QPR vs Liverpool was exactly the same kind of bananas as much of last season.  Hopeless defending, clinical finishing.  While it is true that QPR bagged a pair of own goals it’s common knowledge that these things tend to arrive as the result of pressure, and in both cases had the defender missed it a red shirt in the shape of Balotelli was waiting unmarked to take the tap-in.  QPR probably deserved a point today, but in football you don’t always get what you deserve.

What went wrong?

Rodgers continued the Gerrard as no. 10 experiment but it didn’t fail as a result of Gerrard not being up to the task; in fact his effort on the stroke of half time was Liverpool’s best of the first half.  The problem came from the supply, or rather the complete absence thereof.  QPR pressed well and Can and Henderson did not perform well as the double pivot.  The build-up from the back plan simply didn’t work without players capable of retaining possession and then getting it forward.  Lovren and Enrique running wide to the touch line and then hoofing it didn’t help either, but the primary fault was a lack of players coming deep to collect the ball in the middle and then distribute it.

A secondary issue was that Balotelli was largely isolated and unable to deal with Dunne in the air.  This left him frustrated and Liverpool without the ball, and his play was never particularly inspiring, leading to him being unable to test the ‘keeper despite having several good chances in the second half.

I do not think that the experiment failed due to Gerrard’s position, but rather that we probably needed Allen’s ability to retain possession more than Can’s physical presence.  I can understand Rodger’s desire to start the more physical midfielder against the expected aerial bombardment, but in all honesty I felt Can failed to impose himself on the game and that created significant problems both with and without the ball.

It could have been much worse; Johnson was pretty lucky to escape a red card when taking out two QPR players on the goal line without touching the ball.  Fortunately it was QPR – against a better team we’d have headed in at least 2 down after 45 minutes and lost by more.

Defending.  The two efforts that hit the bar and the two goals QPR actually scored underlined how poor this Liverpool side is at defending.  I normally reserve some praise for Enrique, but I thought he was poor today.  Glen Johnson didn’t really add much, even though it was his pass that created the opening own goal.  We just look that much more solid with Moreno and Manquillo, which really is saying something as both are new signings and both barely 20.  It is likely that Rodgers rested them with the pair of meetings with Real Madrid and later Chelsea on the horizon.

What went right?

Pressure.  Sterling caused a lot of trouble throughout the game, tracked back, and ultimately it was his free kick win and quick thinking that lead to the opening goal.  His “assist” for the winner should not go unnoticed.  My man of the match.

The introduction of Coutinho.  This largely coincided with the departure of Sandro, but the little magician was at his best today.  He found the space Lallana could not, and his link-up play with Sterling was superb.  He took his goal really well too.

Switching the midfield around.  Once again having Henderson not part of the double pivot brought more energy to the front line.  With Gerrard deeper Liverpool could build from the back with greater confidence.  While we conceded more goals in this formation, QPR were a threat even from open play prior to the change.  Their goals both came from set pieces; Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel since the turn of the century.

Mignolet.  For the first time in a long time he pulled off some top class saves in difficult positions.  There are saves keepers should make, and he regularly has to make those, but he has a poor record saving the shots that are just a fraction harder.  Today he put in a huge performance and if he can keep that up will be certain to see off the Valdes talk.

All in all an ugly 3 points, but 3 points nonetheless.  For the record I predicted a scrappy 2-1, with the score either 0-0 or 1-0 to the visitors at half time.  Not entirely wrong, but it pretty hard to predict 4 goals in 8 minutes at the end of the game.

Last season 7 clubs had won half or more of their games at the same stage, all of which would go on to finish in the top 8.  So far only 5 clubs have won 50% or more of the 8, though Manchester United travel to West Brom tomorrow for their respective 8th round fixtures.  Those 5 clubs are last season’s top 3, plus Southampton (who seem to have a habit of making fast starts) and surprise package West Ham.  Last season 10 of the clubs had conceded fewer than 10 goals at this stage.  This season only 5, with West Brom one of those (conceded 9) and unlikely to keep a clean sheet against United’s firepower (none of whom will be rested as they have no midweek football commitments).

This is the worst showing in these terms (games won and goals conceded) since the last post-World Cup year in 10/11.  So perhaps, like then, only 3 clubs will score more than 68 points (72 has been necessary for 4th the last few seasons), and if we can learn to regularly win ugly like today then we stand a great chance of being one of those 3.

We might have lost Sturridge for another month, but that guy Own Goal came through for us again…  In 12/13 he was our 4th best scorer and we may need him to the same degree again this season (presently O.G. is top scorer with Sterling on 3).

A Stuttering Start

P7 W3 D1 L3 GF10 GA10 GD0 Pts:10.  1 clean sheet in the last 15 (all competitions).

Not the stuff of legend.

Another terrible season following a second place finish in the league was definitely not what Liverpool supporters were hoping for, but this start makes it seem like history is repeating itself.  Again.

But is it?  What has changed, and what needs changing?

Everyone will immediately attribute our struggles as: “No Suarez”.  But I don’t think that is true.  It has an element of truth to it, of course, but I do not think that is the key issue for Liverpool.  “No Sturridge” is much closer to the heart of the matter.  It’s not just about the goals we lose without the league’s top striker from last season, though everyone will harp on about it as though Liverpool will score a maximum of 70 goals this season simply because Suarez’s 31 must be discounted.  It simply doesn’t work that way.

What has changed about this Liverpool side is that Brendan Rodgers has opted to play a lone striker system, rather than the 4-diamond-2 that was so deadly last season.  This is partially due to the absence of Suarez, though the manner of the rout at White Hart Lane earlier this season does not suggest that Sturridge and Balotelli cannot work together.  The change is mainly due to the way opposing teams changed their approach by targeting Gerrard.  The deep-lying playmaker role needs time to make the right decisions of how to distribute the ball, and without it Liverpool’s incisive and rapid forward play disintegrates.  Now we pass it around more like Rodgers’ Swansea, giving the opposition time to arrange their defensive lines and in so doing immediately eliminate the threat of quick players like Sturridge, Sterling and the newly arrived Markovic and Lallana.  The diamond simply wasn’t working and in Sturridge’s absence Rodgers was forced to abandon it rather than persist with an untried striker combination like Balotelli and Borini (B&B rather than the SAS, a somewhat different context).  Additionally, Gerrard was being targeted when the opposition had the ball by overloading his zone and giving players a free run at a centre back partnership low on confidence.  Something had to give.

As a result the team’s play has been patchy, mirroring the other times when we have had a lone striker, including Suarez.  In Rodgers’ first year, Suarez led the line for the first 21 games of the season prior to the arrival of Sturridge.  While it is true that a radical change of style contributed to significant difficulty over this period, Liverpool could only manage 31 points over that period despite Suarez scoring 15 times.  Yes, Liverpool would have been significantly worse off without him, but the record with him in the side was nothing remarkable despite his goals.

In the 13 games that followed (ending with that bite on Ivanovic) Liverpool scored 20 points.  This represents a minor improvement of 0.06 points per game; something merely in line with the progression to that point.  But then Suarez missed 10 games, and Liverpool’s record shot to W7 D2 L1.  That’s almost twelve times the improvement in points per game (0.7 vs 0.06), and Suarez was NOT in the side.  Something else clicked, and that something else created the platform for the rest of last season.

Once Suarez returned he was a different player, not only because his focus became purely football but also because in Sturridge he had a partner with whom he could wreak havoc.  While it cannot be denied that Suarez is the more capable player, without Sturridge alongside him Liverpool could only maintain 2 points per game over the rest of the season.  Were Suarez the destroyer most media outlets chose to label him after Liverpool sold him, then Liverpool would have won the title.

The bottom line is that the enforced change of system this season and the loss of BOTH Sturridge and Suarez have caused Liverpool considerable trouble since Roy Hodgson decided that listening to medical advice was beneath him.  Up to that point Liverpool were 3 points better off than in the corresponding fixtures the previous season, despite changing fully half the starting XI.  Liverpool need to clone Sturridge so that they can switch them when one gets inevitably injured.

People also say that Liverpool’s defence continues to be poor, especially in the light of that damning clean sheets statistic mentioned earlier.  And yet there is something Liverpool are doing now they didn’t do last season; concede only 1.  Last season in the league Liverpool conceded twice in 16 of 38 games – in fact coming into this season they had conceded at least 2 in 4 of their previous 5 league fixtures.  So far this season it’s 2 from 7, a 15% improvement.  While the results haven’t similarly improved, due to a paucity of goals at the other end, there is room for some encouragement.

When taking into consideration that in these exact 7 fixtures last season Liverpool scored 13 points, the “hole” into which we have dug ourselves is hardly deep at this stage.  An improving defence will go a long way towards getting those 3 points back later – perhaps in the shape of beating a relegation candidate on their ground rather than being thrashed by Hull.  Besides, the last 3 goals Liverpool have conceded were a penalty for a foul outside the box, a “best goal of his career” wonder strike from a centre back 25 yards away (yes, read that again for context), and an unfortunate double deflection from a set piece leading to a tap-in against the Swiss champions on their turf.  These are not the same kind of defensive error as Kolo Toure passing to the opposing striker at the edge of the area, for example.  Defensive errors leading to goals were an aspect of Liverpool’s play last season as reliable as SAS scoring first.  This is not to say the defence is sound at this time (it’s still 1 clean sheet in 15!) but given that 3 of the back 4 have changed it’s just possible that it may become so.

Brendan Rodgers also revealed a tantalizing something in the just past game against West Brom; the position of Coutinho.  In an interview prior to the start of the season, Coutinho said that Rodgers claimed he was perfect as a volante, a number 8, rather than the number 10 role he has occupied for much of his Liverpool career.  At the time I thought it a curious development; Coutinho is no Alonso, nor is he a box-to-box player like Gerrard or Henderson.  He’s crafty with excellent ball control and vision; he should be further forward.  And yet against West Brom he looked much more comfortable than he has been for some time, when perhaps he was guilty of trying too much and therefore being dispossessed, over-hitting his passes or just giving it away cheaply.  With him deeper and Henderson further forward, but both able to drop back and help Gerrard, the Liverpool midfield looked much more dynamic.  With Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana both impressing both wide and centrally, Brendan Rodgers will have a difficult task dropping one of these players when Sturridge is fit (assuming he wants to revert to the 4-diamond-2 with Balotelli and Sturridge as strikers).  But it almost seems as though Balotelli himself will be cut, leaving something like this as the ‘best XI’:


Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno

Henderson Gerrard Coutinho

Lallana Sterling


This is an evolution of the diamond aiming to overload central midfield with overlapping wingbacks to keep the opposition back line honest.  It can mutate to 3-4-3 with Gerrard dropping back between the centre backs as well, similar to the job Mascherano does for his Spanish club.  Regardless of the final formation, with Coutinho able to have that little bit more time on the ball than he had as a number 10 he can control play more, especially since alongside him Gerrard is the master of the 40-yard pass and one can’t conceivably mark BOTH of them out of the game without some risk.  The tricksy one-two players in Sterling, Lallana and Henderson then dominate the forward line, with pace to burn among their number and in the form of Sturridge as a through-ball outlet.

Although Liverpool had to scrap to beat West Brom, in truth the game seemed fairly straight-forward to my eyes, with the visitors not presenting much threat.  The late switch of bringing on Lucas and pushing Gerrard forward was also a pleasant change that WBA simply couldn’t handle, ensuring an untroubled last half hour and hinting that Gerrard as an attacking midfielder/deep-lying forward is not yet done.

It all seems rather exciting.  It’s much too early for despair anyway; Liverpool fans were laughing at Manchester United just after the start of the season, but it is they who sit 4th on the table while we languish in 9th (albeit only 1 point adrift).  Besides, if establishing a working system costs the team 8-10 points over the course of the season, well, 74 points is still comfortable enough for 4th.  And that’s all we are looking for anyway.

And the winner is…

The new football season opens and the transfer window shuts, and now it’s all down to the football finally, at least until January when everyone once again goes crazy over unrealistic marquee signings or watching their club being linked with dozens of new names each day. Did you know that Liverpool were going to sign 147 different players this window? I can only imagine how many Manchester City were “certain” to add to their squad. There were several big headlines, notably Bale to Madrid and Ozil to a different part of north London, but a lot of it left me with some head scratching.

Spurs bolstered their squad with a host of players from the Bale war chest, notably Soldado, Lamela, and Paulinho, but the question remains whether they replaced Bale’s quality. After all, last season Bale scored more goals from outside the area than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues (goals outside the area being the most difficult to come by), and yet Spurs only scored the joint 5th most goals in the Premier League (behind United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – the old top 4). Certainly Spurs have more players to help get the ball in the box now, as well as some new finishers to replace the fading Adebayor and Defoe, but I’m not convinced the scales remain balanced. Even if they do, perhaps they’re still only good enough for 5th? Time will tell, but my suspicion is that Spurs will take time to settle into life without Bale.

Chelsea and City threw money around as usual, with some big names arriving in the Premier League. But in the past some big foreign names made little impact in the league with its different levels of pace and power, and different style of last-ditch defending. The real question is whether adding big names to teams already comprised of only big names actually makes those teams stronger; the failed Galacticos experiment being a prime example. More expensive to maintain, certainly, but stronger? Changes in management at both clubs too will affect early season performance, and while Mourinho remains revered he would himself admit that he has in general performed below expectation since leaving Chelsea, and therefore has some ground to make up. One of the surprises of the transfer window were the rumours of Mata being disillusioned, and of course there were the annual fantasy links of Torres back to Liverpool (and somehow able to recapture his 2007 form simply by touching the “This is Anfield” sign), but I’m sure that Mourinho will manage those situations well enough now that he has E’too. Regardless, City and Chelsea are the teams to beat now, and few have picked other clubs to finish ahead of either of them. That comes with a certain amount of pressure as well, of course, and the disinterested manner in which City finished last season and appear to have started this campaign suggests that for all their wealth they remain a group of individuals rather than a team.

The big transfer shock was Arsenal making a large bid for a top player, and then actually handing over the money. Less of a shock was that the player was not a defender. One day I am sure that Wenger will realize that sharpening an already sharp sword doesn’t help you win a battle where you must also rely on your threadbare jerkin and rusted armour. While I fully expect Ozil to make the Gunners a flat track bully not unlike Liverpool last season, it should be kept in mind that Liverpool finished nigh on 30 points behind the league leaders; attack is only one aspect of football. You need Henry AND Viera to win the league… Besides, for 45m pounds in an exceptional attacking player they could just have kept Van Persie.

