PARTNERSHIPS is a word I have heard a lot on our shows in the last week or two, to the extent that I realised it has somewhat slipped out of vogue.
This week on part 1 of the 85-86 version of What We Call History, Mike Nevin spoke as eloquently as ever on the strength of the Everton team at that time, waxing lyrical about the quality of individuals, but also the partnerships they had all over the pitch — Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens.
Earlier in the week, I heard former Liverpool player Paul Walsh do an interview on City Talk 105.9 when he talked about feeling the pressure, not only of matching up to Kenny Dalglish’s abilities on the football pitch, but attempting to replicate his devastating partnership with Ian Rush, a pairing once voted by Match of the Day viewers as the best striking twosome since the Second World War.
Rush and Dalglish scored 50 goals between them in 1982-3 and were almost the definitive Liverpool FC partnership, so much so that it’s hard to think of one without the other. But they are not the only classic partnership in the club’s history: Toshack and Keegan, Hansen and Lawrenson, Hyypia and Henchoz, Hunt and St John. The list is plentiful, and not exclusive to Liverpool, of course.
So why are pairings not spoken of as much any more? In what is now much more of a squad game at the top level, have partnerships gone? Are football clubs missing a trick not utilising the understanding that can be gained from two players who know each other inside out becoming greater than the sum of their parts?
One of the things that seems to have damaged the partnership has been the changes in fashionable formations. Two up front allowed for genuine formations to thrive. Players were picked to complement each other. The English league has seen plenty. Niall Quinn and particularly Kevin Phillips had fairly run of the mill careers until they became almost unplayable for Sunderland as a pair.
Peter Beardsley seemingly thrived with anyone you put him with, particularly with Andy Cole at Newcastle and Gary Lineker for England (although he did pretty well with a few lads at Liverpool, too). What would happen to these players now? Beardsley shoved out wide and Cole and Lineker told to bulk up? The solo front man who is expected to have all aspects to his game has seemingly killed the poacher and provider.
One up front has had a knock on effect in other areas, too. Wingers are out, wide forwards are in. Wide forwards are less expected to build partnerships with full backs, and more expected to support the striker. The sight of two players in tandem doubling up on a full back seem to be long gone. Wide forwards are more likely to be found cutting inside or getting in the box. How often do we hear that full back are expected to ‘provide the width’? Some nice partnerships down the flanks remain, more so at top teams who can allow full backs to bomb on, but the days of a Gary Neville and David Beckham partnership, for example, seem to be gone.
Central midfield has changed in my lifetime, too. Not only do teams feel like they have to play three in there, but roles are much more defined. While previously great partnerships, Whelan and McMahon, Souness and McDermott, were formed out of players who could do a bit of everything, now no-one speaks of central midfielders.
Instead, it’s defensive midfielders, or the ‘Makelele role’, attacking midfielders or ‘players in the hole’, and someone in the middle (the enabler?) who is meant to sort out everything in-between. Midfielders whose skills are expected to complement each other in theory, rather than partnerships that grow out of an understanding on the pitch.
Even at centre half, surely the last bastion of the partnership, things are more unpredictable. Who can say with certainty what the centre-half partnership will be in a month’s time at Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea? None of them have that position locked down, and in some cases don’t seem to have a strong desire for it to be the case. Get in three or four and pick on merit like everywhere else. It is even possible that one-on-one defending has replaced the art of the unit.
There are negatives to partnerships, of course. If one player gets injured, where does that leave you? Surely it is better to have clearly defined roles in the team that players in the squad can step in and out of? Perhaps. Although maybe we are missing a trick following the accepted formula on how a team needs to play in 2015, and not including a few nods to the past. There’s a chance that Liverpool might already be thinking that way regardless, certainly when you look at pre-season and the first four games.
Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez were so prolific in 2013-14, not just because they are so talented, but because defences had seemingly forgot how to play against a front two. As Gerrard said, who fancies going two on two with those two? They were never really a partnership though, more two brilliant players, almost like two lone forwards who were thrown together. Perhaps Sturridge and Benteke can be more of a forward duo with a complementary set of skills that defences struggle to contain?
There are signs that Brendan wants to go ‘old school’ in midfield too. While we may only rarely see a midfield two, he does seem to prefer players who can do a bit of everything: tackle, battle, pass and score. Henderson and Milner already look a partnership, and one which the manager gave every chance to grow in pre-season, albeit not yet in a completely defined way.
Was he thinking partnerships when he bought Roberto Firmino? A player who was not only available and good, but had linked up well with Philippe Coutinho for Brazil. Was he thinking partnerships when he started Lovren over Sakho? Preferring the defender to partner Skrtel who was much more likely to be available for selection throughout the season?
Liverpool need to find a way to compete with clubs with greater resources to challenge for the title. They need to find a way to beat teams who are better on paper but not on the pitch.
Are partnerships the way forward? A way to better sides with higher-profile stars but perhaps less understanding in their play?
Brendan Rodgers is partial to a formation change. Most seem to expect a return to the midfield diamond when Sturridge is fit, but might we see something else? A Carlos Alberto Parreira-style ‘magic square’ (above) perhaps?
The 4-2-2-2 set up would not only allow us to get most of our best players on the pitch, but would form partnerships all over the pitch. Could Liverpool try it? Who knows.
Rodgers’ next step has often been a surprising one and perhaps a model based on pairings is the answer he has been searching for in those late-night kitchen brainstorms.
Pics: PA Images, David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo