Liverpool FC 2015/16, match 1: Stoke City - Liverpool 0:1
The Starting XI and the Formation
The 2015/16 season kicked off for Liverpool on Sunday, August 9th, at the Britannia Stadium at Stoke. The ground has always been a difficult experience for any Premier League team, and at the particular moment in time, perhaps none more so than Liverpool, due to the humiliation of their last visit to the home of Stoke City FC, only few months earlier. The Reds were hoping to banish the memory of what seems like one of the worst 90 minutes in the club's long history.
With the new players they have obtained during the summer, the squad is definitely looking more solid than it was at the end of last season, and the Anfield faithful are probably right in hoping and believing that a better season is coming. The manager Brendan Rodgers opted for four new players to start this game, and the line-up looked like this: Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet; defense: Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Škrtel, Dejan Lovren, Joe Gomez; midfield: Jordan Henderson (C), James Milner, Adam Lallana, Phillipe Coutinho, Jordon Ibe; attack: Christian Benteke.
For the start of the game, Rodgers set his players up in a way that seemed like a cross between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1, with Milner being the player that floated between the position next to deep-lying Henderson and the attacking midfield line consisting of Lallana, Coutinho and Ibe.
This setup was employed for just over an hour, and it brought nothing in terms of energy and creativity going forward, but the stability of the defense was visible, bar one shaky moment from Martin Škrtel, and it was complemented by a very confident display of Simon Mignolet between the posts. After 63 minutes, Emre Can replaced a very uninspired Adam Lallana, and the team took a much more productive 4-3-3 shape, or perhaps more of a 4-3-2-1, where the attacking midfielders moved rather inwards than out to the side-lines.
The First Half - 45 Minutes of Stalemate
The first 45 minutes of the game turned out to be pretty uneventful, with both sides pretty safe in defense and little or no flair in attack. Responsible play from both sets of defenders saw attacking players shut down timely and properly on every occasion. The most notable moment in this period came in the 36th minute, when former Liverpool right-back Glen Johnson suddenly found himself in a position to score, after a shot from Ibrahim Afellay got blocked, but he balooned it nervously over the bar. He almost seemed scared of the prospect of scoring on his debut, and against his former club on top of that.
After the Break - Some Good Signs
The second half started with some more of the same from both teams. It wasn't until the 63rd minute Liverpool substitution of Adam Lallana with Emre Can that things on the pitch began to change and get interesting. The Reds (wearing black on this occassion) switched to 4-3-3 and were slowly getting more control of the ball and the game. The presence of Can allowed Henderson and Milner to move forward more frequently, and their appearance in the attacking third was starting to upset Stoke's defensive concept. Coutinho was getting more freedom and making more influence by the minute, while Benteke was a handful for the central defenders of the home team, although they mostly managed to contain him.
The 83rd minute of the match saw the introduction of Roberto Firmino, the new Brazilian in Liverpool's attacking section, and the line-up on the pitch took the shape that looks like the strongest one available at the moment. Jordon Ibe was the man that made way, having put in a lively but not quite efficient display. Now, everything was set for Coutinho, Liverpool's "little magician", to produce a piece of magic. With 4 minutes of regular time to go, he received a pass from young Joe Gomez straight to his feet, about 30-35 yards out. He rounded his marker with ease, made a few steps forward, setting the ball onto his right foot, and blasted it into the far top corner. The goal is certainly an early goal-of-the-season contender, and it eventually provided the much needed win at the start of the season.
All in all it was a good result in a hard away fixture. Liverpool got 3 points where not many others will, having exorcised the demons of the previous outing at the Britannia, and took advantage of Chelsea and Arsenal having a disappointing start. All the players performed relatively well individually, and the 4-3-3 employed in the last half hour proved to be the way to go for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, at least until the return of Daniel Sturridge, who has begun training after his hip surgery in May this year. It seems that Liverpool, after a very unsuccessful 2014/15, finally have a squad of both quality and depth.