By Paul Tomkins.
Liverpool’s results have been mixed this season, but perhaps the biggest worry has been the nature of the performances. The game at Spurs allowed me to dream that last season’s miracle could be carried over to this, and it looked like the Reds actually had a better XI. But the other four league performances, plus the nervy, scrappy win against Ludogorets, have been substandard.
Last season Liverpool had Suarez and Sturridge, or they had Suarez or Sturridge. I can’t think of many games where neither played. Suarez has now been sold (but remains suspended anyway, lest we forget), and Sturridge is injured. In 2013/14 the strike-force was the one world-class area of the team. (And if Sturridge isn’t yet a world-class player in his own right, his goalscoring record at Liverpool is as good as, if not better than, virtually all the world-class strikers to grace this league in the past 20 years).
Mario Balotelli, Suarez’s replacement of sorts, has been getting some criticism, but I thought he played well at West Ham, and has offered something positive in every match whilst keeping his cool; in the last two league games he has been kicked by an opposition player, off the ball, no fewer than three times without reacting. His movement remains a flaw – he prefers to drop deep rather than run in behind – but he is tracking back to help out, and the quality of his control has led to both of Liverpool’s goals this week. On top of his midweek strike, which was a peach, he’s also forced some good saves. But he’ll never match Luis Suarez’s Kuyt-like drive and stamina.
Meanwhile, the limited Fabio Borini was working hard in the Suarez/Kuyt mould, and stretching the West Ham defence. He took a couple of shots that clearly looked the wrong option – although let’s not forget how many times Luis Suarez shot from stupid angles, with one of those only occasionally sailing in. Borini’s passing wasn’t great either, but as soon as he was replaced by Lambert the attacks dried up. The little Italian may not be the most talented striker at the club, but he’s the hardest working, and a better foil for Balotelli than Lambert.
Rodgers now has the bigger squad he wanted. He also seems to have the players he wanted, assuming that he had more of a say in signing them than last summer. (With the transfer committee there will always be suspicions about who bought who.)
But having been introducing the new signings sensibly – two or three at a time – he’s witnessed a mini injury crisis and had to throw in five or six at once.
Perhaps understandably, given the aggression of a Sam Allardyce team (which yet again overstepped the mark with some of their X-rated tackling), Rodgers went with the more durable Lucas and Borini at Upton Park, rather than the flair of Coutinho and the hitherto rusty Lallana; although the latter, who’d looked like he was running in treacle against Villa, came on to improve the Reds this time. It hasn’t helped that in the absence of Suarez, Coutinho hasn’t provided his usual magic, and Sturridge’s skill – and not just his goals – has been missed.
So yes, Liverpool without Suarez, Sturridge and an in-form Coutinho aren’t as good as they were last season. The replacements who have hit the ground running have been the full-backs, signed from outside of the Premier League.
Lucas and Gerrard as a pair remain problematic, but it seems selections are an issue of compromises right now. Lucas knows how to defend in front of the back four, he’s just not got the same zip since the serious injuries, and now looks painfully one-paced. (If the team was more compact, as it was under all four previous managers, he’d have shorter distances to cover. But of course, Liverpool did well last season by not being compact.) Alongside him, Gerrard, at 34, was playing 90 minutes for the third time in eight days. If anyone in claret and blue ran past him, they stayed past him; and yet that was the case even after he’d had a fortnight’s rest, when Villa wore those colours (albeit only in their socks) at Anfield last week. Sometimes the Liverpool captain wasn’t aware of the runners; other times he looked, and just ignored them. Occasionally he gave chase, but it was in vain.
A top-class, mobile holding midfielder looked like a key summer recruitment objective, and maybe in Emre Can there’s a future star in waiting. The German does not appear super-quick, but he’s a powerful unit, once he gets moving, who can also play at centre-back. Alas, he got injured on international duty, as did Joe Allen; the two main deeper central midfield alternatives to Lucas and Gerrard.
