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’:

Mignolet

Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno

Henderson Gerrard Coutinho

Lallana Sterling

Sturridge

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.

Henderson Coming of Age

Jordan Henderson’s career at Liverpool may be plotting a similar course to that of Lucas Leiva. Derided at first, but now one of the team’s most important players, the England U21 captain is changing the fans’ perception. For some he still doesn’t do enough, being more a jack-of-all-trades than a master of one, but he seems to have the right attitude, working hard for the team no matter where he plays; a midfield Dirk Kuyt.

Initially he was overlooked, as Rodgers was intent on selling the player to a Championship club, but that seems to have given the player the incentive to improve every aspect of his game. Good management, or good fortune? As a result, Henderson was largely spared the terror of the season’s opening four fixtures, playing a total of only 71 minutes before he got a full half a game under his belt against Wigan on 17 November. In total he has spent 1317 minutes on the pitch, almost 600 minutes less than Joe Allen who made 25 appearances, and only 400 minutes more than Sturridge who only started playing in mid-January. Through the season he has scored 5 goals and has 4 assists, making him Liverpool’s 4th most important league goal-getter behind Suarez (28), Gerrard (18), and Sturridge (10). With either a goal or an assist every 147 minutes, Henderson is one of the more efficient attacking midfielders in the league.

A statistic that really sparks my interest though is that when one looks at the goals scored vs goals conceded during the time when Henderson was on the pitch, in only 2 games during the entire season was Liverpool the worse side, including the final 25 minutes as one of ten men against Manchester United, who needed the referee’s intervention to win the game with a controversial penalty during that time. The only other game Liverpool were worse off was at Spurs.

In total Henderson made 28 appearances for the club in the EPL this season. I removed 4 of these when looking at the stats critically because they were 79th minute or later substitutions, usually to remove a tiring player (Allen, Sturridge) rather than as a game-changing attempt. During all 4 Liverpool neither scored nor conceded.

Liverpool conceded a goal in only 6 games while Henderson was present. The aforementioned United and Spurs games, the 2-2 draws with Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal (where he played the full 90 each time), and the 2-1 win over Aston Villa (where he scored the equaliser). In terms of not conceding while he is on the pitch, Liverpool keep a “clean sheet” 3 games out of 4. This is an incredible stat for an attacking midfielder, and really highlights his contribution in tracking back and helping the side keep a good shape without the ball.

Less impressive is that Liverpool have only been the better side (in terms of goal difference) in 9 of those 24 appearances, which is obviously not the conversion rate one would hope for from an attacking player. It is however important to understand that he was taken off against Swansea, West Ham, Reading, and Everton with the scores at 0-0, and his replacement fared no better as the games stayed that way – Liverpool simply weren’t capable of winning on the day. He helped keep WBA at 0-0 for an hour at Anfield, only for Liverpool to lose by 2 goals after he’d been substituted. In only one game did an “underperforming” Liverpool score after Henderson was taken off – at Spurs, where they lost anyway.

He came on against Wigan when Liverpool were already 4-0 up and the heat had gone out of the game. He came on for 20 minutes at Stoke with Liverpool 3-1 down and not even pretending to contest the tie. His 21 minutes at Goodison Park saw no goals scored, with the exception of Suarez’s stoppage time goal being incorrectly disallowed. So that’s 8 of the remaining games explained in terms of football being very much a team sport, with Liverpool having an inconsistent team.

However, if one considered a player’s contribution each game to have been worth the entire 90 minutes, Liverpool have been unbeaten since last November while Henderson is on the pitch, and one cannot say he’s dodged the tough games because he played more than 10 minutes against the entire top half of the table outside Manchester United and Spurs since then. Liverpool have a goal difference of +0.88 per game while he is on the pitch, mainly because outside the Newcastle 6-0 he didn’t feature in the high scoring wins (he had late cameos against Norwich, Swansea and Wigan when Liverpool were already well up, and missed the Fulham game).

