It’s now a much harder question to answer than it would have been in the past as for a change we actually have numerous different quality options to step in.
My natural instinct would be to bring in a Lallana or Markovic for extra creativity and have them breaking from midfield along with Sterling to support Balotelli. However due to the great success we had last season with the diamond and the recent excellent (attacking) performance against Spurs I would go like for like and bring in a striker to retain this formation.
In terms of what striker to pick I believe that either Lambert or Borini could do a good job for us in a central two. Borini’s movement and work-rate would help our midfielders by giving them great passing options and assisting the team to press high up the pitch whilst Lambert’s ability as a target man would allow Balotelli to play off him.
I believe that Lambert is the better player though and is already established currently as third choice striker so as a result I would give him the first opportunity to show what he can do.
I think that Lambert's biggest weakness is his lack of pace whilst his biggest strength is his passing and particularly his ability to thread through balls for players to run on to and as such I think this formation and the players involved will help to mask his weaknesses and play to his strengths. His lack of pace won’t be such an issue as he will be surrounded by fast players who will all be looking to make runs beyond him. These runners will then provide numerous options for him to attempt the through balls he is so good at.
Alongside this the pace of these players will almost certainly ensure that Villa defend deep – if not as Stevie would say “all the best” – and this will then provide Lambert with greater opportunities to use his aerial ability in the box. The twin aerial threat of Lambert and Balotelli in the box will be very difficult to cope with for Villa in general play and also from freekicks if our delivery is good.
That Lambert will provide that twin threat of aerial prowess combined with the ability to thread killer balls through for our fast players makes him for me the best option to call upon at this time. Moreover hopefully we can for a change get some benefit from England International duty as Lambert’s confidence should have been boosted after providing an important assist against Switzerland.
My name's Ben and I've a disturbing confession to make.
Since confirmation arrived that Daniel would yet again return maimed from the Three Lions' den, I've been haunted by a terrible image I saw this summer of budgie smuggler swaddled Fabio Borini in my mind's eye; like an alabaster-skinned foreign exchange student aping male fragrance ads on the beach. Waiting for the dog to have a slash, after she's reversed up a tree stump like one of the BMX Bandits? Borini. Wan face illuminated in the dead of night by a rapidly emptying fridge? Borini. Stuck behind one of those chumps who think the 30 MPH speed limit is something you build up to piecemeal over a lifetime...well, you get the picture.
Having no great interest in metrosexual trends, I've hopefully identified the reason for this troubling fixation as a preoccupation with how we replace Sturridge, and crucially his goals, during any games he may miss.
Now football has many well-worn tropes all of its very own, and they have an uncanny knack of providing clues as to what will happen next. Those supposedly surprising plot-reveals commentators widely feign amazement at, expecting the rest of us to suspend disbelief while they pretend we didn't all know what was coming.
Among their number can surely now be added the scene where, after a club have been desperately trying to cajole their reluctant player towards the exit door in a fashion not dissimilar to coaxing a cat into its travel basket, and following the move's collapse, he scores the very next time he's involved. Which would be almost immediately of course, after the main man ahead of him in the pecking order gets injured in the care of something which itself likes pecking at small mammals.
To now work backwards a bit, and as far as team shape goes for Villa, its more of the same for my money. We're a far greater threat with two strikers interchanging, while the diamond formation suits our midfield options, which now extend to a depth allowing for change of personnel or formation dependant on how the match progresses, without compromising quality.
Spurs was comfortably our most all-round performance and the best demonstration of us controlling a game during the early infancy of this season to date, the central defenders and Stevie have an extra man in the middle pressing ahead of them (and boy do they need it, at the very least while a hopefully settled back five gradually gel with one another), so why immediately switch formation again when the signs were promising?
Though the European games which happily start next Tuesday give him a more complicated equation to work out this season, Rodgers has until now picked on merit, and from a starting eleven perspective there's no-one else from our last league game who should expect to miss the next one, unless also injured on international duty. Statistically speaking, in the time its taken to write this another one probably has gone down carrying a washing machine on their back during England training, but what can you do? Life is after all ephemeral, as Roy would no doubt attest, citing one of his many favourite heavyweight books. Full of threadbare excuses.
Going back to the start, and with all else in place, who would I pick to replace Sturridge? As surely made obvious earlier, I'd select Our Ricky. Like I said, football's full of well-worn tropes, and this prodigal son back at his local club is well overdue a triumphant coming home moment on the pitch. I must admit, I was going to plump for Fabio Magnifico to partner Mario Fantastico; it just seems written.
Then it occurred to me earlier that Balotelli potentially isn't up to playing a full match yet, and Lambert has had much more of a preseason than the other man hoping to partner him. No point risking both of our front two running out of steam on 60 minutes if we don't have to, and in fairness Lambert's 3rd in the queue on merit. But keep Borini on the bench, for real. He's fated to score a significant goal in the coming run of games; you can take that to the bank. I mean, he has to. What if I'm stuck like this forever?
* Sprays plucked chest with Jean Paul Gaultier parfum and runs into 12 degree gloom, shoe-horned into a male thong *
One of the hugely pleasing aspects of dealing with this question is now the number of options laid out before you to choose from when making a selection, and the amount of personnel changes that can be envisaged to alter the course of the game, if so required.
When looking at this one do you decide on a shape and then pick your players or do you try to crowbar the players you want into a shape that suits? It is almost always a mix of both but the deciding factor can often be the opposition that you’re looking to sweep aside.
Villa will come to Anfield having taken some confidence from a solid, yet unspectacular, start to the season. They’ll almost certainly stick with a relatively deep back four of Hutton, Vlaar, Senderos and Cissokho and have a narrow three in midfield not far in front of them. Two things immediately leap out at me in that scenario: lots of tricky interplay around them is something they could struggle with and Hutton looks ripe for a long day if someone with pace were to target him.
I’d recommend not being robbed of the ball by Moreno on the half-way line Alan; that foot-race will end very badly for you - just ask Andros Townsend. As tempting as it might be to have Sterling at the furthest point of the diamond again, involved with everything, it would be interesting to see him playing further forward alongside Mario Balotelli.
The main reason for that change would be that it could be a good game for Coutinho to be given an opportunity to get into his rhythm in the league. A diamond where he has Henderson, Allen and Gerrard behind him allows for good continuity from the previous match with plenty of width being offered from the full-backs. There’s an option to go with a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 but these would probably mean that alongside Sterling going wider one of Markovic or Lallana would be looking to start too; with Balotelli still fitting in that could have the potential to be a bit disjointed.
Liverpool could well blow away Villa early on in the match but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the game is still to be won going into the last half an hour. With the opportunity to bring on the above options of Lallana and Markovic (both fitness permitting) and also to introduce Lambert against a tiring, deep defence Rodgers’ men shouldn’t be panicking if this one takes a bit longer than usual to be boxed off.
The replacement of Coutinho, with his assortment of slips, dips and jinks, should hopefully mean that it isn’t just Agbonlahor that spends the whole game with that perplexed look of a man drifting around Anfield trying to figure out if that smell is gas, wondering if it’s because he left the gas on, then confusing himself further by just how much that doesn’t make any sense – with any luck the Villa defence will be pulling similarly befuddled faces throughout the match.