There’s a popular cliché in sport that ‘you’re only as good as your last game’ and, if we are to apply that in Liverpool’s case, then we are simply bloody awful. Whether the players had one eye on Wednesday’s 2nd leg against Manchester City or not, there is no excuse for a performance of that ineptitude. I was particularly disappointed with Kenny Dalglish’s comments on Sunday and Monday morning about the attitude of his players, it speaks volumes for the pressure that the manager no doubt feels he is under at the moment, as every game passes and we fail to win, yet again. You just can’t pass the buck that easily, Kenny, you are all as responsible as each other.
In our last 6 Premier league games we’ve gone from one of the most in-form teams in the country to perhaps one of the most out of form, taking 1 win, 3 draws and 2 defeats from our last 6. Our last win in the league was at home to Newcastle on 30th December 2011. By the time we play in the league again, it will have been over a month since we last won a league match, with our least 3 having ended in defeat on two occasions and a draw in the other. By anybody’s standards, those are poor results. While in some parts Kenny’s comments certainly ring true, the fact of the matter is, the results on Saturday evening has only emphasised a situation which has been apparent to some all season: we simply haven’t improved enough since this time last year.
Our current league record stands at 9 wins, 8 draws and 5 losses. In percentage terms that’s 41% won, 36% drawn and 23% lost. On paper, there is a definite improvement on last season: we’ve won 10% more games than in the same period last season and lost over 15% less. However, that equates to 2 more wins than last year; not a great deal in real terms. Of the 10 defeats we’d suffered during the first 22 games of last season, we’ve lost 5 less but only turned 2 of those into wins, with a further 3 draws than the same period last year. If you’re going to really strip it down, we currently have 9 more points than this time last year, despite bringing in more than £100 million worth of talent. If we were to continue along this path then you can only imagine that the owners would not be too impressed with the returns on their investment, particularly given that almost £60 million of that money will have been spent almost 18 months ago, by that time, and less than half of the talent recruited for that sum (Suarez) has actually shown any promise.
However, having said that, it isn’t really that simple. It’s not like we’ve played poorly all season. Indeed, Saturday afternoon was probably our poorest performance all season – the White Hart Lane fiasco aside – particularly as we were playing the bottom club. The only players, for me, who emerged with even a shred of credit were Bellamy, Skrtel and Reina. Bellamy, as always, ran himself in to the ground (it’s no wonder his knees are knackered). Skrtel, I’ve noticed has a taken a few knocks from some fans but Enrique and Johnson were abysmal and Agger wasn’t much better, while Skrtel was pretty much covering up as many cracks as he could on his own. And whilst Reina made some great saves and did what he could to organise those in front of him, everybody else looked completely bereft of ideas; clueless, directionless and without any kind of clear focus.
As I mentioned earlier, Kenny has since blamed that lack of focus on the upcoming cup semi-final 2nd leg. He has also made it clear that any player who is looking to the future, rather than concentrating on only the next game may well find himself moved on in the summer. At no point does Dalglish take responsibility for this lack of focus. As manager, it is his job to manage all aspects of the team and if he senses for a second that a player’s mind is elsewhere, he has two options: make it clear to the player that he has to focus on one game and one game only – the next one. The alternative is to drop him. I know that a lot of fans will no doubt excuse the manager of any responsibility for this but it is well within his remit and it is his responsibility. As an example of this, back in 2007 Rafa Benitez actually went so far as to ban his squad from even talking about the Chelsea semi in the Champions League. Funnily enough, Liverpool lost the game before the second leg – 2:1 away at Portsmouth – but with a significantly weakened side (Gabriel Paletta, anybody?). Against Bolton there were no such excuses, with the Reds fielding their strongest side, and neither players nor manager should be excused for Saturday’s debacle.
All Saturday’s defeat did though, was further raise awareness to two much wider problems, problems which has pervaded the team all season long: a total lack of creativity and clinical finishing. Because for all of Liverpool’s woes during the Bolton game, we could easily have pulled ourselves back out of that hole if, at 2:1, we’d had something resembling a play-maker, a nippy winger, or – whisper it – a ‘fox in the box’ to bring off the bench. To be fair, I’d make do with a badger in the box at the moment, so low are my expectations of our prowess in front of goal at the present.
