The loss of Sturridge could start Liverpool’s slide

December 3, 2013 in Premier League by George Curtis

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If Liverpool supporters felt their side’s beginning to the 2013-14 season was too good to be true, they might just have been on to something. After an opening 12 games which saw the Reds lose just twice and revealed the emergence of Daniel Sturridge as the country’s leading striker, Hull City brought Brendan Rodgers’ team back down to earth with a bang in a chastening 3-1 victory on Sunday, the first defeat of Liverpool in their history. That Daniel Sturridge’s injury coincided with Liverpool’s worst performance of the season was no accident. It may be a sign of things to come.

Hull v Liverpool

Liverpool’s ineptitude to form regular attacks was indefinitely down to Sturridge’s absence, with the eight-goal striker ruled out for up to eight weeks with damaged ankle ligaments. Luis Suárez was assigned the task of leading the line on his own, with Raheem Sterling, starting for just the second time this season, and Victor Moses expected to provide the support from out wide. Liverpool, though, were unable to force their way through a defiant Hull defence, still smarting from a lacklustre defeat to bottom-club Crystal Palace the previous weekend. It was clear, that without Sturridge, Suárez’s influence was nullified. He was unable to interact with anyone on a regular basis, with Sterling and Moses proving sluggish on either flank. Liverpool’s goal, courtesy of a Steven Gerrard free kick, was their fourth in a row from set-pieces. Not since Suárez’s 54th-minute strike against Fulham on November 9 have Liverpool scored from open-play.

Rodgers admitted after the game that he was at fault, not the players, for Liverpool’s poorest afternoon of the season. The Northern Irishman’s selection has come under scrutiny on a number of occasions already, especially for his reluctance to stick with a working formation. 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, and 4-3-3 have all been employed, with none striking a harmonic cord for the Reds’ boss. On Sunday, the decision to withhold Daniel Agger from the starting XI in favour of Kolo Touré, a supposed set-piece specialist, backfired. Hull pierced Liverpool’s defence on three occasions, none of which particularly incisive; Jake Livermore’s long-range opener took a sizable chunk of Martin Skrtel’s shinpad with it, David Meyler’s second the result of sloppy and indecisive defending on Touré’s part, and the third courtesy of Skrtel’s head after Tom Huddlestone appeared to slice his shot wide; Touré’s defensive solidarity proved anything but.

Daniel Sturridge 2

Nevertheless, Rodgers has seldom been keen on marshaling his defensive troops into a brigade of unbeatable soldiers. Liverpool, unlike other teams, put less emphasis on defence, preferring to cast their attention on attacking fluidity and goals. That is, ultimately, a result of Rodgers’ philosophy. Strangely, therefore, he failed to identify the need to provide talisman Suárez with any considerable support. Iago Aspas was on the bench after six weeks out injured, but failed to get on the pitch. One feels that, despite his obvious fallibility, Liverpool would have dealt with Sturridge’s loss with greater ease had Aspas been on the pitch. Suárez, at least, might have felt safe to roam with more freedom than he was allowed.

As a result of this performance, Aspas’ name is firmly in the hat for Wednesday’s home encounter with struggling Norwich City, who arrive at Anfield with two wins from their last three games. Sterling is likely to make way after failing to state his case against Hull, and Skrtel’s position in the centre of defence will surely come under question too. His display was far from assured in a season during which he has pressed a claim to be Liverpool’s best defender.

One feels, however, that Rodgers won’t bother too much with what’s happening in the defensive third, but focus entirely on how his players can regain their Midas touch in front of goal. Nullifying the loss of Sturridge has to be Rodgers’ priority in the coming months, particularly in the January transfer window. Liverpool can kiss goodbye to a top four finish if not.