What should have happened was that Ozil should have gone to the red half of Manchester. There he would fill the gaping hole left by the loss of key players to age or transfers. Without a creative midfield, United will live and die on the performances of Van Persie, Rooney and to a lesser extent Hernandez and Valencia. Their aging and ponderous centre backs are not protected by a solid defensive midfielder either; their Stoke-like defending of everyone inside the goal posts while on the edge of the 18 yard box against the pace of Sturridge and the trickery of Coutinho should have scared the daylights out of their supporters last weekend; you can’t expect to get away with that all season. The purchase of Fellaini fills neither of these voids, and outside their opening fixture United have been disappointing.

Which brings us lastly to Liverpool.

Retain Suarez? Check (Add a 30 goal forward to a team that won 6 of their last 7 league games, with 1 draw and only 1 goal against? For free? Best deal of the window.)

Sign more wide players and sell Downing? Check (Aspas, Moses)

Sell loose cannon Shelvey and get a replacement? Check (Alberto)

Get another left back? Check (Cissokho)

Sign another centre back? Check Check! (Sakho Ilori)

Trade a fading Reina for a real shot stopper? Check (Mignolet)

Refuel Henderson’s third lung? Check

Win some of the opening fixtures against difficult opposition? CHECK!!

While few people expect Liverpool to remain at the summit of the league long enough to make a difference, it is notable that the club addressed every weakness in the squad barring a backup for the irreplaceable Lucas Leiva. In terms of the transfer window, where United did nothing, Arsenal spent money mainly to appease the fans, and Spurs traded a powerhouse player for some second stringers, Liverpool clearly did the best business. How they go from there is now down to the players and the manager, but the way their team spirit has come shining through in the opening fixtures suggests a wind of change around L4.

A change for the better.

Here’s the league table for this calendar year. Arsenal played in a game in hand on January the first, so in order to compare apples with apples I included all the fixtures from that round even if some of those games happened to fall in the last days of December.

Club          P     W     D    L    GF    GA    GD     CS    Pts

Man U.     22    14    5    3    42     17    +25    11    47

Arsenal     22    14    4    4    38    21    +17     8    46

Liverpool  22    13    6    3    46    17    +29    13    45

Man City  22    14    3    5    40    21    +19    12    45

Spurs        22    13    6    3    34    22    +12     6    45

Chelsea    22    13    5    4    40    22    +18     8    44

CS: Clean Sheets

Only 3 points separate the top 6 teams after 22 matches, so it’s all to play for with no real favourites for the crown. With Liverpool having most goals, most clean sheets, joint fewest goals against over the period, and third on that table, it’s hard not to be optimistic about getting back into the top 4.

The End of an Era

The title perhaps suggests this will be just another salivating borefest committed to regaling all with the deeds of the second best ever manager of England’s top flight in the wake of his retirement, but nothing could be further from my mind.  As the season draws to a close I see a great deal of “endings”, and it feels almost like this is the moment when the latest era of England’s top flight has drawn to a close.  Next season everything will probably remain much as it is, but with sufficient difference to suggest a new era has dawned.

Let us get the elephant in the room out the way first.  Fergie has ruled the Premier League with an iron fist practically since its inception.  In recent seasons he has flown dangerously close to the line of flaunting political power over on the field events, though perhaps “dangerously close” is mere irony.  Such arrogance is not easily won however, and though I am happier to finally see the back of him I cannot deny that his record, especially in the league, is something that most managers would dream of when starting out.  His status in the media is such that should he take up a post at United that is for all intents and purposes a “Director of Football”, then one could easily predict such a position immediately being hailed as the “new way forward for British football” by all the media monkeys who to that point had waxed passionately about the folly of clubs like Liverpool for attempting the same.

It not just the end of Fergie’s era either.  With four of this season’s top seven clubs sporting new managers, including each of the top 3, the start of next season will seem more akin to massive upheaval than a breath of fresh air.  Arsene Wenger can probably count himself lucky to be among the three who kept their posts, having earned a stay of execution in a manner not unlike Wigan retaining top flight status each season since taking on Martinez as manager.  Perhaps the final failure of Wigan to stay up is the end of an era in itself; eight seasons of clawing their way from mediocrity to catastrophe.  Furthermore, the remaining two managers of top seven clubs who did not get the sack are yet to be in their posts for twelve months, and come next season somehow Rodgers will have been at his club for less time than only 6 other EPL managers.  Change indeed!

Further change has been seen in the decline of Stoke, the final bastion of traditional British football, and the rise of an increasing number of clubs sporting continental approaches.  Rodgers’ work at Swansea was improved by Laudrup taking the club to the League Cup and into the EPL top 10.  Rodgers himself dramatically changed the creaking, long-ball tactics of his predecessor into a passing machine that promises much in the future, even though presently it is little more than a flat-track bully.  Although he started out with the Barcelona style firmly in mind, lately we have seen the depth of his tactical knowledge as the side has imitated both Dortmund and Real Madrid in recent weeks with some success.  More clubs than before have adapted systems using odd-numbered striker counts (4-5-1, 4-3-3 et al), and on more than a few occasions we have seen three-at-the-back in imitation of the success of Juventus.  Although British referees continue to allow thuggery on the pitch in the name of the English Game, the modern European systems are gradually taking over.  4-4-2 will never die, but gone are the days of a 6’2” brute with some ability in the air being requirement enough for most clubs.

I feel it is also the end of England football’s “Golden Generation”, the one that achieved exactly as much as all the generations before it barring that which won the ’66 World Cup – nothing.  The supposedly 4th ranked side in world football has failed even to beat lowly Montengro in each of their last three meetings, and with Roy Hodgson at the helm one cannot imagine a future much more rosy than the present pot of decaying bulbs.  All their super-stars are fading too: contract extensions or otherwise, Lampard and Rooney are largely out of favour at the only clubs that admire them, Terry is struggling with fitness and age, former stalwarts Owen, Carragher and Scholes have finally put up their boots, and Steven Gerrard, at times a mere shadow of the player he was, is urged more frequently by Liverpool fans to focus on club rather than country as Ferdinand has done.  It would appear that England will struggle to qualify for the next World Cup, and who would the media blame then?

Perhaps they should blame the FA?  After all, this is the organization that refused to take on Harry Redknapp at a time when Spurs were looking to get rid of him he was available!  This is the same organisation that, in an effort to improve the quality of British footballers, doubled the required number of players who were born or taught football in England for each 25-man EPL squad, and figured that would be enough.  In the wake of this change at the start of the 10/11 season, the EPL champion was eliminated from the Champions’ League group stage in successive seasons (11/12 and 12/13).  Prior to this season, and going back to 04/05, an English club reached the CL final every season outside 09/10.  7 of those 8 finals appearances belong to Liverpool, Chelsea, and United, none of whom have the same managers as then, and Liverpool doesn’t qualify for any European competition next season.  The 8th is Arsenal, who have failed to get out of the last 16 two seasons running.  CL title holders Chelsea, who many felt were lucky to even reach last season’s semi-finals, also failed to get through the group stage this season.  One has to wonder whether English football is really able to compete at that level any more.  Is this the end of an era of English dominance in Europe’s premier club competition?

If anything, the FA should have been taking notes of the changes in German football rather than simply increasing quotas.  The Bundesliga has had a CL finalist in 3 of the last 4 seasons, including both finalists this season.  German football burst onto the international stage with their new-look youth at Euro 2008, and since then has gained nothing but respect and “momentum”.  With the fortunes of Barcelona fading and reports of some dissent in the ranks, one wonders whether the current chapter of Spanish football too is drawing to a close, to be replaced by the efficient Germans who can only have thrived while staying within their country’s league thanks to excellent administration.  By contrast, the FA is failing England, not just in terms of international football, but also in their flawed, random decision-making and non-independent, unchallengeable tribunals that make a mockery of justice and understanding in the league.  How long before their arrogance will be taken to task by those with the power to enforce change?

