverpool and as he implemented it at Swansea, a winger or wide attacker must also worry about a share of the defensive duties. Suarez may have effectively attacked from wide with Ajax in the Eredivise, but when it comes to defending even centre halves don’t always bother with tracking back when you're in the Eredivise. Moreover, relying on Suarez—a player with little experience in the defensive third outside of the Netherlands—to track back regularly not only risks Liverpool's defensive stability, it also means Suarez will have less energy late in games, increasing fatigue and the risk of injury over the longer term.
"Daniel's best position is as a central striker," continued Rodgers. "I have said that 433 will become richer because of the type of players. There is not one way to play 433. You can have one up and two wingers, a floating nine like Luis Suárez, you can have one like Daniel Sturridge central, two in and around him narrow with full backs bombing on. The principles of your game are based on your players. I think for Daniel his best position will be straight through the middle with his pace."
Despite what Rodgers sees as his best position, last season under Andre Villas-Boas, Sturridge showed he could be quite effective from the right of a 433. In fact, it was one of his two most successful spells in the Premier League. His other most successful stretch was while at Bolton, where he played more centrally but in support of Kevin Davies. Rodgers may believe Sturridge's best role is a central one, but Sturridge's best performances to date haven't come while he was leading the line.
That doesn't mean Sturridge might not make for a very good central striker, but moving beyond such speculation, what evidence exists in his career to date points to him being at his most effective when taking on a supporting role. When put alongside Suarez' success leading the line for Liverpool under Rodgers this season, it makes it exceptionally difficult to understand why the manager might think it wise to ask Suarez to adjust his game in January to allow for Sturridge to take on a central role.
Moreover, it means that if things don't work out—if Liverpool's form doesn't improve noticeably thanks to Rodgers' tinkering and so at least lead them back into the Europa League next season—then Rodgers has set himself up to take a great deal of blame for the decision. If it doesn't work out, it will mean that Rodgers has taken the one thing all would agree has worked at Liverpool during his time in charge and broken it in a misguided attempt to accommodate a new signing many fans are uncertain of to begin with. It further runs the risk, if it doesn't work out as Rodgers hopes, of alienating Suarez.
Of course, all of the talk that has followed on from Rodgers' words on Suarez, Sturridge, and the positions he sees them playing may be much ado about nothing. When Fabio Borini arrived there was plenty of talk of Suarez moving wide to accommodate him—and when that talk met reality it lasted one ineffective hour against Sunderland before Rodgers moved his most dangerous attacker back to the front of the line. It would hardly be surprising, either, to see Liverpool's trio of attackers swap positions with more regularity during the run of play now that Sturridge has arrived, and it may simply have been this increased flexibility that Rodgers was speaking to.
It might also be that Rodgers will occasionally move Sturridge into a temporary central role during a match in an effort to unbalance the opposition. Rodgers' talk could perhaps even be a hint that the manager is willing to drift away from the dogmatic 433 he has preached since arriving and towards something more closely resembling a 4411, allowing Suarez to quite literally play as a Number Ten and move wherever he pleases in attack without adding to his defensive workload. Or perhaps Rodgers will keep his favoured 433 as it is but drop Suarez into midfield as the most advanced of the central trio rather than moving him wide.
It could even, in the end, simply be Rodgers talking; speculating; pondering tactical possibilities that will never see the light of day. Rodgers, after all, has at times in his short Liverpool career shown himself to be a man far from shy when it comes to discussing any thought that might pop into his head. Still, on the surface at least, it is worrying talk from Rodgers, this idea of supplanting Liverpool's single most potent attacking weapon and the Premier League's player of the season in order to rearrange the system or accommodate an unproven new arrival whose best past results have come while playing in a supporting role.
About all that is clear right now is that Luis Suarez is, at this moment, the player of the season in the Premier League and a world class attacking threat. And you mess with a player on that kind of form at your own peril. We will soon find out if Brendan Rodgers intends to do just that, and if he does then his gamble will need to show signs of paying off very quickly or the rotten fruit will begin to fly.