Sent to official Liverpool site, but put up here as well in the meantime.
A lot of what I write is based on the premise that there are always at least two ways to look at pretty much everything in football.
Very few things in the game are clear-cut. Pros and cons exist with almost everything, be it a system, formation, selection ideas and even players themselves.
During the mid-season slump I never lost faith in this team or its manager. Equally, during the good times, and after some sensational results, I’ve said that this is a team capable of winning the big trophies, but never got carried away, even after beating Aston Villa 5-0. Equanimity is crucial.
You can be positive or negative, but I just try to be balanced. I don’t go around like Frank Constanza in Seinfeld screaming “serenity now!” when I feel my blood pressure rising, but I do try and keep things in perspective, even if it can take a few minutes after a match to calm down, and a few more hours to perk up.
I admit to being surprised that the Reds have got themselves so fully back in the title hunt, but I also never swung to despair when the mid-winter wobbles hit.
So I’ll take the same attitude into this latest setback. Thankfully, I think virtually all Liverpool fans have seen how good this Liverpool side has become of late, and this defeat can be viewed in that context.
It’s fair to say that Chelsea fully deserved their 3-1 victory at Anfield last night. For the most part, Liverpool played well, and the first half was a truly titanic battle between two form sides trading body blows, but once Chelsea got their second goal the stuffing was somewhat knocked out of the Reds.
I’ve always defended zonal marking, because for the most part it works. It’s unhelpful that when it doesn’t, certain ex-pros offer all its faults, but never its strengths. Even when Liverpool go many months defending set-pieces to perfection, there’s never that other side of the argument.
The fact is, Liverpool defended two corners badly against Chelsea. Man-marking is often at fault for goals, but no-one picks up on it, because it’s the ‘normal’ system.
Ultimately, if you don’t do your job, whatever the system, it breaks down. And Chelsea are a very good team at attacking corners, while Liverpool aren’t the biggest side these days.
The game reminded me a bit of a role reversal from 2005. Back then Liverpool were not in the title race, or even close, but Chelsea, with a far more expensive side and bigger squad, had to juggle the two main competitions.
This time, Liverpool need top energy and intensity for every single game; there’s no time to take the foot off the gas, as United’s closest challengers. Chelsea, meanwhile, are more adrift in the league; this time, they can focus on Europe. Liverpool reversed Chelsea’s league double over them from 2005, only to lose when it came to the Champions League.
It’s the first defeat against a ‘big four’ club this season, but it came against a side rejuvenated by the inevitable boost of a new manager. Perhaps, given recent maulings handed out, the early goal made it seem a bit too easy for Liverpool; a false sense of security from pummelling other top sides. This time the opponents bounced back well.
Chelsea are a weird team this season; they almost had a mid-season break, drifting through winter, with some of their players apparently having given up, only to now get a big boost for the final stretch with another top manager and the return to fitness (and desire) of some key players. It seems a long time ago when Chelsea started the season in such stunning form.
But so well have Liverpool done this season, it’s easy to overlook that Chelsea’s 18-man squad last night cost £70m more than the Reds’, and that their starting XI cost £45m more. That’s the kind of gap in finances Benítez has closed has in the league; I don’t see any teams assembled for far less money than Liverpool even close to the Reds.
There’s no doubt that the draw favoured Chelsea, with the second leg at home (especially with last season fresh in both teams’ minds), but it also favoured Manchester United in terms of the league title; for some reason, Liverpool always seem to draw English opposition, which means not only an extra edge, but the extra intensity of Premiership-paced games, while United avoid them.
How this result affects Liverpool’s season is not easy to predict; it may be a cliché to say it can go either way, but it’s true. The tie is not over, and you can expect every effort to try and win the second leg, with Chelsea’s defence shorn of John Terry one advantage, but if Liverpool can’t at least match the 3-1 scoreline, it’s that old “concentrate on the league” time.
The main thing is to bounce back on Saturday against Blackburn. When Liverpool won 4-1 at Old Trafford, it turned a record-breaking defence into one that has now shipped ten in four matches, with the slump spread across both domestic and European competitions. Liverpool cannot let this defeat affect them in a similar manner.
If Liverpool go out of Europe as a result of last night, it will provide more chance to focus on the Premiership. But it could also throw Benítez’s team off their stride. Conversely, if Liverpool go to Stamford Bridge and pull off a miraculous win, it’ll do incredible wonders to the confidence, but sap the energy and lead to a fixture pile-up.
Which outcome would be better can never really be foretold. I felt United’s late winner at the weekend would have seen them turn the corner and suddenly find their old form, but they were poor against Porto, and again failed to win.
A lot was made of Liverpool’s supposedly settled side going into this match, and how that’s been behind the team’s success of late. This may be true; certainly having his best players fit is vital to any manager, and Benítez is no different.
But again, there’s a flip-side. You may have more understanding, but you are also more predictable; good players can always produce something unexpected, but the system can be countered to a greater degree. Chelsea set out to stop Liverpool, with the pressure on the home side, and it worked. Keeping a settled side can also lead to increased tiredness.
Pros and cons, always pros and cons. So it’s often a balancing act, not a case of “always play your best side” or always change your side.
But what the figures tell me is that the two teams who have ‘rotated’ most this season are Manchester United and Liverpool.
Or the top two sides in the league.
Both have had quite a few injury problems (and United a few suspensions), but in the league it’s 94 changes by Ferguson to 95 changes by Benítez.
Given that they’ve played one less game, that means United have made a greater number of changes on average. And that average is virtually identical to the figure from last season’s title success.
While Benítez has made slightly fewer changes this season than last, there’s not an awful lot in it; particularly as many of those changes last season came when 4th place was the best and worst the Reds could do. United’s title success of 2006/07 saw both Ferguson and Benítez make 118 changes over the 38 games.
But still we get the black-and-white notions about rotation; how only Benítez does it, and how it doesn’t work.
And this is what I try to cut through. Zonal marking versus man marking, rotation versus ‘same again this week lads’, 4-2-3-1 versus 4-4-2: they all have their pros and cons.
Sometimes they will work, other times they will fail. And sometimes you will lose or win based not on any of these things, but on a slice of fortune, a refereeing mistake, a good finish or a bad piece of goalkeeping.
That’s why the big picture is the one that always counts: because it samples from a greater amount of data, and smooths out the blips. In the main competitions, Liverpool have won 26 games and lost just three – and that gives me a good sense of serenity now.
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