Title Lost In August?

Title Lost In August?
August 25, 2009 Paul Tomkins

This is my take on the Villa game, written mostly after the final whistle. A significantly different version of this article has been sent to the official site (called “Keep The Faith”, though not my title, as I couldn’t think of one!), with the removal of anything that I know from experience will not make it past the Press Office, for obvious reasons.

The version sent to the official site is also slightly more considered, as it was written this morning, in the cold light of day, with some of the emphasis altered.

Both articles are true to what I feel, but one is more ‘head’ and the other more ‘heart’, and obviously one is more critical than the other.

I didn’t think I’d ever be considering writing off Liverpool’s chances after just three games, but two defeats by this stage is a hammer blow. There’s so much time to turn it around it’s untrue, but the psychological wounds will be hard to recover from.

Did Liverpool deserve to lose against Villa? Unlike at Spurs, in some ways no. On balance of play, the Reds had the better of the game, but after missing four good chances in ten seconds, it had ‘one of those days’ written all over it.

The team fell away badly after Villa took the lead, but the second half was much, much better, at least until resignation set in on 85 minutes. Brad Friedel had a great game, but it’s also clear that Villa seemed to want it more.

I don’t know if the news of an impending civil case got to him, but Gerrard was appalling in the first half. Appalling. The worst I’ve seen him play. Lucas was the much better player until the own goal. Then of course he too fell apart.

But he is the scapegoat, and the last thing he needed was to do what Alonso did at Boro (just to compare the two in a way that’s different from the norm) and score an own goal.

Gerrard was much better in the second half, then gave away the daftest of penalties. Was his head right? Seems not.

While on the subject of mind over matter, Torres needs to stop moaning and whinging and get on with the game. He should have got more decisions from the referee, of that I’m certain; God-knows why he doesn’t get basic free-kicks when fouled.

The goal was a great answer to the frustrations, but then he got booked for moaning again. It needs to stop, as it sends the wrong message to the team. I love his desire to win, but it’s being a little diluted by focusing on other issues. With his head right he is the best striker in the world.

Having defended zonal marking to the hilt in the past, we’ve now conceded from two similar straight free-kicks 40-yards out and a corner. (Funny how the ref can find an extra minute to add at the end of the half, yet at Spurs there was nowhere near the correct amount in the first place, and stoppages in stoppage time, which included sending off Sammy Lee and a Spurs’ substitute, amounted to just 15 seconds. But that’s another subject.)

Whatever system we use, it needs to be better than that. Zonal can work. Zonal has worked. And it will again. But as with confidence in all areas of the game, if you hit a blip then, like a snagged zit, it grows and gets ugly.

Perhaps the main problem is that with Insua, Mascherano, Lucas and Benayoun, the team lacks height. Two of the better headers of the ball are Carragher and Kuyt, neither of whom are giants (and therefore can be beaten by a really tall player). So it’s maybe another reason to relegate Lucas to the bench, although his own goal was a valiant attempt to clear the ball, and he was at least marking his man.

Now there can be little doubting that Gerrard has to move into midfield until Aquilani is fit. I honestly still think Lucas is a very good player, but the balance with him and Mascherano isn’t right. It can work, and it has in the past; but can it work often enough? That’s where my doubts are growing.

It’s perfectly fine if the full-backs are getting forward down both flanks, as you need two midfielders ready to drop in, but when the full-backs are blocked off, as they were against Villa, there doesn’t seem to be enough creativity or forward movement from the centre of midfield. Liverpool still created chances, but the tempo couldn’t be altered quickly enough.

As I’ve said all along, Alonso’s departure was always going to cause problems. Lucas and Mascherano seemed like a capable sticking plaster to get by until Aquilani was fit. Against Stoke it seemed that this would be the case. But the centre of midfield was one of the problems in both of the defeats.

Again, Benítez keeps being blamed for selling Alonso, but he had no choice once the player handed in a written transfer request. I’ll repeat the example of Jolean Lescott. Enough said.

I honestly don’t see a lot wrong with this team. We saw last season how good it can be, and despite losing Alonso, when Aquilani is fit there will be two excellent additions, along with Johnson.

But there is quite a lot wrong with the way that it is currently playing.

Maybe that’s down to the pressure they have brought upon themselves by going close. I’ve always maintained that it’s so much harder for a team like Liverpool with the weight of history bearing down on it, combined with 20 years of relative failure. But the character shown last season made me feel that they had what it takes.

And maybe they still do. Maybe this is just a slow start. By comparing the results with last season, there’s only a one point deficit.

But defeats so early in the season only increase the pressure. Losing at Spurs didn’t bother me unduly, and their form since confirms that it was not such a bad result. But Liverpool should be beating teams like Villa at home. Much of last season’s success was built on a long unbeaten start, so those two defeats could be more easily absorbed. Now there’s no margin for error.

I just fear that there’s too much to do now. It’s not that Liverpool won’t win a lot of games, or aren’t capable of an incredible run, but it’s going to be hellishly hard to shake off the doubts that arise from two early defeats. And it needs a quick return to form to stop an even bigger headache developing.

I still have faith in the manager, and in the players. But it just hasn’t clicked into place quickly enough this season. We saw with Arsenal in 2007/08 how an exciting, gifted team could then fall to a miserable start a year later; now, another year on, they are once again back thrilling and winning. They got their act together last season, but it was too late for a title challenge.

Liverpool need to get their act together soon, or the same will apply.

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