Liverpool had a very good record against Bolton Wanderers, winning their previous ten meetings in the league. However, the Trotters broke their duck with a convincing win against the Reds.
A lot of people have questioned whether Liverpool were ‘up’ for this game, and it’s a fair criticism. It is here we should start with the game analysis.
Dalglish’s post-match interviews for both ESPN and the BBC pointed to the non-tactical problems in the performance. This was pretty obvious from the first whistle to the last.
The way the players behaved in the opening minutes suggested motivational and concentration issues. In particular, the defensive performance was poor with switched-off players and poor communication. All of the goals came from bad defensive organisation. Each attack by Bolton seemed misjudged, underestimated and underprepared for in every possible way.
The midfield, possibly with the exception of Henderson and probably Gerrard, didn’t pass the ball well enough. Either the direction was wrong or the receiver did not control the ball well enough. The overall behaviour of the team in defence and attack was simply not up to the level which we all know this team is capable of. They lacked the desire to track back and cover the back four against the runs of Bolton’s midfielders. This was a major factor in how the first two goals were created, with both Mark Davies and Chris Eagles getting a free path into the Liverpool penalty area. In attack, Liverpool lacked the quick and progressive thinking needed. This lack of mental edge affected how they made and received passes, as well as how effectively they could feed the advanced players.
Dalglish’s demeanour on the sideline pretty much summed up the whole game. He reacted angrily to the first two goals in a way he simply has not done so far this term. But he didn’t let up even when Bellamy managed to pull one back. There were a few times in the first half when the camera focused on the away bench and I was stunned at how both Dalglish and Clarke looked so tense. In the past few months Dalglish has looked worried or unhappy, particularly when the team is not playing well, but never has he been so animated and obviously riled. This was significant.
In the post-match interviews he questioned his players’ motivation for the match and quite rightly looked incredibly angry. Even though he kept his cool on camera, we do have to ask – why were they so poorly prepared for this game?
I have questioned Liverpool’s mental preparation a couple of times in the past couple of months, mostly in the match against Wigan and the away Premier League game against Manchester City. In both it seemed likely that the mood (whatever the rights and wrongs) was affected by the Suárez controversy. In between these matches, we saw in the first half against Blackburn and large parts of the Newcastle match that there was something not quite right with their commitment and motivation. This is vital if the tactical approaches of the club are going to propel them to the high level to which they should be aspiring.
So, we could argue that Dalglish was so angry because this was not the first time the players had underperformed for him. I doubt that if this were a one-off poor performance Kenny would have got that angry, especially in front of the television cameras. Having tried other approaches, Dalglish reached the end of his tether. An experienced manager like him will have noticed the problems over the past month or so, but clearly his daily interactions were not taken on board by his players. Perhaps Dalglish believes he is not getting through to them – or worse, he is simply not being listened to.
If this is true, why has it taken so long to see this reaction from Dalglish in public? Surely he must have been having harsh words with the players behind the scenes? Wasn’t the Wigan match enough evidence that there were serious non-tactical issues with the team – a lack of commitment and motivation, possibly caused by off-the-pitch issues? If not, then the Blackburn match should have shown that while the tactical decisions being made were sound, the performance of the players was costing the side points. The Newcastle and City games made this problem perfectly obvious. This was the fifth bad match in this month-long period, albeit punctuated with good results and tactical performances against Stoke in the league and Manchester City in the cup. And that must result in drastic action being taken. As much as we can (and should) blame the players for yet another unprofessional level of performance, the manager surely has to take responsibility for not stopping this slide sooner, either through words or actions. Alternatively, if he has been dealing with the players in the appropriate way, it’s time to start dropping people.
Kenny implied that the players may have underestimated Bolton and have their eyes on two massive cup ties over the coming week. But this is part of the manager’s job – to ensure that the players are ready for the next match, not the one after that. The “match by match” mantra might be a cliché, but that’s because there’s an element of truth to it. Is it the case that the players are prioritising games themselves, slacking off in the ‘lesser’ games, and only switching it on for the ‘big’ ones? This is what Dalglish has accused them (albeit indirectly) of in his post-match interviews, and it appears that they are guilty as charged. But he needs to shoulder his end of the responsibility for failing to ensure that the players do not switch off and that they show the required level of commitment and motivation.
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