And even if they were fit, Rodgers seems to have built his system around Gerrard’s passing from just in front of the back four. The problem with that is that teams seem to have figured this out and are effectively nullifying his threat. The impact of the title collapse being (wrongly) put on the captain’s shoulders may not be helping either, as his superpowers wane and he tries to get over what he describes as the worst months of his career.
Switching Henderson deeper would give the team more running power in front of the back four, but when he played there recently, his energy was missed further upfield – where it was also urgently required (given that Balotelli, for all his skill, isn’t going to make surprising runs). From being the club’s whipping boy, Liverpool now need four or five Hendersons, with Joe Allen the closest in terms of harrying and carrying. While Allen has found life tough at Liverpool, he can certainly run, and protect the ball (even if he’s yet to use it with any great imagination), but he’s injured.
And at the back, Lovren, for all his impressively meaty tackles and brave headers, looks as lost as any other centre-back that has played for Liverpool under Rodgers, in that an absence of protection leaves them all exposed. Under previous Liverpool managers the defence was much more reliable, but then the midfield was often much deeper, and those teams certainly never scored 100 league goals in a season. As ever, it’s about balance, and right now the Reds don’t have it. Last season it was there, on account of scoring twice as many goals as they conceded.
My suspicion is that even prime years Sami Hyypia would look poor in this team, because he’d have too many runners to cope with, and running was never his strong suit. You have to be quick, powerful and strong to defend without much midfield protection, and as it stands, perhaps only Vincent Kompany, out of the entire Premier League, could handle such a task. And even he might look exposed.
I feel that Sakho, while still not as settled and commanding as he is in the French national side, has been better than Lovren this season. Of course, neither has played that many games for Liverpool, and Sakho, who joined in 2013, was playing with entirely different defenders last season.
I have some sympathy with the Frenchman over his infield header that cost the killer late goal; he was trying to keep the ball ‘live’ rather than head out, and he obviously didn’t expect none of his midfield to actually be in midfield. In hindsight it would obviously have been better to play the percentages and head down the line, or out for a West Ham throw, but it was the last minute of normal time (which also perhaps excuses why the entire midfield was caught upfield).
Whenever Skrtel plays, goals seem to be conceded. I’m not sure that ‘with and without’ comparison stats are especially reliable, given the varying circumstances involved in different games, but if there’s something in them they don’t seem to favour the Slovakian. But as with Sakho, when he’s played this season he’s often had three new buys alongside him.
Behind the defence, Simon Mignolet is not filling anyone with confidence. For the first half of last season his shot-stopping was perhaps the main reason Liverpool had so many points, but since a bad turn of the year he’s lost his confidence, and with goalkeepers you can find that it never fully comes back. Jerzy Dudek had his self-belief for a year, then struggled thereafter (bar the one-off of Istanbul). Pepe Reina had strong mojo for five years, but it never fully returned once he started to make too many mistakes. And Mignolet just doesn’t look commanding enough; something Rodgers seems aware of.
Last season the Reds were often scoring four, five or six when conceding two or three. Now the goals are no longer flowing as freely – the clear-cut chance creation stats are massively down – but the defence seems just as shambolic, if not more so. Again, we have to allow time for the unit to develop understanding, but with the midfield issues it probably won’t look totally solid unless specialist holders (who can also start attacks) are found.
What Liverpool do have this season, that wasn’t present until the December of the last campaign, is Raheem Sterling not only in top form, but scoring goals. The 19-year-old, plus the attacking verve of Alberto Moreno, are the two biggest bright spots of the nascent season. (Javier Manquillo’s defending, West Ham aside, has been hugely promising, and Balotelli has been good on the ball, if not so good off it. And Lallana looked better now he’s fitter). But around Sterling, Rodgers is searching for the balance, and struggling without Sturridge’s pace and movement.
Liverpool also have the 2nd-youngest team in the Premier League based on the games so far, with Aston Villa generally improving having added some experience, and therefore moved off the bottom of last season’s rankings. (Newcastle have taken their place as the youngest side, and are struggling.) The Reds needed a bigger squad, and adding young, promising and already fairly proven players is almost always a sensible strategy (the Henderson Model), given the transfer fees and wages involved in higher-end deals. But if you end up with too many youngsters in the side it can show; for all the talk of United’s kids in 1996, they had Cantona, Bruce, Pallister, Schmeichel, Keane, Irwin and others. It had young players, but it wasn’t a young side.