But all jokes aside, Liverpool’s attack has truly become something of a joke in the media, after failing to score more than once against the worst Bolton side I’ve ever seen and notching only 24 goals in the league from 22 games. A quick glance at the table shows some pretty embarrassing statistics in that Newcastle, Norwich, Sunderland, Blackburn and now, even Bolton, have all scored more than Liverpool. Perhaps more embarrassing is the fact that Everton have scored only 3 less and I can count on one hand the number of times they’ve played with an actual recognised striker this season (Tim Cahill doesn’t count). For a team that started the season with genuine Champions League aspirations, that just isn’t acceptable. And for that, you can only look to the manager and his staff to take responsibility, both in terms of signings and tactics/training.
Tactically, we’ve had a mixed bag so far. Defensively we’ve been sound – Saturday aside – with Agger and Skrtel being a revelation at the back. But going forward we’ve been found wanting at least 75% of the time. We’ve bossed a fair portion of our games, even against the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United and our passing game is impressive when it’s working. Sadly, we’ve come to resemble the Arsenal side of a few years ago who, for all their fancy-dan build up, couldn’t score a goal to save their lives. At my last count we’d had over 350 shots at goal all season and had scored less than 10% of those chances. A quick glance at the Premier League’s top scorers shows that only Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy break in to the top 50. When you consider some of the illustrious names who have outscored even our top scorers – Shane Long, Grant Holt, Danny Graham, Heidar Helguson, even Yakubu – you know there are serious problems.
From a fan/amateur football writer’s point of view, a lot of that comes down to the management of the team and the way they’re set up. I have been utterly confused with some of our tactical decisions and substitutions this season. The most confusing aspect is how Andy Carroll is often deployed by himself up front, with a five-man midfield. This is a popular tactic in this day and age and we’ve reaped the benefits in years gone by more than anyone, but for this to work you need your striker to be either a) strong and intelligent or b) quick and intelligent. The c) option is that he will be all of these things, but those strikers are a rare commodity. However, Andy Carroll is perhaps one of the least game-intelligent footballers I’ve ever seen at Liverpool (even more so than Glen Johnson), with flick-on’s going in to no man’s land, badly miss-timing his jumps to meet the ball in the air and constantly failing to get himself in to dangerous areas. Even his strength and aerial ability leave a lot to be desired but surely I can’t be the only one to whom that is clearly apparent?
On the other hand, how many times have we seen decisions taken whereby Stewart Downing is withdrawn (as a few weeks ago) only to be replaced by the very man he should be giving service too, Andy Carroll? We have seen many baffling tactical decisions like this this season that have contributed to poor results.
We’ve seen just as many confusing substitutions too, with the manager often leaving it as late as possible to make a much-needed change and then replacing like-for-like, instead of bringing on an extra striker, or putting another body in midfield. Saturday’s game highlighted a further issue in this respect, in that we rarely use all of our substitutions when that is exactly what we were crying out for: a complete overhaul when we still had the chance of getting something from the game. Going in at 2:1 at the break Kenny should’ve nipped all of our problems in the bud, dragged Adam out from in front of the defence, thrown on another striker (or at least pushed Bellamy up front), replaced Johnson with Kelly and put Henderson out of his misery. Instead, he waited until 15 minutes after we’d gone 3:1 down – and when it had been apparent for at least an hour that is wasn’t working – and took off Maxi and Adam and replaced them with Downing and Kuyt; hardly the dynamic duo to pull us out of the mire. There are numerous examples of tactical faux pa’s and awful use of substitutions but getting tactics/preparations right can only go so far because when that’s all you’ve got on the bench, what can you do?
Which leads me on to the signings of the past 12 months – as has been pointed out all too often this season, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll have never threatened to even enter 2nd gear. Downing started OK but has been anonymous for the most part. Likewise, Henderson has had some decent performances but he’s never looked like a £16.5 million prospect (contrast his performances with Oxlade-Chamberlain Sunday, for a reference point). As for Andy Carroll… I think the time has finally come to cut the cord and take whatever losses are coming. I’ve tried so hard to back him and prayed that he’d suddenly burst out of his shell and become even a -£15 million striker but it just isn’t ever going to happen; he is ridiculously bereft of technique and ability.
On Saturday, there were two very starkly contrasted performances from two strikers. On the one hand, you have a £35 million striker labouring embarrassingly against a previously generous Bolton defence, never threatening to impress. At the other end, there was a £4 million striker we let move on in the summer who ran our back 4 ragged and worked like a Trojan for his team. David Ngog may never have been everybody’s cup of tea but he always worked hard and often scored from the bench but what the game showed more than anything is how much Liverpool were screwed over in Carroll’s transfer, as the difference in quality between him and Ngog is minimal, at best, perhaps even leaning in Ngog’s favour.
