There’s no guarantee Liverpool will be playing with three in the midfield next season every match, but it’s one of the more popular formations for Brendan Rodgers, which has Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva chalked up as irreplaceable players in his lineup. The third spot? Either Jordan Henderson or Joe Allen.
If the question was asked three months ago, the answer would have easily been Henderson. A £16 million transfer from Sunderland, he looked like a huge flop after his first season, but Rodgers “saved” him last season after Allen began disappointing. Instead of wasting him away on the wing like Kenny Dalglish did, Henderson was used as almost a free role midfielder, used as a supporting striker on some matches, playing very close to Suarez and Sturridge.
Henderson isn’t Gerrard’s heir – he doesn’t have that natural talent, although he’s been adding pieces to his game constantly since arriving at Anfield. And yet there’s something special about Henderson, who physically is a very impressive midfielder, being very hard to stop when he goes for his runs behind defenses, especially effective against high lines, something Liverpool usually face on away matches. He scored five league goals last season, and while his passing ability has to look much better, there’s no doubt he’s a more complete player than he was when he arrived from the North East.
Allen arrived as the Welsh Xavi to Anfield, but was forced to play as a defensive midfielder for the first few months, with Lucas nursing another injury. Instead of being free to show off his passing skills and dribbling, Allen was busy trying to stop charging attacks, and his physical limitations stopped him from impressing early on. Even when Lucas returned and Allen was moved to a more natural position, he wasn’t his Swansea-self, partially due to an injury in the shoulder, and eventually fell out of the lineup, hardly to be seen again.
This preseason things have changed. Henderson didn’t have the best of tournaments with the England U-21 side in Israel, losing in all three matches. Allen seems to be the favorite choice by Rodgers once more (he didn’t push for his signature last season for nothing), and Henderson is once again in a position that he needs to fight back into the lineup.
However, with depth a much improved issue this season, there seems to be a lot more flexibility in the formations Rodgers can use. There is the 4-3-3, which will require that three-midfielder setup, but we’ll also see a 4-2-3-1 that worked quite well near the end of last season, or even something of a 4-3-1-2, with Coutinho playing behind two strikers, whoever they may be. In some lineups, we won’t be seeing both Henderson or Allen on the pitch.
But for Liverpool to evolve into the days of beyond Gerrard, Allen or Henderson need to be on the pitch, and a lot. Gerrard needs his days of rest, and against certain opponents Lucas can be benched with Allen taking over his role. It’s about the now, but the current guidelines are also about the future, constantly. In order to establish both of them successfully, Rodgers needs to make the right choice every match when he has to choose between the two young midfielders, who should do better than they did when they began at the club.