You rarely get successful sides with an average age as young as Liverpool’s, but it suggests that, in time, it will improve with time and experience. The down side of this policy is that you can find yourself with a constant turnover of players before the team gets to ‘come of age’; replacing experience with yet more sensible potential.
The young average age is perhaps another reason to keep Gerrard in the team (if not necessarily in the same position), and maybe a reason to pick Skrtel over Sakho. But Gerrard is now much slower than in his pomp, and Skrtel, while no slouch, isn’t as fast as Sakho. So getting the age/experience balance right throws out the “legs” balance. The same applies to the inclusion of Lucas, who can no longer run like before. Put Rickie Lambert and you add experience, but Liverpool, so rapier-like last season, then look slow and cumbersome. Rodgers had the electric Lazar Markovic on the bench yesterday but failed to use him (although perhaps, for humanitarian reasons, he wanted to spare the young winger the trauma of Allardcyian football.)
On paper, this summer’s signings appeared much better than those from 2013, but at the time, those from 2013 seemed sensible enough. Integrating so many players at once is never easy.
Southampton appear to have managed it, but with so many sales they were being tipped for relegation, removing a lot of the pressure of repeating last season’s heroics; it’s always easier when you’re written off. (And By contrast, Liverpool were under the microscope. Perhaps this poor run will remove the pressure of outsized expectations, but if the Reds aren’t careful, it will be replaced with the pressure of needing to win games to avoid a sense of catastrophe.
Looked at in terms of what else Rodgers could have done, I have some sympathy for his plight when facing the issues outlined in this piece. He didn’t choose for Suarez to bite someone again, and to be sold, or to have his players injured when on international duty, and for all I know he may not have chosen all the signings. But as I noted last Christmas, his Liverpool sides seem to play poorly when facing a fixture pile-up, and therefore the Champions League was likely to present a challenge. And if there’s one thing you don’t want after a midweek game, it’s an Allardycian dogfight. Big Sam’s tactics may be fairly prehistoric at times, but his sports science has always seemed on the money, and he knows how to take advantage of tired teams (in his case, mix tempo with snarling aggression).
In fairness, Liverpool have often found life harder after internationals and European games. On the whole Rodgers tries to keep a fairly unchanged side, which can help with team understanding, but at the expense of energy. The problem right now is that the understanding seems absent, too. (Again, most likely due, in part, to the new signings.)
I wouldn’t panic, because there were performances like this in 2013/14, such as away at Hull, and the stodgy form (if not results) at the start of last season. But clearly things need to turn around quickly, and the defence simply has to be protected better if not as many goals are going to be scored at the other end. My expectations for this season were always around the mid-70s in terms of points, with the aim of securing a top-four finish whilst enjoying the demanding, but exciting, Champions League games. I still see that as achievable, providing back-to-back league defeats do not turn into a major slump.
The one thing that might be in Rodgers’ favour is that this is a Win or Lose side; it doesn’t really do draws. There will always be times when a draw is a good result (it’s preferable to losing, obviously), but in 2013/14 his side won over four times as many games as it drew. In the two seasons prior to finishing second, the Reds were drawing almost as many games as they were winning. That was a remarkable improvement.
In six competitive games this season, there have been three victories and three defeats. No draws. Hypothetically, the team could be unbeaten on five points with five draws, which would be worse than now, having lost three matches. Six points is still not good enough, but it seems a high risk/high reward strategy which, overall, worked last season, in taking a team that looked capable of 70 points up to 84. At 2-1 down yesterday, Liverpool were going for it in the 90th minute, and as a result of that gamble the defeat was made worse. On Wednesday, despite Ludogorets’ ludicrous late equaliser, the Reds were able to push forward again to seal the win.
Winning only half your games isn’t disastrous, but maybe that’s where the draws come in handy, to eke out those extra points. Either way, Liverpool have to improve, and improve fast. Getting Sturridge fit would be a huge start.
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