By Oliver Platt
Drawing conclusions from pre-season friendlies, especially those in which many first team regulars do not appear, is almost always unwise but perhaps we did not need to see Liverpool draw 1-1 with Toronto FC to identify one particular flaw in Brendan Rodgers' Anfield blueprint.
It was apparent, nevertheless, as the Reds kicked off the Northern Irishman's reign at the Rogers Centre. In Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Jose Enrique, Liverpool boast a defence arguably as good as any in the Premier League. They will hope the returns of Lucas Leiva, from injury, and Alberto Aquilani, from his loan with AC Milan, will bolster the midfield.
In attack, though, Rodgers has plenty of thinking to do and more than one problem to solve. For all the speculation regarding Andy Carroll's future on Merseyside, it might be the players that Liverpool don't have that are of more concern to the manager than those they do.
Aquilani and Charlie Adam both delivered first half performances against Toronto that suggested they might be able to fill the role of midfield recycler, offering themselves for passes before quickly moving the ball on or sweeping it out into the wide players.
The problem lay more in the players they had to aim at. Xavi and Andres Iniesta are dependent on David Villa and Lionel Messi and vice versa; closer to home, so are Leon Britton and Joe Allen to Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer. Talking of 'patient' possession play implies that those keeping the ball are waiting for some sort of opportunity, and therein lies the problem for Liverpool.
On the day, Dani Pacheco and Jordon Ibe began the match in the wide positions, with Joe Cole and Raheem Sterling replacing them at half-time. The three youngsters all looked bright and promising in spells; Sterling's dynamic play provided Liverpool's equalising goal while Ibe, a 16-year-old, displayed impressive technique that allowed him to compete despite his teenager's frame.
The future may be bright on the flanks but the current picture does not look so rosy. Luis Suarez is the only player who, with his pace, movement and skill, seems to naturally fit the mould of a wing forward providing the kind of penetration that could be Liverpool's problem. It is a role he is familiar with, having filled it so succesfully for Uruguay.
Otherwise, options in the position are sorely lacking. Cole's comeback featured his usual array of neat touches and through ball attempts but he is another supplier, not a finisher. The pace to take on a man, or get behind him in the first place, is simply not there. On one occasion, he attempted to force himself past a full-back only to lose his balance and send a wild cross high over the goal.
The same might be expected of Stewart Downing, who runs willingly and can pass and cross but does not possess, by a winger's standards, much in the way of pure speed or acceleration. Craig Bellamy, although now 33, might fit the bill, but his future at the club beyond the current transfer window appears in doubt.
It leaves Liverpool bereft of options and facing a scenario that might be compared to Stoke City lining up with a selection of strikers under 6' 0" in height. The situation is worsened by the failure to secure the signing of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who, by different means, provided more of the ammunition which Sinclair and Dyer thrived on at Swansea City.
What are the solutions? One, of course, is to buy new players, but practically demolishing and rebuilding the club's forward corps at the end of July - although completing a deal for Clint Dempsey would provide a welcome boost - does not seem a likely path for Rodgers to take. His adaptability, therefore, will be tested.
One remedy could be to completely unshackle the Reds' excellent full-backs, Johnson and Enrique. The former, in particular, possesses the explosiveness and timing needed to run into the space that Cole and Downing are capable of creating with more subtle, intelligent movements. Enrique, too, demonstrated his technical ability and willingness to support his winger regularly against Toronto.
The drawback would be the restrictions it might place on the attacking thrust that the likes of Lucas and Steven Gerrard might otherwise provide, as the central midfield players would be required to be aware of their full-backs' permission to compromise their defensive responsibilities.
Rodgers may have worked under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea but his teams appear to be modelled more on the Portuguese's former nemesis at Barcelona. Pep Guardiola will go down as one of the coaching greats not for the first system he devised, but for his ability to constantly re-design it based on context, opposition and the players at his disposal. Now Liverpool's new visionary must prove he can do the same.
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