It is very rare for a former Man Utd player to praise a team from the red half of Liverpool, and in fact it has been even rarer this season for an opposition manager to praise Liverpool’s style of play, but both occurred yesterday from Steve Bruce. Despite being playfully taunted by sections of the Anfield crowd for having a head the size of a beach-ball, the Sunderland manager took time out after the match to pay tribute to the way Liverpool played:
“Sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say you are beaten by a far better team, today was one of those days. We showed resilience in the second half because it might have been embarrassing. Liverpool had a wonderful start. When Torres and Steven Gerrard are in that sort of mood it is very difficult. We were beaten by a very, very good Liverpool team.”
A “very, very good Liverpool team,” how many times I have dreamed that to have been the case this season. The fundamental difference yesterday against the Black Cats was the pace in the passing. Beautiful one-two touch football was played at Anfield for the first time in many months and if you play in a fast, attacking style, you will be rewarded with goals. Teams can come to Anfield and put two banks of four in front of their goal, and in the past the Reds have found it difficult to break teams down. Early goals always help, and Torres’s wonderful first on three minutes yesterday obviously helped open up the game, but right from the off, the Reds played at a speed that prevented Sunderland from setting their stall out to make it difficult for their opponents by being positionally disciplined. As Bruce also said, Liverpool just played around the Black Cats and any plans Sunderland had for the Reds’ attacking players just went out of the window.
A lot of praise has gone the way of Steven Gerrard, and rightfully so, as he always looks right at home in central midfield, making runs from deep, fizzing balls wide for quick counter attacks, and making late bursts into the penalty box to offer different options for players around him. The problem with the Reds midfield with two defensive minded midfield players in the past is that the play becomes static, and that players around the central areas then stop and play the ball slow. The midfield yesterday could not have been accused of such play yesterday, as Rodriguez and Babel provided ample support on the wings while Mascherano and Kuyt provided bundles of energy and industry to help out Torres and Gerrard. Quality possession has never been Liverpool’s problem, quality passing and incisive play has been this season. Not so much at home where the Sunderland victory was Liverpool’s eighth straight league win, but away where the Reds have scored only 13 league goals the entire campaign.
Nobody expects Gerrard to play central midfield every match but it is clear for me that Liverpool benefit from Stevie’s dynamism in that area. A concern for me though is the response Rafa gave to Jamie Redknapp’s comments which were made after the Man U game last week.
“This expert said he (Gerrard) cannot play on the left but he is playing with the national team on the left. He was playing here on the right and scoring 23 goals so Gerrard can play everywhere. It depends on the team. I told him before the Sunderland game he was playing in the middle and he was happy. He can help the team and that is the main thing. With the same tactics we scored more goals than anyone in the Premier League last year and more goals than anyone in England two years ago. It is a question sometimes of accuracy, pass completion or just a little bit of luck.”
You can see the stubbornness in Rafa’s comments on the Gerrard positional question, and although he is certainly correct that in the past that such tactics (with Gerrard on the right or as a support striker) have been successful and that pass completion and accuracy have a critical part to play in such tactics being successful, it has become apparent that such a plan has not been successful away from home this season. The pairing of Lucas and Mascherano in midfield has generally led to slow build up play and low chance creation, leading to only 13 goals and 8 defeats on the road in the league this season. When we go to Portugal to play Benfica on Thursday, I fully expect us to revert to Kuyt wide right and Lucas alongside Mascherano in midfield. Benfica will not be as forgiving as other teams such as Unirea or Lille and will look to attack with a lot more purpose at home. We can’t sit back and allow Benfica to play like they did in their 5-0 victory over Everton. I would like to see Gerrard in central midfield but with Aquilani ahead of him to support Torres, passing accurately and with pace, we could pick off the Portuguese League leaders, but I fear Rafa will go back to what he knows best, something which hasn’t worked away from Anfield this season.