There is no doubt it has been a frustrating few weeks, to say the least. A couple of defeats to Hearts and Kilmarnock, and more worryingly in my opinion, a series of pathetic performances have littered our fixture list. Any potential title challenge we had within our grasp has been wrenched from it - perhaps irrevocably? As is right, the manager has been at the forefront of some robust criticism.
There have been some over-the-top, knee-jerk reactions (such as a daft 'Gerrard should go!' thread on our forum), but there are valid questions to be asked. The main criticism is his reluctance to use the bench. We are usually well past the hour mark before he makes his first change, even when it is clear the game is not going the way it should well.
Gerrard is almost damned if he does, damned if he doesn't here, though. We weren't complaining about constant changes to the first XI last season m(or at least before the New Year), and now we're complaining about him being too obstinate? It doesn't matter what he does, as long as the end result is the right one: for example there were a couple of glorious European performances that were based on not changing things.
Further, I'm not so sure we have the quality on the bench to change things. The only player I think that has been unlucky, with regards to minutes on the pitch, is Stewart. Stewart is not blessed with pace, but he is a clever, technical player capable of unlocking stubborn defences. He is also not shy to shoot from distance. He is a natural forward, than has that instinct to get into the box. Polster has not done anything wrong, but he is a replacement for Tavernier, so won't play often, and shouldn't; Docherty doesn't quite suit the system, and is now on loan; Jones has been injured; Ojo has been disappointing; and Edmundson has Goldson, Helander and Katic ahead of him, so he's not going to play much though I think he should return to the XI this weekend, depending on the manager's thoughts on the upcoming Braga game.
Add to that they are different types of players from the ideal first XI players. In the attacking positions, Gerrard wants players that can take the ball in tight situations, between the lines. Jones and Ojo are not able to do that. It is clear we need more attacking options off the bench, more suited to our system.
I'm also not so sure the criticism around our formation is valid either, or at least not entirely so. The 4-3-2-1 was working very well, and then since the break we've struggled to create chances and score goals. Gerrard is not even being obstinate here, for he has tried to change that with a recent shift to the 4-2-3-1, which adds another attacker to the mix. (I would question the make-up of the two sitting players: I don't think this role suits Arfield.) We are still struggling.
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For me, the problem is not personnel or system, but the lack of movement from the first XI.
If we look at the blueprint Gerrard is trying to emulate, or take inspiration from, Klopp's Liverpool, we can see several instances of this lack of movement. Mane and Salah are constantly running into the channel, in-behind; our guys are standing there waiting for the ball. Liverpool also have Robertson and Alexander-Arnold running on the overlap too, or coming into the channel to make space for the wingers out wide; our Full-backs are quite static, waiting for the ball - although Barisic is better than Tavernier in that respect. Even Henderson and Wijnaldum break forward; our Centre-midfielders seldom break forward.
If you watch Robertson, Mane and Wijnaldum, the left side of their team, they are constantly rotating position. Robertson will lay it off to Mane out wide, and drive into the channel, and Wijnaldum will drop off to take Robertson's LB slot. Sometimes Mane will cut inside, while Wijnaldum will drive out wide, or into the channel to create space. Sometimes Robertson is out wide, with Mane coming back to cover Left-back. There is constant rotation. As well as creating space and moving players about, their positioning keeps passing options open.
Our first XI is good, in my opinion, but we need to work on movement on and off the ball; rotations, making space for each other, third man runs, running in-behind to stretch the defenders, etc. I think it's an almost old-fashioned way of playing to say 'go out and express yourself' - it is too vague and you need to be a good player for that, and we don't quite have that calibre of player. Our players need to be given more detailed instructions, like a Guardiola or Bielsa: if X has the ball, Y moves here, Z moves there, etc. To make that next step, I don't think wholesale changes are needed.
Taking on Livingston on Saturday, we need to see better attacking movements. We could switch to a front two, which is an easy change to make, but, it means dropping Kent or Hagi for Kamberi, and going to a 4-4-2 (diamond)/4-1-2-1-2, with Hagi or Kent as a lone #10. The manager has attempted a 3-5-2 previously but quickly dispensed with it. However, if we continue with the same impotent attacking movements, nothing much will change.
I would revert to the 4-3-2-1 that has stood us in good stead for a while. It is a more defensively stable formation, and packs in most creativity. I think Kent has been off form, so I would replace him with Stewart to play in one of the #10 roles. He has a natural instinct to get into the box, which can benefit us.
I would also like to see Aribo play deeper, with a license to drive forward. He suits the deeper role: he is good at winning the ball back, has good close control, and can beat a man with his power and pace. Arfield has been grabbing goal of late though so may be preferred. (Kamara is better in a sitting role, because as with Jack and Davis, he can't really break the lines by beating a man.)
If we can fine-tune our system, I still believe we have the components of a good side. If we can show a little more courage, aggression and creativity in the final third we can get back on track. It is important to get back to winning ways, so any win will do: whether that is 1-0 or 5-4. If we can pump some confidence and energy back into our attacking players, we'll see a much improved side. Results will follow.
Possible Starting XI (4-3-2-1):
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