Three things: Stoke vs. Liverpool

Posted by Richard Jolly

Clive Mason/Getty ImagesLuis Suarez celebrates scoring in Liverpool's 5-3 win over Stoke.

STOKE, England -- Here are three observations from Liverpool's 5-3 win away at Stoke City.

1. A Sterling effort

It is only a couple of months since Brendan Rodgers was wondering whether Raheem Sterling ought to be loaned out in January.

There are ways of measuring his progress since then, such as the fact a player with one league start -- and that was as a wing-back -- before December has 10 now and the way he more than doubled his total of topflight goals in the space of four games. Most significantly, however, is the change in his status.

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Rather than being superfluous to requirements as a squad player, he has a strong case to stay in the team even when Daniel Sturridge, who made a goal-scoring comeback as a substitute at Stoke, is fully fit. Quite who makes way is another matter; the SAS -- Sturridge and Luis Suarez -- showed their potency as a partnership again during the Englishman's cameo.

Yet this 5-3 win owed much to Sterling. Others got the goals, but he brought impetus, inspiration and intelligence.

His chipped pass set up Aly Cissokho for the sixth-minute shot that went in via Ryan Shawcross. His burst in the box, when he was upended by Marc Wilson, led to Steven Gerrard's spot kick for the third. He was the provider when Philippe Coutinho almost scored and combined with Suarez when Sturridge finally sealed victory.

Sterling's speed and skill have been apparent since his emergence, but his decision-making has improved. Perhaps it is Rodgers' coaching, perhaps the credit belongs with the teenager, but he has taken strides forward. Now, with Sturridge back, Liverpool have enviable attacking options.

2. Liverpool's defensive difficulties

Even as Liverpool recorded a first away win at Stoke in the league since 1984 and scored five goals on their travels for the second time in a month, other statistics should be worrying. They have leaked at least two goals in 25 of their 59 league games under Rodgers. They have managed a clean sheet only three times in the last 16. While they returned to the top four, even the remarkable Suarez might not be prolific enough to compensate for Liverpool's capacity to concede over the course of the campaign.

This was another illustration of their difficulties. Rodgers' mix-and-match central-defensive partnerships have been a theme of the season. With Daniel Agger, the classiest of the quartet, and Mamadou Sakho, the costliest, both sidelined, Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel were teamed for the first time since they floundered together at Hull. This was little happier. The ever-willing Toure lost Peter Crouch for Stoke's first goal. Skrtel, who saved his Liverpool career against Manchester United in September, has regressed since then and looks ever more fallible.

Sooner or later, his habit of tugging opponents in the box will result in a penalty being awarded. In the meantime, he struggles at his primary task. Unlike Agger, he is not hired to be a footballing defender. The Slovakian is supposed to be a dominant centre-half. An away game at Stoke, where age-old strengths of direct football have not been abandoned in Mark Hughes' attempts to introduce a more refined style of play, requires a resolute old-style stopper who will head, tackle and block anything. Skrtel, who failed at the Britannia Stadium last season, did little better 13 months on.

Not that the blame can be pinned on two men. On the right, Glen Johnson was not at his most secure, and there is a reason why Cissokho was swiftly relegated to the role of third-choice left back behind injured Jose Enrique and Jon Flanagan. Charlie Adam made a beeline for the Frenchman, trying to get past him. While he became the second Anfield alumnus to score, Rodgers' buccaneers ensured it mattered not that they lost a lead. It may be costly in the future, though.

3. A strange swap

Rodgers is no stranger to left-field ideas or innovative tactics. There was the time that, to use his phrase, he deployed Sterling as a "seven and a half." He has been known, in his words, to "flip the triangle" in midfield.

Here he swapped two players over. When the team lineup emerged, the logical assumption was that Lucas Leiva would anchor the midfield and Steven Gerrard would be granted a licence to advance. Instead, the Englishman was deployed as the anchorman with the Brazilian operating further forward. While Lucas was an attacking midfielder in Brazil before his 2007 move to Anfield, those days seemed long gone.

It was a switch that had mixed returns. Using Gerrard's aerial strength in front of the centre-backs made sense, and he was afforded the freedom to deliver the raking long passes he has long favoured. Yet Lucas' voyage of discovery into the final third was less productive. He was spotted near the corner flag, which is a rarity, and his effort could not be faulted, but he looked ill-suited to the more offensive remit.

Like many an analytical manager, Rodgers has a tendency to overthink things. Perhaps he should have simply put his players in the logical positions.

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