Some would argue that Charlie Adam has been equally unimpressive but he has contributed to some great performances this season and, at a fraction of the price some of the other signings cost us, he wasn’t a great risk and works well in tandem with Lucas. On Saturday the Scot was on to a loser from the start, given that (for god alone knows what reason) he was effectively being deployed as a defensive midfielder. His performance was utterly dire but what can he do? He is not a defensive-minded player; square pegs in round holes springs to mind. The remaining signings either haven’t been given a long enough run out to warrant a proper opinion (Coates, Doni) or have been a success: Suarez, Enrique, Bellamy.
For the most part, you would look at that and say that since this time last year we’ve had pretty much a 50-50 success rate in terms of signings which, for any club, is pretty decent. Where the holes start to show in that argument though, is in the fact that – Suarez aside – our three ‘big’ signings have had a combined fee of over £70 million between them. For less than that, City signed Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy. The thought of what could have been is almost too much to bear.
If you’re of a mind to take the opinion that ‘you win some, you lose some’, then I will point you in the direction of the rumoured interest in Wilfried Zaha, Scott Sinclair, Nikica Jelavic. They are all decent, average players but nothing that we couldn’t already match. For Zaha, see Suso; for Sinclair, see Sterling; for Jelavic, see Pacheco and the list goes on. Our signings would be worrying enough if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re seemingly looking to compliment them with equally average signings. I can see the arguments already: we aren’t in Europe, we can’t attract bigger players, we can’t match the top clubs for money at the moment. But this has nothing to do with us not being able to attract top talent, we are seemingly purposely chasing very average players. I have no idea whether this is down to the Director of Football or Kenny himself, but they’re both equally as culpable because as far as I’m aware, Comolli draws up the shortlists and Kenny has the final say; nobody is signed without all parties agreeing.
I just don’t buy the argument that we’re buying the best we can get. We had no Champions League football when we signed Suarez and he is world class. We had no problem recruiting the Premier League’s current best left-back in the summer and signing one of the future’s brightest young centre backs in Sebastien Coates in the summer. Nor did we have a problem convincing a Brazilian international ‘keeper to come and keep our bench warm for a couple of years. Besides, even if we did have problems attracting the very best talent, there is still a tier below that that we could quite comfortably pilfer and at more reasonable prices than we’re being quoted for the likes of Zaha and Sinclair. Look at Newcastle’s batch of recent signings: Ba, Cabaye, Papisse Cisse; all Internationals, all talented and all signed for less than what we paid for Jordan Henderson. If you really look, if you take the British-centric blinkers off, there are bargains all across Europe, if you really look. And if you want further examples of this, look no further than our current squad, with the likes of Reina, Agger, Skrtel, Lucas and Bellamy all snapped up in years gone by and for a pittance compared to some of the fees we are seemingly prepared to pay for average dross.
I should make it clear that this isn’t aimed solely at the management, nor just at Kenny Dalglish but a football team is only as good as its’ manager and Kenny has to get a handle of some real issues if we are to continue our development under him. I should reiterate for those who like to jump to their own conclusions that I am not saying ‘sack the manager’. Not at all. What I am saying is that there are a number of things I believe need to happen for us to get back on track, in terms of both future signings and in managing what we already have and a few small but important steps would be:
1. Rewarding good form and not persisting with expensive signings purely to try and prove a point. Using tactics that suit us, not trying to adapt to and accommodate the opposition, at least not when we haven’t got the squad to work that way yet.
2. Adapting to injuries and suspension better, i.e. not fitting players into positions they aren’t suited to and, instead, working with the players we have available and playing to their strengths. In the same vein – better use of substitutions; use them like they can make a difference, not just because you’ve got 3 available and feel like they’re obligatory.
3. Not limiting ourselves to one region or age group in the transfer market; we cannot win trophies with such a blinkered philosophy. A football club and its’ squad needs to be an eclectic mix of home-grown and foreign, of youth and experience. If our recent signings are what the Moneyball philosophy brings us, then I’d kindly like to ask for our money back.
4. Kenny needs to know when to take the blame and admit defeat and no more so than in the case of Andy Carroll. We need to take the hit, sooner or later, and if we can recoup £10-£15 million for him then we can consider that a good bit of business and a lesson learned.
So as the semi-final 2nd leg against Manchester City draws near, we can only hope that immediate lessons have been learned from Saturday’s defeat against Bolton but that the severity of the defeat and utter ineptitude of the performance will have lasting repercussions and positively affect the way we move forward, both in this window and for the remainder of the season. By the time next summer comes along, I can only hope we’ll be feeling much more positive about our progression and the teams’ state as a whole.
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