Off the pitch another era is drawing to an end.  With government’s apology and the reopening of the inquiry, the Hillsborough stadium disaster will finally be once again what it always was; an avoidable human tragedy.  Gone in time will be the stigma that it was caused by Liverpool fans, the same fans that a handful of seasons before had caused English clubs to be ejected from European competition through their actions at Heysel.  It did not matter that football hooligans were a plague that affected the entire country, and that Europe already viewed English football dimly; Liverpool was the scapegoat, and at Hillsborough became repeat offenders.  Nothing makes a bigger statement than heavily punishing those at the pinnacle of success; just ask Luis Suarez.  With the generation of anti-Liverpool sentiment now certain to fade away a new dawn awaits the club, and with it an opportunity to return to the summit of a league in which it has at times seemed to have been deliberately oppressed.

The king is dead.  Let the battle for the succession commence.

Banned but not beaten

The ramifications of the FA “independent” panel’s 10-match ban of Luis Suarez are only just beginning to be felt.  Unlike with the racial abuse case against the same player the judgement has not met with widespread acclaim, but instead has drawn criticism from many quarters.  Not just for the panel not having any members truly independent of the FA, not just for the political interference by the Prime Minister, and not just for the length of the ban.  Most people thought the panel would have an easy rationale for their conclusion – “Suarez picked up a 7 match ban in Holland for much the same thing, and clearly hasn’t learned his lesson so we made it 10”.  Instead they claimed that they did not look at his prior incidents, which is actually how things should be done because events that happened in previous seasons are never considered when a repeat offender stands before them in other cases to date.  Perhaps they stuck to that rule as ammunition against any potential appeal (“we could have banned him for longer but were lenient, and therefore consider your appeal frivolous so we will extend the ban”).  But even were such deviousness false, failure to use the player’s ‘previous’ directly undermines their case.

What is worse is that Liverpool FC have absolutely nothing to gain by appealing.  The expectation is that the media will seize upon it as yet another act of insolence by player and club.  The reality is that the 6 games Suarez will miss at the start of next season cannot be avoided.  So why risk having the FA increase the ban, when the games eaten up by a potential ban reduction will occur this season, and never mind the games for which Suarez will naturally be eligible to play while the appeal is in progress?  The greatest harm has already been done.

It’s ironic.  This case highlighted the flawed genius of Luis Suarez more than any other, and has polarised people into those who believe he is a cancer and should be ejected from the English game, and those who believe his on-the-pitch genius more than makes up for his dark side.  But the outcome of the trial has thrown into far starker relief the inconsistencies of the FA.  People too are concerned at the stance of the FA that an appeal would be considered frivolous – the inability of those victimised by the FA to challenge the ruling in a separate court has become a talking point.  How can it be fair if one can only complain to the people who have already decided you are guilty, correctly or otherwise?  The entire FA process, or rather the lack thereof, is coming under increased scrutiny.  The time when people will refuse to be dictated to by them just came a large step closer.  Suarez’s and Liverpool’s defeat may yet prove to be a victory for football in England.

But should it be a defeat for Liverpool?  Under Benitez, Fernando Torres was elevated into the upper tier of world-class strikers.  But in the 08/09 season Torres picked up several injuries that saw him fail to play a third of the league games, with not a few of his 24 appearances being as a substitute or as a player removed from the field before full time while he sought match fitness.  The result?  Liverpool finished second that season, reaching their highest ever points tally for a season, and scored over 100 goals in all competitions.  This is the clearest evidence I can find that a star player is made so by a functioning unit around him.

The same has happened to Suarez under Rodgers.  The team has been aligned with his strengths, and he has scored 30 goals in all competitions; the last Liverpool player to do that was Torres in his first season with the club.  Before that one has to go all the way back to Robbie Fowler – even Michael Owen never hit 30 in a season.  Suarez also has 5 assists, which is the second highest at the club this season behind Gerrard.  Such a source of goals is something so valuable that a club should only move the player on if the player desires it – money cannot make up for it, and another 5 or 10 Downings or Allens will not make Liverpool a better side.

But the problem is what will happen to Liverpool when Suarez does not play.  In European competition Liverpool struggled without him, needing his goals ironically to draw critical games.  Daniel Sturridge said he had something to prove against Chelsea.  Well, he’s still got work left – 10 games leading the line in the absence of Liverpool’s greatest attacking threat and most creative player.  Now is the time to really see whether Liverpool have progressed as a team during the course of the year.  Taking Suarez away will obviously make the side weaker, but that does not permit what remains to display relegation quality.  The trip to Newcastle this weekend was a likely stumbling block even though they lie just above the relegation zone as they are the equivalent of an upper-mid-table side at home.  But now Liverpool need to show they can still perform, and this will prove a good test of their mettle.  If Liverpool want to challenge for the title in coming seasons, they need to demonstrate an ability to get results even when they are not at their best.

I believe those players who pull their weight in the squad will be separated from those that do not over the remaining games this season.  I was expecting a generally quiet summer transfer window, with activity centred around the centre-back position, but depending on how the team plays between now and then a mass clear-out may instead be on the cards.

The Illusion of Force

I often wonder whether Brendan Rodgers truly understands his squad, but just as often I wonder whether he sees something that I can’t, due no doubt to his exposure to the side in training every day of the week, but the squad just can’t reproduce it regularly enough on match days.

The result at Southampton was either a debacle or hubris, but on which side of the line one falls in assessing the relative ease with which they picked Liverpool apart at will while conceding very little against what has become one of the strongest attacks in the league, depends on whether one looks to blame the manager or the players.

Is it fair to blame Rodgers?  He was forced to make 3 changes to a team that had won 3 on the bounce, replacing Carragher with a decidedly skittish Skrtel, Reina for the Jones fumbletron, while Lucas being replaced by any other player in the league is a step down varying only in depth.  A side that either keeps a clean sheet or concedes two goals having 3 unplanned defensive replacements is surely more likely to perform at the level of the latter no matter what other changes are made to compensate.

Is it fair to blame the players?  Rodgers eschewed caution by essentially playing 4-2-4 long ball in response to his injury woes.  With Skrtel and Jones both increasing ill at ease playing it out from the back, and with the preference to play all of Coutinho, Suarez, Downing and Sturridge, rather than a more pragmatic 4-5-1 omitting one of the latter two players for Henderson, Southampton found it all too easy to both win and control the ball in the middle of the park.  With their high line and intelligent pressing they were always going to take the game to Liverpool, who have floundered more often than not when under pressure.  For a side trying to play tiki-taka, a sudden change of formation and style to something that cried out for Andy Carroll was akin to suicide.

