Solid Liverpool need emirates improvement

Two matches, two wins, two clean sheets, six points – very satisfying numbers for Liverpool and manager Brendan Rodgers after he watched his team edge past newly promoted Bournemouth 1-0 at Anfield.

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Winning without setting the world alight by any stretch brings its own kind of positivity – ‘winning ugly’, as they say. You cannot go through an entire season playing your best football, so if you can keep collecting points and wins when you are not playing well, it normally represents a positive season ahead. Chelsea proved it in the second half of last season on their way to the Premier League title, while Manchester United were masters of the art under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Christian Benteke’s performance would have brought further satisfaction to Rodgers.

Alongside his goal (which means he has already equalled Mario Balotelli’s league tally), the Belgian’s overall performance was extremely promising – holding the ball up well, linking with the likes of Philippe Coutinho, tracking back and working hard all over the pitch and delivering some excellent long and short-range passing.

Many Liverpool strikers have enjoyed positive beginnings – some went on to become world-class at Anfield, others damp squibs. Hopefully Benteke will belong to the former group, even if the £32.5m fee seems steep.

It could yet become a bargain.

Other positives on the night were the full-backs. Joe Gomez again did well, especially when considering his age and lack of top-flight experience, while Nathaniel Clyne was brilliant, and looks a steal at £12.5m from Southampton.

Jordan Henderson was solid and helped control the game for Liverpool, which became increasingly uneasy for the Reds once the skipper was substituted.

Meanwhile, the defensive core of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren were reasonably composed and did not present Bournemouth with many clear-cut chances, although some of Lovren’s clearances could have been better and Skrtel needs to be careful when handling opposition attackers.
Despite the win though, there remain many areas that Liverpool need to improve if they want to build on the solid start made to the season.

Against both Bournemouth and Stoke, the lack of creativity from midfield was worrying, although is offset by the amount of new signings. It will take time for everyone to gel and maximize their match fitness and sharpness in order to play at their best, so winning matches while this takes place is a good sign.

Yet this is a big week for the Reds, as the process above needs to be accelerated in time for the trip to Arsenal, as Liverpool’s current form will probably see them leave the Emirates next week with nothing, as they did in last season’s disappointing 4-1 defeat.

Sadly, Adam Lallana, playing more centrally this week, was anonymous again offensively, and should be dropped for the Emirates clash.

The 27 year old worked hard to form a midfield three, but is struggling to nail down a position at Anfield, lacking pace out wide and not providing enough through the middle.

He has no excuses this season, with a pre-season in his belt and no injuries to worry about, but the England international has flattered to deceive so far, and should be competing behind Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in the pecking order alongside Lazar Markovic.

The 21 year old Serbian can provide a different option from the two Brazilians with his direct pace, although he has to take any chances he gets this season if he wants a long-term future with Liverpool.

Jordan Ibe is another who should not be an automatic first choice, and that’s not just from his ineffective display at Anfield.

The 19 year old is undoubtedly very talented and could be the home-grown successor to Raheem Sterling, but he remains very raw and has not scored for Liverpool since returning from Derby on loan. He should be alongside Markovic and Lallana in providing competition in the squad.

Once Roberto Firmino has full match fitness, he will surely start alongside Benteke and Coutinho, while a proper midfield three is required from Rodgers, especially in away games.

Henderson and James Milner, who was okay against Bournemouth but contributed little, need to be let loose further forward with a defensive midfielder protecting the back four behind them.

Henderson in particular has been restricted so far by having to play in a position which stops the new Liverpool captain from playing his best football – providing assists out wide and through the middle, and hopefully popping up with more goals this season.

He cannot do this while also shielding the defence.
With Lucas Leiva’s departure imminent and Joe Allen injured and merely a squad player anyway, Emre Can is the only option to fill the defensive role.

The young German came on to great effect against Stoke, and has the passing, strength, tacking and mobility to succeed as a defensive midfielder, but perhaps he should provide competition for this role instead.

He is only 21 and, like Ibe, should not be burdened with too much responsibility early on this season. Plus, Can is arguably better as a box-to-box midfielder, and should instead be vying with Henderson and Milner in an advanced midfield position.

Therefore, with Allen and Can covering the two English midfielders, one final signing in that area is required. Real Madrid’s Asier Illarramendi and Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Motta continue to be linked to the club, but any new arrival is unlikely to start next Monday.

Consequently, Can and Firmino should replace Lallana and Ibe in the starting line-up against Arsenal, but, most importantly, Liverpool’s performance and creativity has to improve.

If not, Liverpool will struggle at the Emirates, and those six points out of six could easily become six out of the nine – the record from Liverpool’s opening three games of last season instead of the maximum yield of 2013/14.

A brilliant start is crucial to a brilliant season, and Liverpool will go to London with plenty to work on, but from a faultless foundation nonetheless.