Perhaps more enlightening would be to look at the games where he did not play more than 10 minutes. In these 12 games Liverpool’s record is: W3 D5 L4. This gives us 1.17 points per game which is very far off top 4 standard (1.82 points per game), though with the caveat that he didn’t play any of Liverpool’s difficult first 4 games. Over the remaining games: W11 D8 L5. This is 1.71 points per game, which while still not top 4 standard would at least see Liverpool into the top 6 (from 8th last season). Incidentally, if one took the score during Henderson’s time on the pitch rather than the game’s final result in these fixtures, then Liverpool would have achieved W9 D13 L2 over those games. In other words, Liverpool would have taken 1 point less, but would have seemed almost impossible to beat. Perhaps a bit more infuriating to watch, Liverpool would seem a far more stable side in this season where stability has all but eluded the club.

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:

Jones

Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique

Henderson Allen

Downing Gerrard Coutinho

Suarez

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.

The importance of the West Ham fixture

This is a big game. I know it seems strange that a match against a Sam Allardyce team should be labelled as “big”, but this one is. They beat a disappointing Chelsea team at home last week after the visitors failed to put the game to bed in the first half and then lost their way in the second half (as they did against us). What was important is that Fat Sam had his side increase their pressing efforts after half time, and that won them the game. Thus far Liverpool haven’t looked the best when under pressure due to the youth and inexperience of the side, but I think that the presence of Lucas may be our trump here.

We’re without Suarez, which will make scoring goals difficult. I’m sure Shelvey will take up a position as the false 9 as he is the most lively midfielder we have in terms of getting into the area, but I honestly don’t know who Rodgers will pick to play wide on the left. I’d be tempted to bring Wisdom back and play Enrique and Johnson down the left, but I’m not sure how Wisdom will handle the West Ham wide men. One thing is certain – we can’t afford to go behind.

But mostly this is a big game because of its relevance to the league table. Lose or draw and we stay 12th, and with Chelsea winning today and Spurs at Everton we could find ourselves further out of touch with the top 4; and indeed with the top 10. But a win puts us 10th in West Ham’s place, and if Everton get anything from Spurs we can close to within 5 or even 4 points of 4th. That is massive in terms of our season. We have winnable fixtures coming up, so being that close now will create a good platform for a challenge as we head into the New Year.

But Liverpool over the past few seasons have always lost the “big” games (in terms of importance rather than in terms of the fixture profile). In 09/10 after a poor start to the season we went on a little run while fixtures elsewhere went our way, and come November a win at Stamford Bridge would put us back in touch with the top of the table. A draw would not be a bad result given how Chelsea had started the season (and it was an away game), but they were struggling and had come back to the field. This was our chance!  Instead we lost poor game 2-0, and from that moment on our challenge for anything dissipated (and Chelsea regained their mojo and took the double).  The difference one game makes…

Then came the Spurs game at Anfield in 10/11 – a win in the penultimate game of the season would put us in pole position to finish 5th after that dreadful start under Hodgson. Again we lost tamely 2-0, and even though we maintained a chance to yet beat Spurs for 5th, we lost the next game as well. Last season a bad 0-0 against the same club at White Hart Lane lead on to the loss against Arsenal and the evaporation of our top 4 dreams. While we have mixed good football with bad over the past few seasons, our primary shortcoming has been playing dreadful football in critical games.

Under Rodgers we’ve not played dreadful football outside the game against Arsenal and our capitulation after going down to 10 men against WBA. There is a case for the Sunderland game as well, but again that was early doors and it was their first home fixture. So while I don’t expect us to be dire against West Ham, the importance of taking 3 points here cannot be denied, and without Suarez we will have to do it the hard way. Local pundits reckon it will be a score draw, and I’m hard-pressed to fault that. But this is as close to a must-win as Rodgers has had thus far in terms of our league aspirations (rather than in terms of his job, which I honestly do not think was ever on the line but some “fans” disagree). It is in such pressure games that sides either come together or fall apart, and I honestly can’t call which way we will go. A hard-fought draw is probably enough for the team to go on believing, but a win on the road without Suarez that takes us back into the top 10 and within touching distance of the compressed set of teams between there and 4th? Priceless…

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.