But in fact this has been coming; Liverpool have simply been fortunate in dodging the bullet until now.  In many ways the changes that Rodgers tried to instil in the squad for this game as a result of the injuries made at least as much sense as they seemed moments of madness.  Southampton do press hard and high, so playing a very direct brand of football will not only keep them at arm’s length, but will have a chance of catching them cold at the back, particularly with the pace of Downing and Sturridge and the desire of Suarez.  Playing direct puts the control of the game into the hands of Jones, Enrique and Gerrard who are all good at picking out distant targets, rather than relying on the desperate quality of actual footballing skill possessed by Jones and Skrtel, particularly in the absence of Lucas.  And yet…

And yet Rodgers picked Allen as the midfield anchor and as part of a midfield 2 rather than a 3 to boot, something he’s not been part of at either of his most recent pair of clubs.  Liverpool might as well have started with 10 men, as not only has Allen’s form been in dramatic decline since the return of Lucas, and not only is he not a specialist defensive midfielder, he is also carrying a shoulder injury in need of surgery!  Why drop a half-fit player just to play another half-fit player out of position, especially when the more defensive-minded and fully fit Henderson has been in impressive form since the turn of the year?  The choice of Allen over Henderson makes sense if one is more worried about what Liverpool will do with the ball than without it, but if you plan to play a direct game of hitting balls over the heads of the midfield, or passing it to Gerrard as the catalyst for the same, then the on-the-ball impact of Lucas’s replacement is surely likely to be far less than his abilities off the ball, where Henderson excels due to his relative pace, energy, and physicality; three areas that are decidedly not Allen’s forte, injured shoulder or not.

I do have some sympathy for the swing-door that is Skrtel.  He is terribly at sea in a zonal marking system, and is poor man-marking powerful forwards.  Under Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson he was in safe territory playing to his strengths, and to his credit preformed at a consistently high standard.  But now he’s a deer in the headlights and he simply isn’t able to cope.  He’s a good enough player to play for a top 6 club, but that club isn’t Liverpool given our system (if something that concedes 2 or more goals every other game can be called a “system”).  Sadly the stats tell the tale with startling clarity: when Skrtel plays Liverpool lose as often as they win.  Every other defensive player with a decent number of appearances at the club has lost less and won more often than when Skrtel has been in the team – and this is over each player’s career at the club, not just this season.  In fact in games when Liverpool’s “core” of Agger, Johnson, Lucas, and Gerrard have all started together without Skrtel, Liverpool score at 2 points per game, which is league top 3 standard.  When Skrtel is present instead of Gerrard the PPG is 1.53, and that’s the best of the rest of the combinations of 4 of these 5 players starting!  It’s remarkable that we’re talking about Liverpool’s player of the year last season as being the albatross about our neck, especially since a replacement like Carragher has hardly plugged the goals against leak and Agger has himself been culpable for many defensive lapses, yet the evidence suggests that Rodgers was foolish to not accept 20 million pounds for Skrtel in the summer.  (Credit to Dan Kennett of The Tomkins Times for these stats – they’re simply too incredible to not repeat: read his article here)

That’s not to say Skrtel is the weak link, of course.  Rodgers’ tactics against Southampton may have seemed plausible in his mind, but playing 4-2-4 as the away side is an exercise in futility, and even more so when applying it to a squad that has been eating, drinking and sleeping pass and move philosophies with a view to tiki-taka mastery.  Had he taken a step back and viewed it objectively he would surely have recognised it as madness.  After all, he’d tried the same plan at home against Spurs the previous week, and had only won because Spurs dominated the game to such a degree they figured it wasn’t important which team they back-passed to.

For me this loss should have been a massive wake-up call for Rodgers.  This is not a team where telepathic links exist between players, and definitely not in the mould of Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard and Torres.  With such a fragile structure one can’t make wholesale system changes and expect them to work immediately.  Rodgers needs to be more pragmatic, needs to be more cautious when setting up his team.  Yes, Suarez and Sturridge have performed well together, but Suarez has been a goal machine all season playing as a false 9.  Adding Sturridge takes that role away from him, diminishes him.  I question whether Sturridge has actually helped us.  He’s helped Downing, certainly, but has he helped Liverpool?  He doesn’t track back, so he can’t be played wide, and playing him in the middle forces Suarez out wide or back into midfield, where after an hour he’s a spent force.  If Sturridge can be convinced to work harder when we don’t have the ball, though his history with Chelsea suggests it isn’t possible, then it is Downing who must make way, not a midfielder.

I would have started the Southampton game as follows:


Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique

Henderson Allen

Downing Gerrard Coutinho


Although neither Allen nor Henderson are specialist defensive midfielders, both can operate as part of a double pivot, and both are able to recycle possession quickly and effectively.  Note that I would have assessed Allen’s fitness before making this decision, but if the sports science people said he and Lucas could play 45 minutes each then I would have risked Allen ahead of Lucas and hoped to pull him at half time for a more attacking player like Shelvey, Suso or Ibe, switching to a 1-2 triangle and running at them.  Keeping 5 in midfield with the double pivot would have protected Skrtel and would have improved our ability to pass it out from the back as we would likely always have an extra defender as an out-ball rather than a hoof upfield to an area of the pitch where the club has exactly zero players who are good in the air.  I would also have planned to sub Coutinho for Sturridge later on, moving Suarez wide.  The addition of pace through the middle with a more aggressive midfielder in the hole (Gerrard dropping deeper to act as the fulcrum in Allen’s place) would keep Southampton’s back line in check.

That is not to say this would have worked!  But it seems much more logical to stick with what system we’ve worked on all season rather than to charge balls out at an organised side at home, particularly since the frontal assault didn’t exactly work in the previous game.

Rodgers needs to stop being so naïve.  We beat Spurs because we took our chances, but a glance over the results obtained this season would show that we are just as capable of not taking our chances, and on any other day would not have scored one more than them.  Taking out a critical element of the midfield (Lucas) would almost certainly halve our already slim chances of winning with 4-2-4.  To an extent I’m pleased he tried anyway, but he should have made changes during the game when he saw it wasn’t working, and being 2 down within 25 minutes is a fairly clear sign it wasn’t working.  He stubbornly stuck to his plan, and Liverpool ultimately paid the price.  If he learned from that, fine.  If he didn’t, then he’s not the manager to take Liverpool back to the top, because learning from one’s mistakes is an absolutely critical element of any endeavour at the highest level.


Where’s the money, FSG?

I suppose I’m someone who sees the glass half-empty.  Liverpool’s performances between the last time we faced Norwich, which was matchday 6 of the league, and the same fixture this coming weekend show a simple trend; Liverpool either win or lose the game in the first half.  Obviously there are exceptions, such as the game at West Ham where Diame’s injury was a cruel blow that cost them 3 points, but for the most part unless Liverpool are tactically adept in the first half they create too much of a hole for themselves to play out of in the second.  In other words, although Liverpool’s second half performances generally improve, they cannot improve enough in games they fell behind in order to win.

The primary cause is that the Liverpool players react poorly to pressure when trying to play the ball out from the back.  Opponents like Stoke and Manchester United press very well without the ball, though Stoke does not employ the tactic against all opposition.  Liverpool’s system of keeping the ball on the floor and passing it through several stages from keeper to striker has an inherent weakness in this its primary strength.  If the opponent presses with poor co-ordination, then accurate passing and smooth transition between defence and attack can take several opposing players completely out of the game for the duration of the move.  While the team won’t score from every such opportunity it is certain that being the beneficiary of such chances is a great advantage in the game.  However, if the opponent presses well, or Liverpool fails to pass accurately, the opposition will regain the ball high up the pitch in a position where their players are not significantly outnumbered by Liverpool defenders.  This is extremely dangerous, and indeed such “final third regains” are a noted metric in leading to goal-bound efforts or cardable offences on the part of defenders desperate to snuff out a dangerous attack.

