The big Slovakian has been the mainstay of every Liverpool defence under Brendan Rodgers, seldom finding himself out of the team for any great length of time. Skrtel has a very specific skill set. He is very good at certain aspects of defending, and absolutely abject at others. Those of you with decent memories will remember Rafa Benitez' ill-fated experiment with playing Skrtel as a right back against Sunderland a few years back. He was terrible. It's fair to say he is terrible whenever he finds himself being pulled into a fullback position from centre back too. Take him out of the centre and his positional sense abandons him, along with his confidence. His response when an opposition attacker is able to isolate him and dribble at him with pace is to back off so quickly and to such an extent that he drags the whole team deeper, and puts needless pressure on his goalkeeper. Brendan Rodgers' commitment to having both his fullbacks joining in with attacks has often left Skrtel in this position on the counter attack. This discomfort at 1v1 defending has always made Skrtel seem very unsuited to being a Brendan Rodgers centre back. For this reason I was surprised and disappointed when he was given a new contract in the summer.
However, during the three at the back spell last season, he was immense. Having a centre back either side of him meant he never got isolated 1v1. He was able to stay central except for sweeping up balls played in behind the other centre backs. Having two holding midfielders in front of him meant he rarely had to defend on the front foot. His propensity to back off became a strength rather than a liability when he was deployed as a sweeper. Furthermore, there was little onus on him to start attacks with incisive vertical passes: he was able to leave that to the more capable Can and Sakho.
Rodgers' ideal formation is clearly 4-3-3. His first blueprint for this season was to play this formation, and to mitigate Skrtel's (and Lovren's, who is also more comfortable in a low-lying, compact block) weaknesses by restricting his fullbacks' and central midfielders' attacking movements. This was more from the Mourinho or Pulis school of defending: ensuring the centre backs are rarely left isolated because if one full back gets forward the other stays back, and holding midfielders are constantly ensuring the centre backs don't have to step out of their defensive line. Unfortunately, this predictably detracted from the attacking side of our game. The three 1-0 wins at the start of the season were dull, lifeless affairs (a great 20 minutes at Arsenal aside) in which we rarely got enough players ahead of the ball or into the opposition penalty area.
The return to a back three for the Norwich game hopefully hints towards the manager acknowledging that he cannot maintain a good balance between attack and defence with Skrtel in a back four. If he is determined to play a back four in the long term then Skrtel cannot be part of it. A Gomez-Sakho partnership may well be the future of a Liverpool 4-3-3, but for now there are question marks about the youngster's readiness for such a prominent role. For now, keeping Skrtel in the team but playing to his strengths in a back three seems sensible.
I have found it quite bizarre just how many Liverpool fans seem to have written off the possibility of Sturridge playing a key role this season. Yes, he has had a year of injury problems, but the noises coming out of the club suggest that they are confident that his operation at the end of last season fixed the underlying problem. He is our best player when fully fit, bar none. We would have finished in the top four last season had it not been for his injury problems, and Rodgers would not be under nearly as much pressure now.
When Sturridge did play last season, it was as a lone striker (Tottenham away aside). He can certainly do a good job in this role, but I feel he is better with a partner. He does some excellent work dropping into the number 10 position, and drifting wide to isolate defenders. I believe it takes something away from his game to ask him to spend more time in the penalty area. The travails of Balotelli, Borini and Lambert meant there were no good options to partner him last season. That has now been rectified, and Benteke, Ings and Firmino could all prove brilliant foils for the prolific Brummie. Of course this has tactical implications too: Rodgers' preferred 4-3-3 is most likely to see Sturridge playing off a main striker in a wider position. The switch to a back three allows us to get our best player in his best position, playing to his strengths.
One of the strangest decisions the club made in the transfer market, given Rodgers' aforementioned blueprint for the season, was not investing in a more defensively sound left back. Moreno is great going forward, has infectious energy and enthusiasm, but has looked a liability at the back. He is precisely the kind of full back that Skrtel and Lovren must have nightmares about: he ensures that the centre backs will be pulled out of position. The decision to start the season with Gomez at left back was certainly designed to help the centre backs, but may have had the added benefit of giving young Alberto a kick up the backside. He looked incredibly motivated against Norwich, and created more chances than anybody. He is a natural wing-back, and will no doubt be praying for the retention of the 3-5-2. If the manager reverts to a back four, he will have to choose between Moreno's defensive deficiencies, and Gomez's inability to go forward on the outside. Neither is the kind of option you expect a top-four club to have. Moreno as a wing back, if the Norwich performance is anything to go by, can be just that.
Surely no-one can doubt Can's potential. In a few years he will be a genuinely world-class player. Brendan Rodgers took a lot of stick last season for refusing to play Can in a central midfield role, but his performances there this season surely explain the thinking behind this. He has looked constantly positionally unsure both with and without the ball, not knowing when to press and when to hold his position, or when to make a forward run or when to drop off for a short pass to feet. Last season, like Skrtel, he was brilliant in the back three, before being exposed when deployed as a right back in a back four. His ability to carry the ball out of defence gives us an extra dimension, and he seems much more comfortable when he can see the whole game ahead of him. I remain of the opinion that this could be a long-term position for him, replicating the sort of job David Alaba does for Bayern Munich. Like Alaba, of course he has the tools to play in central midfield too. But for now let's continue to play him in the one role he has truly excelled in.
Last season was going completely tits-up before the switch to a back three. We suddenly started playing the high-tempo football that had characterised 2013/14, but with more defensive solidity. For 15 games, we were outstanding. Not just Brendan Rodgers post-match interview outstanding, but actually outstanding. The reversion to a back four after the defeat to United was baffling and took us backwards. While the recruitment of Nathaniel Clyne made a back four slightly more sensible this season, it still seemed the only way we could keep a clean sheet in this formation was by throwing numbers at the problem. Let's face it, a team in any formation has a good chance of a clean sheet if they sacrifice attacking intent and keep ten men behind the ball.
Clearly the change in formation will not solve all of our problems overnight. James Milner's form, Phillipe Coutinho's consistency, and Simon Mignolet's command of his area, for example, are equally issues which could define our season. But playing three at the back is the way to restore defensive solidity without sacrificing our attacking intent, and this could breed the confidence which solves other problems too. It's disappointing that it has taken this long for Rodgers to bring back the system which saved our season last year. If it can bring the best out of Skrtel, Sturridge, Moreno and Can, it may just save his job too.'