Shelvey has impossible task of filling Suarez void
BRENDAN RODGERS knew this day would come. And I can guarantee Liverpool's manager wasn't looking forward to it one bit.
No Luis Suarez for tomorrow's game at West Ham. That creates quite a problem when you've got only one striker. All the more so when, in an attacking sense, Suarez has virtually carried the team on his own up until now.
Not this time, though. Suarez is suspended, forcing Rodgers into a change that won't be ideal. A bit of creative thinking is required to try and cover for the missing star.
The answer, it seems, is to put Jonjo Shelvey through the middle in the way that Rodgers did against BSC Young Boys in the Europa League.
Shelvey came off the bench to score a couple that night – a cameo performance that has earned him this chance. Yet playing from the start against a Premier League team is bound to be harder, so the makeshift forward must know what he's doing, or else the tactic could fall flat on its face.
To succeed, then, Shelvey might be told to drop off the front line when Liverpool get the ball in decent areas.
The idea here is, firstly, to give one of the centre-halves something to think about. Does Winston Reid, for instance, follow Shelvey in to stop the player from receiving the ball and turning? Or does Reid stand his ground to maintain the back four's shape?
In fairness, you could understand if Reid opted for the second option. The threat, after all, should be coming from the flanks in the form of Raheem Sterling darting inside.
And, even if Reid steps just a few yards forward in response to Shelvey's movement, a chink of daylight might open up to Joey O'Brien's right – daylight that, with Steven Gerrard about, the speedy Sterling could benefit from.
So, maybe this will be Liverpool's game plan – asking Shelvey, a former West Ham trainee, to perform the 'false No 9' role by getting him to drift into deeper areas in the hope he can create space for team-mates more capable of stretching defenders.
After all, asking a midfielder to play with his back to goal against a couple of tough nuts like James Collins and Reid would be unrealistic. To have an impact, Shelvey must play with his brain rather than brawn.
Rodgers has no doubts Shelvey is up to the job. "He can play in that role – he's an attack-minded player," he said.
"But we have other options. I saw an interesting stat that we have had 15 different goalscorers this season. The record for the club in a season is 18."
After tomorrow's match, Rodgers will personally oversee contract negotiations with Sterling now that the teenager is free to sign a long-term deal.
Premier League rules prevent players signing contracts for more than three seasons prior to their 18th birthdays and Sterling hits that landmark today.
Agreeing terms has proved less of a formality than both the club and his representatives had hoped, with Sterling's promotion to the senior ranks creating a gap in salary expectations. It is believed Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City are all monitoring developments.
"A lot of this is about common sense," said Rodgers. "I don't want the club or the kid being affected by over-the-odds demands. I think there's a value I see in a young player that hasn't achieved anything.
"All the figures that get bandied about for kids these days can destroy them. I'm in the business of trying to help nurture these kids and money distorts the reality. It's just one of these things that will get done.
"I'm confident that it will do. There's still 18 months left (on his current deal). He's a young kid and we just want to make sure that everything's right for him to be nurtured.
"Too often, contracts get handed out to a kid who's not done anything. They get a four-year deal on decent money and then clubs wonder why in two or three years it's gone wrong.
"It's gone wrong because you've taken away his hunger. It's about being sensible, and that's what we do.
"Ian Ayre does a brilliant job in pulling the contracts together. It's about using common sense rather than going over the top. There's no worry or concern on our part. It will be resolved. I've spoken to the agent – I know him so there's no problem. He's a real good kid. We just want to make sure it's right for him. It will get done sooner or later."
First, though, there is the task of overcoming West Ham without a striker.
The Hammers will understandably try to physically impose themselves on Liverpool, just like they did against Chelsea last week.
That involves quickly getting the ball wide to Matt Jarvis and Matty Taylor, who'll deliver early into the box. Waiting in the middle will be Carlton Cole, deputising for the injured Andy Carroll over the next couple of months. If he plays anything like he did against Chelsea, Cole will give Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger a tough test.
Adding to the muscle mix is Mohamed Diame, a beast of a midfielder who turned the game West Ham's way in the second half last week. What a free transfer the Senegal international has proved. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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