There is one caveat; no team can press continuously and accurately for 90 minutes.  This is because pressing drains far more energy than passing, so there comes a time when the side pressing must instead choose to stand off, handing the advantage back to the passing team.  The concept is that as long as the passing side does not fall too far behind, they will score late goals against exhausted opposition, who will also be unable able to reply with goals of their own because it is their attackers who are tired.  So Liverpool improving in the second half is matter-of-course; either their opposition have tired from pressing, are behind in the game because they failed to defend against the onslaught in the first half, or have obtained sufficient advantage to not need to press.  The former has been something of a rare bird, though perhaps the Everton game is the best example, where Liverpool could have stolen 3 points at the death but for a poor call from the linesman in a game where Everton were the better side for more than an hour.  This leads me back to my opening statement – Liverpool win or lose in the first half.

The remaining category of games Liverpool play would be those where the opposition does not press, but rather cedes space and allows Liverpool to take the ball relatively unchallenged into their half of the field.  Sometimes they do this because they will be satisfied with a 0-0 draw (for instance the Stoke game at Anfield), sometimes they will do this because their strength is on the counter-attack, and sometimes they’re just trying to lose by as few goals as possible because the fixture is a mismatch.

This is borne out in peculiar manner.  Liverpool have played 11 matches against clubs in the top half of the table and, by sheer coincidence, the same number against the bottom half of the table.  Of those against the bottom half, Liverpool have won 8, drawn 2, and lost 1; a remarkably good return.  The top?  Won ZERO, drawn 5 and lost 6.  The inference is clear: the teams that let Liverpool play have a bad time of it, while the teams that impose themselves are successful.  Perhaps this is not surprising, as it is commonly accepted that the side intent on defending stands the lower chance of winning, but surely Liverpool should have had at least some success against its peers?  Perhaps draws at Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park, and Swansea count as successes – in 3 fixtures time, having played Manchester City and Arsenal away, Liverpool will have 5 fixtures remaining against top half clubs, all of which will held be at Anfield, which suggests success against the top half is sure to follow.

I think it is important to look at why we lose in the first half.  It is clear that mistakes are being made and addressing these will be far more beneficial than practicing beating poor teams by more.  Rodgers’ strategy is to exploit passing triangles by creating as many as possible across the pitch.  The formation that best does this is 4-1-2-3.  It is achieved by the full backs pushing forward beyond the defensive midfielder to occupy a zone on their own, and the forward 3 occupying different lines to the central striker (who can play ahead of them as a traditional number 9, a la Torres, or deeper than them as a false 9, a la Messi).  This stretches the formation to 1-2-1-2-2-2-1 (or 1-2-1-2-2-1-2 with the false 9), with the first 1 being the goalkeeper, who is encouraged to behave more like an outfield player when the side has the ball.  Due to its diagonal nature this formation creates a lot of space “between the lines” that traditional defences employ, and can therefore make life very difficult for teams that choose to not continuously press as a team against the ball carrier and the players to whom he could pass.

The same “seven zone” system can be reached when starting with 4-2-3-1, though often the midfield players are required to take different roles when the side does not have the ball, which inhibits the transition to 1-2-1-2-2-2-1 to a certain extent.  Also, because the wide forwards are more involved defensively, this shape does not suit a false 9, because he would typically be the deepest of the forwards and would therefore prefer someone ahead of him on the pitch to pass to – otherwise the defenders simply mark him out of the game.  Of course, if one has a powerful team of versatile players a la Barcelona, then it doesn’t really matter; Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi are often enough to win by themselves.

So the choice of system determines the types of players one would use, unless a lack of suitable players is available.  In 4-1-2-3 for instance, Liverpool would absolutely start with Lucas as the “1”, players like Enrique and Johnson who are closer to wingbacks than traditional full backs, and Suarez as a false 9.  One of the remaining midfielders must be more attacking while the other more controlling, such as the roles taken by Gerrard and Alonso respectively under Benitez.  And here is where the first problem arises.  Rodgers has decided that Gerrard will take the controlling role, INSTEAD of Joe Allen who is a specialist in that position and is weaker anywhere else on the pitch.  Ergo, Liverpool should not play 4-1-2-3 with Lucas, Gerrard and Allen.

In order to keep Lucas and Gerrard as the deeper players, a true attacker like Shelvey should be the third midfielder, but his season has waned since he was sent off against United.  Suso is perhaps not yet ready to play at Old Trafford either. The only other midfielder we have is Henderson, who has impressed as the season has worn on, but he is more a utility midfielder able to play at a decent standard in any position; in other words, he is the perfect squad player but perhaps not the perfect player in any specific position in the starting line-up.  Furthermore, with Enrique injured Liverpool only have one wingback in Johnson, and the next best fit fullback is 19 year old Wisdom, which means that our lone wingback will also have to play on the wrong side of the field.  Add to this that our best left wing is Sterling, someone who has shown absolutely no understanding with Johnson throughout the season.  So isn’t it asking for trouble to play Johnson out of position on the left, Wisdom in an unfamiliar wingback role on the right, Gerrard and Allen in reversed roles, and Sterling on the same flank as Johnson in an attacking 4-1-2-3 away at Manchester United?

Surely it made much more sense to be a bit more pragmatic as the 8th placed side travelling to the home ground of a team at the top of the both the form and league logs who have scored more than a dozen goals more than any other side in the league?  Surely it was better to start with the more defensive 4-2-3-1 with the plan of keeping the crowd silent for 20 minutes?  While 4-2-3-1 does not open up the pitch in quite the same way as 4-1-2-3, having the extra midfielder in a double pivot means the team’s shape is a lot less susceptible to high pressing because the side without the ball will not press with more than half the team against the fullbacks, centre backs, double pivot and goalkeeper.  This would largely eliminate the system’s primary weakness against pressing, and it would be stronger without the ball, something that can only be advantageous against the league’s top scorers; Liverpool would always be second best if the game against United came down to a straight shootout of who could score more goals faster.  To win this game Liverpool needed the patience of a war of attrition; United’s attack floundering against the defence while their attackers tired while chasing dead ends in futile pressing.  All-out attack is not the only way to win.

Rodgers changed the formation to 4-2-3-1 at half-time, removing Lucas who was being overrun both with and without the ball because the formation chosen by the manager was utterly wrong, and bringing on Sturridge to act as a lone striker ahead of Suarez in the hole.  This meant that Allen dropped back into a more comfortable deeper role, though still not his best role.  Outside a schoolboy error from Skrtel, Liverpool were the better side from then until the end of the game, but that isn’t surprising as United stopped pressing once they were two goals ahead.  Fergusson brought on Jones to mark Suarez out of the game once Liverpool looked dangerous going forward, and that was that.  Liverpool lost in the first half, and simply because the manager made an avoidable error.  After the game he said we deserved a point; and we did because we put United under considerable pressure through the second half.  But starting with the wrong idea tactically cost us that point, Mr. Rodgers; it certainly cost us the chance of an unlikely 3.

But that isn’t all that concerns me right now.  Throughout this season and the last we have been told that the owners are prepared and capable of spending at the same level as our peers in the transfer market.  Yet these same owners balked at 6m for a forward we’ve desperately needed through the first six months.  This transfer window was supposed to be one where there would be “significant backing” for the manager, but a single deal for a striker worth 12m does not equate as “significant backing” in my book, especially since the same player was available at the same fee 6 months ago and we declined.  We are supposedly in talks with Ince and another youth goalkeeper (to replace Doni, presumably), and seem intent on loaning out Coates without first getting a player in reserve despite Agger’s injury record and Carragher’s continuing decline; in other words we’re keen to repeat the mistake we made earlier this season with strikers by being understaffed at CB.  We also persist with playing Gerrard as a deep-lying midfielder so that he gets in the way of the other players in the squad (Allen, Henderson, Sahin while he was here) while leaving us short in attacking midfield – his speciality. You couldn’t make this up.

