Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Trouble with Liverpool

Sitting back occasionally isn’t always a negative approach

Several years ago, while in America, I came across boxing on the tv. It was a fight between a talented up and coming fighter and a journeyman. It was meant to be an easy task. The up and comer was on the attack from the off, but the experienced opponent had a great defence, and no adventure whatsoever. Round by round went by, all going along the same lines. Attack against defense, but with no joy. The up and comer wanted to look good, the journeyman just wanted to survive. Then late in the fight the up and comer did something which I had never seen before or since, he feigned injury, pretended the journeyman had caught him and stumbled a step or two back. The journeyman attacked for the first time. Three punches later the journeyman was out cold, face down on the canvass.

I came to remember this fight towards the end of last season, when Barcelona played Chelsea in the Champions League. Barcelona had one tactic… Attack. Chelsea prevailed though, with dogged defending and some luck. Barcelona had so little space to play in. I began to wonder, what if Barcelona, just for a portion of the game sat back for a while. Let Chelsea on to them, and counter themselves, would the result have been different?

I had the same thought while watching the first half an hour of Liverpool against Aston Villa. You couldn’t have found a more one-sided match at that point. Liverpool attacked, Villa defended. Then Villa countered, attacked the space left from Liverpool’s attacks and they were soon 2-0 up.

Liverpool looked so vulnerable to Villa’s forays up field. Lucas looked lost, Agger and Skrtel exposed. It is well documented that Liverpool lack numbers in attacking areas, highlighted at the weekend with 18 year old Raheem Sterling starting on the left, his 16th league start in a row, and 20 year old central midfielder Jonjo Shelvey starting on the left of the front 3. But what was really alarming was Liverpool’s defending, and the transition from attacking in numbers to losing the ball and defending lightly.

On paper, Liverpool’s first choice back 7 looks very strong. Reina; Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Enrique; Lucas, Allen. That’s a top 4 defensive block, so how did Villa, who aren’t exactly Barcelona, tear this lot apart (it wasn’t all down to Downing who started instead of Enrique)?

In the first half Liverpool committed lots of players forward, both fullbacks were high up the pitch for pretty much the whole half. Allen joined attacks on a regular basis. This left a recently returning Lucas, who has been out of the game for the best part of a year, Agger and Skrtel to hold the fort. Villa’s movement on the break, in particular Benteke, was excellent, finding the acres of space left. What needs to be asked of Brendan Rodgers is, why the urgency? Is this overloading of players in the attacking third over compensating for the lack of natural, experienced attacking players? Liverpool have been far from clinical all season. They let go 2 wide players who score goals in the summer (Maxi & Kuyt) and haven’t replaced them.

It is very commendable of Rodgers to try and attack, attack, attack, but Villa highlighted the problems of this. If it had been a Benitez’s Liverpool playing Villa, the full-backs, especially in the first half, would hardly have crossed the half way line. The defensive cover of 2 midfielders would generally have held their defensive positions. This does a number of things, it shows patience, a game can be won in the last minute as well as the first. It keeps the defense solid, and unexposed, and it could also frees up space, space which Suarez, Gerrard etc. would expose.

Maybe all will be solved with 2 or 3 big signings in the January window. Players who can create and score goals, to help Suarez and give Sterling a rest. These goals would then take away the pressure on the defense. If Liverpool had been clinical in that first 30 minutes, the game would have been won by half time, then the team can maybe sit back a bit, and not force it so much.

There is also the benefit of Lucas, who struggled at the weekend, getting better with the more matches he plays. A concern is the form of Joe Allen, the shirt has appeared heavy in recent weeks, and should have improved when moved into his best position, between Lucas and Gerrard. It would appear he needs a rest. Jordan Henderson has looked hungry in recent displays, and maybe deserves a run of games. Nuri Sahin, although he hasn’t set the world on fire, could also come in to freshen up what looked a tired midfield.

It’s not all darkness for Liverpool though, 4th place is still within their sights. No one has got a grip on 4th, Everton have won just 2 of their last 10 games, Tottenham and Arsenal have been ridiculously inconsistent. So January could be a massive month for all these sides. The one who gambles could gain all the riches. FSG have a lot to prove to the Liverpool fans after a problematic summer transfer window. They need to put up or shut up. The rumours of signing Tom Ince and Daniel Sturridge are a promising thought, but does this show a problem with the scouting system at the club. Surely there are cheap, talented options abroad. Jelavic and Cisse were bought by Everton and Newcastle last January and were very effective.

Rodgers cannot be judged yet though, he inherited a side which finished 8th last season, he had to cut the wage bill, and is trying to bring in new ideas. He should be backed in the transfer market; otherwise it could be a long hard drag to the end of the season.

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