Well, if we didn’t already know, we learned that the most recent performances aren’t indicative of title-winning form.
Thankfully, form over two games doesn’t dictate where the title ends up; Liverpool have beaten Manchester United and Chelsea, and those results are easily as meaningful as the current malaise. But if the failure against weaker sides expands yet further, then the balance may shift.
The failure to beat West Ham was hugely frustrating, as the Reds bossed possession but lacked a cutting edge and, on the few occasions they broke through, a killer instinct. It wasn’t a bad display, just one lacking that little something extra: the kind of thing that Gerrard or Torres often bring, if fit and on form.
It also seems like this team needs adversity to lose its inhibitions: the big opposition has brought the best out of them, as has going behind in games, while last season the best displays were once they looked out of the Champions League (but pulled it around in remarkable style), and when, in the second half of the season, the league was far enough beyond them so that the pressure didn’t mount.
I don’t think that the mindset is negative, more that it’s a case of dealing with the pressure and expectations.
It’s my one big doubt: that leading from the front in a competition is not yet in this team’s DNA. I’ve said it a few times in recent years, but all ‘new’ teams who win the title tend to have a close call the season before, where they get a taste for the sharp end, but ultimately, and perhaps understandably, bottle it. Maybe that’s what we’re now seeing: an acclimatisation process in dealing with being a title contender.
Another two points dropped is a big blow, and all dropped points can contribute to a failure come May, but topping the league at this stage and being in the knockout stages of the Champions League hardly constitutes a crisis, does it?
The problem is that the team isn’t playing well enough at present, and are obviously in something of a slump in form – particularly at home, which has to be arrested soon. The upside is that such crashes usually leave the Reds adrift of 4th place; this time, it’s a point clear of Chelsea at the top. I get accused of dwelling on the positives, but that’s not a bad one, is it?
It was a game where, unusually for me, I couldn’t necessarily see where Benítez was coming from at all times. I don’t always agree with what he does, because that’s football, but I can usually see his logic and defer to the fact that he knows far more than me; often there is more than one way to skin a cat, as the charming expression goes.
That doesn’t mean he was wrong to make the decisions he did, because if Steven Gerrard had not had a stinker in the final third of the pitch, the manager’s decisions could easily have been cast in a different light. Gerrard got into some great positions, but his shooting against West Ham was in sharp contrast to Cardiff two years ago. He won’t need telling about how much better he could do, as he produces infinitely more in and around the box most weeks.
Equally, if Sami Hyypia had been a fraction more accurate on several occasions, as Liverpool looked unusually dangerous from set-pieces (on a consistent basis) the game could easily have been won, as it could from shots by Benayoun and Kuyt that produced top-class saves, particularly the former’s first-time drive. By the same token, West Ham had a couple of bright moments on the break, so it wasn’t without worries.
But I have to admit that I don’t understand why David Ngog came on before Ryan Babel –– although the latter gave the ball away far too much when he did eventually take to the field. Despite his tentative display, on a couple of occasions he showed a level of quality that Ngog just isn’t at yet.
Ngog may prove a great signing in time, but at present he looks lost. He has the pace, but not the awareness (yet), nor the toughness (yet) to handle the role. Of course, experience is necessary in order to reach those levels. And he was certainly no worse than Robbie Keane.
Keane may continue to shake his head at every withdrawal, but he simply has to play better. Against West Brom he was taken off to ‘protect’ him after scoring twice and winning the game; then, a week later, he produces an inexplicable flick at Bolton with the ‘wrong’ foot and misses from four yards. It was like his ostentatious effort in Madrid when he completely missed the ball –– concentrate on hitting the back of the net, and save anything else for when the game is beyond doubt.
I do worry at times that Rafa’s unsentimental treatment of his strikers causes their form to dip due to confidence issues. But equally, you could argue that they need to be stronger in their characters to thrive. Torres suffered the same problem for Spain over the summer, in being hauled off early every time, but his response in the final was emphatic and Luis Aragones’ decisions were justified.
Keane is starting enough games to have few complaints. He plays almost every fixture, and gets 70 minutes, not 20. While all strikers like the chance to punish tiring defenders, he shouldn’t start feeling sorry for himself. I do have some sympathy, but it’s hardly like he’s been frozen out. He’s at a massive club now, as he well knows, and he has to accept that the manager will change things if it isn’t happening. I don’t mind him looking disappointed, but he needs to cut out the ‘why me?’ routine.
I’m also starting to wonder how Babel fits in. I’ve been feeling that he’ll feature more as the season progresses, but with Torres injured it was a chance to get some much-needed pace into the side. The midfield was full of canny, crafty passers, and the front two were both capable goalscorers, so it was in no way a negative selection from Rafa.
But the lack of pace over recent years, prior to the arrival of Torres, has stunted Liverpool at times, and it looked the same again. Unlike Gonzalez and Bellamy, Babel looks like he has what it takes to be a top Liverpool player.
Perhaps Babel’s decision to go to the Olympics angered Benítez, but I can’t see him making decisions that will be counter productive. And in fairness to the manager, Babel hasn’t been missed too often this season; but tonight looked like it was crying out for his injection of pace.
Another problem is that Albert Riera has lost his confidence. We’ve seen he’s a very good player, but now it’s about consistency and the weekly grind of English football. He’s gone off the boil, but the talent is there, and he does give the team a good shape, even if he’s not playing well.
Behind him, Andrea Dossena showed that he can be an effective attacking full-back, with a wickedly whipped-in cross, while his goal-saving block against Marseilles and another interception tonight showed that he does have some good defensive instincts, as you’d expect from an Italian international defender. The key now is to build some confidence after a promising display, and cut out the silly mistakes.
I’m sure everyone at the club knows that they will not win the league playing like this. That is blatantly obvious. But I think we’ve seen enough this season to know that the team can play far, far better.
Consecutive 0-0 draws against mid-table teams, however, provide a sobering reality check.
Right now, the true picture for me is that Liverpool have clearly done enough to deserve the very creditable 34 points that see them top the table (and that rival teams can’t complain about having fewer points), but that such giddy heights may well be short lived if a little extra zip and sharpness isn’t found soon.
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