These things alone would not be such a concern if we had a deep squad.  But let’s name them shall we:

Starters: Suarez, Johnson, Sturridge, Enrique, Skrtel, Agger, Gerrard

Squad: Borini, Assaidi, Allen, Lucas, Henderson, Shelvey, Sterling, Downing, Wisdom, Kelly, Robinson, Carragher, Jones, Doni, Suso

Deemed surplus: Coates, Carroll

If we trim those who are under 21 we have 17 players not including Andy Carroll.  Given that a Premier League club may register no more than 25 players over the age of 21, this shows that Liverpool are not one or two players short of a competitive squad; we are EIGHT short before we even consider quality!  Somehow we are not in the slightest bit interested in changing that during this window.  If the owners are willing to back the manager, then why are we so interested in saving a few million pounds by waiting until the summer (when transfer fees are typically lower) when we run the risk of losing our transfer targets to clubs like Spurs who let us do their scouting for them and then just offer more money and a chance to play in the Champions’ League?  We’re being penny wise and pound foolish by relying on players like Downing, Carragher, and a bunch of teenagers instead of getting Sturridge when he was available the first time (or at least settling for Dempsey), and at least being in the market for a left wingback, centre back, and defensive midfielder to cover for Enrique, Agger and Lucas.  Even then we would still be half a dozen players short of a squad, though a few Liverpool players will be old enough to need to be registered next season (Downing and Doni could leave at any time to balance this).

It all boils down to a stunning lack of foresight from our inexperienced management team, both in the transfer market and on the pitch.  Hopefully they can improve next season, because they certainly can’t get much worse.

Progress or not?

Brendan Rodgers has been in the Liverpool hot seat for 15 weeks now (in terms of the EPL season), and a common question doing the rounds is “Are Liverpool improving?”  Obviously with only 16 points from the opening 13 fixtures (7 points adrift of Kenny Dalglish at the same point last season, and on a par with Roy Hodgson the season before) it cannot be said that Liverpool are a better side than 12 months ago.  But is that a fair comparison?

At the end of November 2011, Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool had just drawn with Manchester City at Anfield, his 8th consecutive match unbeaten in the Premier League.  In their next fixture, a league cup tie at Stamford Bridge, Lucas Leiva would rupture cruciate ligaments in his knee, an injury that would force him to miss the rest of the season.  A loss at Fulham in the next league fixture ended the unbeaten run, and while Liverpool managed to see out the rest of December without losing again, the loss of Suarez to his 8 match ban saw Liverpool’s season gradually fall into decline.  From the start of January to the end of the season Liverpool would score points in consecutive matches only 4 times, including only one set of back-to-back victories.  They would win only 5 of their 19 matches while accumulating a mere 18 points; 1 more than half their total for the first half of the season.

In terms of this calendar year therefore, Brendan Rodgers is doing rather well.  Even without Lucas to stabilize the midfield (due to a “rare” thigh injury picked up moments into match day 2), Rodgers has gone 8 matches unbeaten, though admittedly including only 3 victories, and has a positive goal difference (if barely).  For Rodgers, 8 games unbeaten compared to the last 19 matches where Dalglish couldn’t go 3 games without a loss (and had a run of 5 straight defeats) marks staggering success.  By contrast to the free scoring seen against Dalglish’s side, Rodgers’ Liverpool have conceded only 4 goals in their last 7 EPL fixtures, keeping 4 clean sheets.  It’s also worth noting that of Rodgers’ 3 losses in the league, 2 came in games where Liverpool finished with 10 men.  Liverpool might not be winning, but they seem pretty difficult to beat, something that could not have been said of the side at the end of last season.

But Liverpool still aren’t winning enough.  Rodger’s EPL record reads P13 W3 D7 L3.  3 wins from 13 is a terribly low return for a Liverpool manager, especially considering that Rafa Benitez, a man overlooked in favour of Rodgers, won over 58% of all matches in all competitions for Liverpool over a 6 year period; only 5 managers in the history of the game have better averages in England, and all 5 won the EPL title with far more valuable squads.  Even Roy Hodgson had won more often than Rodgers at the same stage in the league, and this despite Luis Suarez being on top of the goal scoring charts thus far this season!  Liverpool might have stopped being bad, but that doesn’t mean they have become good.  Though perhaps even that perception is false, as during the first half of last season Dalglish’s 8 match unbeaten run contained only 4 wins, and this season Suarez had a legitimate goal disallowed against Everton that would have provided the 4th win in the current streak.

When one takes into consideration a paper-thin squad that sees Stuart Downing played at left back and Jordan Henderson at right back, with only one fit striker of two, and regular appearances of 3 teenagers in the EPL starting line-up because they are the best players we have, then one surely appreciates how much work Rodgers has to do to get this Liverpool side anywhere near the bar set by Benitez.  That the squad still contains window dressing in the shape of Joe Cole and the aforementioned Downing is an indicator of how far the quality of the squad has fallen.  A chasm exists between the value of this squad in monetary terms and its value on the pitch.  Even then, Liverpool have only the 4th most valuable squad in the league, pipping Arsenal and Spurs mainly due to the soaring value of Suarez.  This suggests Liverpool should stand far higher than 11th in the league table, so the club is still some significant way from expected form, but 4 managers in 4 years suggests massive upheaval at the club; not something any of Liverpool’s top 4 rivals can honestly claim despite recent appointments at Chelsea and Spurs.  Too, Brendan Rodgers’ chosen style of play is not one mastered in a fortnight.  It will take time, and will more than likely only bear fruit when the boys in the system mature into men.

In terms of “playing like a top team”, Liverpool create as many or more goal scoring chances per minute of possession than traditional markers for top 4 teams.  Our conversion of so-called “clear cut chances” is also highest in the league this season, which is extremely encouraging because Rodgers’ system is designed to patiently wait for the right opportunity to create the best goal scoring chance.  Sadly our creation rate of such chances is moderate, but hopefully as the players become more accustomed to the system and to one another this aspect of our game will improve.  Our chance conversion in general however is somewhat off the pace, and each game Liverpool lives and dies on the performance of Suarez and the support he gets from the players around him.  Against Wigan the front 3 was supreme and the game was easy.  Against Swansea Sterling had an off day, misplacing ball after ball and ruining the best chance of the game with a poorly weighted pass, while Enrique was hampered by Downing providing absolutely nothing in either attack or defence alongside him.  Yet Liverpool would still leave the Liberty Stadium feeling worse about the drawn result against a side that has lost only once at home all season in all competitions and now stands just one outside the Europa League places.

What has bogged Liverpool down thus far this season is that in defence we allow our opposition among the highest chance creation and conversion stats in the league, which suggests that not only do we not keep the invaders at bay, we gift them gilt-edged chances that they cannot fail to convert.  Since we’re not making good at the other end of the pitch, each goal conceded is a hammer blow that ruins our chances of a victory.  While it is true that we are gradually conceding fewer goals per game and there are rumours of money to spend in January for attacking support for Suarez, my gut feel is that we have bigger problems than just putting the ball in the net and hoping Lucas comes back in the form of his life.

In very nearly every game our midfield co-ordination has been poor, and it’s uncertain whether the imminent return of Lucas will solve all the problems.  We create a lot of chances up front, but no small percentage are chances that Suarez creates all by himself – were we creating as a team goals would come from more players than just our number 7 as a natural by-product of good play.  Instead we give the ball away an alarming amount for a possession-orientated team, and really don’t seem to work hard enough to get it back.  Rodgers highlighted the 4 P’s of this system when he first took the job: possession, pressing, patience, penetration.  In the recently completed game against Swansea we excelled in exactly zero of those aspects, and yet we thought we were good enough for the win?  Something doesn’t add up, and as I’ve highlighted previously I think the problem is simply that Gerrard is completely the wrong kind of player for this system.  It would be okay were he a peripheral player like Downing, but he is our Captain Fantastic AND he commands one of the most crucial central midfield roles to boot.  The things he does well end up hurting us; the draw against Young Boys in the midweek Europa League fixture was a direct result of him driving play forward, pulling players with him (something we had lacked to that point), and then leaving us exposed at the back when the attack breaks down while his 32-year-old legs WALK back hoping no one notices he’s miles out of position.  There will come a time when Rodgers must drop him.  I only hope the fickle fans don’t see that in the wrong light.

Progress or not?  Perhaps.  Parts of our game are definitely top 4 standard, but other parts just as clearly are not.  The return of Lucas will help us defensively, though whether he will be enough to balance the midfield remains to be seen.  But it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and nothing is decided in November.

Is it Gerrard?

The general feel from the games Liverpool have finished with 11 men is that Brendan Rodgers’ system can achieve the right results once the players gel and are able to be patient on the ball.  But the most effective display of this philosophy actually came from the 2-1 loss against Manchester United, where even with 10 men Liverpool were at least equal to their opponent.  So what was so different about this game that Liverpool were better despite losing than the 5-2 win over Norwich where the victory margin could have been so much greater?

Simply put: Steven Gerrard.  Now, I’m not going to say Gerrard has been poor this season because it isn’t true.  But he has only been world class once, and that was in the United game.  Certainly United fielded a very weak midfield for the game and that almost certainly was a contributing factor, but I guess when your best midfielders are both pushing 40 you have to compromise somewhere.  What was however markedly different about this game and the rest Liverpool have played this season was Gerrard’s tactical discipline.

It is interesting to note that the last time Gerrard really bossed a game was in the same fixture in Dalglish’s tenure, a 3-1 home drubbing of United where Dirk Kuyt famously scored his first Liverpool hat-trick after Suarez destroyed their defence.  In that game too Gerrard sat deeper and did not venture forward overmuch, instead allowing Meireles the freedom of the area between United’s midfield and back 4.  And United, who would go on to win the title, never got a sniff of ball in midfield that day either.

So how is it that Gerrard was so good in these fixtures?  Gerrard is a driven player, a real-life Roy of the Rovers, and under Benitez was unleashed as a staggering attack force; and it’s not like he was bad before.  Yet under Hodgson, especially for England, Gerrard has shown that he is capable of playing a deep role and that he can stay there and not desert his post while no one is watching.  During these two Liverpool games Gerrard did exactly that under different managers with different philosophies, systems and formations, and in both cases produced a master class of midfield play of the kind he’d not achieved regularly since 08/09.  The only other example in recent memory was his single-handed demolition of Napoli in the Europa League under Hodgson, when facing elimination from the competition due to having won only one other game in the group phase and being 1-0 down with the clock running down at Anfield, a freshly recovered Gerrard blew the Italians away in Roy of the Rovers style with 3 goals in 15 minutes.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that when Steven Gerrard is tasked with doing exactly one job and is actively prevented from doing any others by his manager, then Steven Gerrard remains one of the best midfielders in the world.  But if there is even a little bit of leeway for Gerrard to innovate, to play out the Roy of the Rovers fantasy, then his impact on the game wanes.  While he will produce moments of brilliance these pale into significance given the amount of time he spends doing a different job than the one he should be doing, allowing the opposition to get back into the game.  Given that he is the team’s captain and the club’s talisman, this can have disastrous effects on the team’s performance.

This was especially apparent in the game at Norwich.  The EPL strugglers had as many shots on goal as Liverpool did despite losing by 3 clear goals.  After the non-penalty call on Suarez, Norwich seemed for some significant time to be the side in the ascendency, and this was almost entirely due to Gerrard’s continual absence from his post.  It even affected Joe Allen to the tune of his worst passing performance in the league.  Liverpool won the game comfortably in the end only because Luis Suarez had his shooting boots on; his shooting accuracy on the day was well above his average.

Against Stoke it seems Gerrard either undertook several roles or was tasked with several roles by the manager.  The result was that he gave the ball away more than any other player, and each loss of possession for a possession-based team means a loss of momentum.  Fortunately this was Stoke at Anfield, which means Pulis was perfectly happy for the game to end 0-0; in the same circumstances Arsenal came away with the 3 points in a convincing win.  Gerrard tried to be Roy of the Rovers against a side that cannot be undone by such tactics, and Liverpool limped off with a 0-0 draw at home.

The question is: does Gerrard actually have the patience to play in Rodgers’ system on a season-wide scale?  He can certainly do it once, as he proved against United.  But can he do it every week?  Joe Allen obviously can, but he’s a different type of person and a different type of player.  Some, including myself, wonder whether on merit alone Gerrard is an automatic starter if Lucas, Allen, Sahin and Shelvey are all available for selection.  Shelvey may seem increasingly close to the kind of player Gerrard was at the same age, but at least Rodgers can temper such young talent to suit the system and Shelvey seems better at short passing anyway.  But old dog Gerrard might not be able to learn new tricks, and Rodgers’ philosophy is not based around having an individual who will try to take the game by the scruff of the neck at every opportunity, not even as Plan B.

When the chips are down and the backs are against the wall there probably isn’t a single player in the world you would rather have on the pitch than Gerrard.  He’s mainly remembered for Istanbul, for the “Gerrard Final” against West Ham in the FA Cup, and for the staggering late goal against Olympiakos in 04/05 – comebacks that only he could engineer.  Liverpool in 08/09 was mainly in the title race because in the first half of the season the defence was so poor that Liverpool regularly conceded the first goal and often went in down at half time; cue Roy of the Rovers, with Gerrard rescuing game after game.  But when it’s just another game, especially against a side that Liverpool “should beat”, Gerrard doesn’t seem to have that same focus and that filters through the rest of the side.  Now that there are no expectations of where Liverpool should finish in a season the pressure on Gerrard just isn’t there; most of the time he’s just trying to force the issue because everyone is looking to him to carry the side and get the result, but using force is not the way Brendan Rodgers’ system works.  But with 10 men against United at home and a referee who isn’t friendly?  Cue Roy of the Rovers in a game where a draw would be a good result.  Sadly, Gerrard is 32 and wasn’t enough to overcome the officials, but it’s telling that his contribution in that game stands out from the rest this season and from the non-Napoli performances under Hodgson – no expectation, no threat of destruction, no world class Steven Gerrard.

If Gerrard is to be a force in this Liverpool side, and if this team is to regularly perform around him, Brendan Rodgers will have to produce a master class of man management.  Otherwise Rodgers will need the willpower to drop his captain to the bench and leave him there for the rescue jobs at which he excels.