LIVERPOOL FC have not drawn a blank in their last 12 outings in all competitions. The Reds have scored 26 goals in that time and with Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini back, finally the profligacy that has blighted Liverpool for 18 months now seems to be in decline.
Unfortunately, while Liverpool’s attacking play has improved recently, there is another more pressing issue right now. Liverpool aren’t very good without the ball.
Throughout the season, the Reds have been far too open to counter attacks, they have often been too slow to close down their opponents and physically they have been over matched, especially in recent games against West Ham (until Diame left the pitch), Stoke and Manchester United. The major deficiencies that are holding Liverpool back are apparent when Brendan Rodgers’ team don’t have the ball.
When you are trying to implement a passing style as Rodgers is, it isn’t just about retaining possession. The regaining of the ball and the ability to hinder opponents when they have it is equally important. Pressing high and intelligently is imperative if you wish to play a possession based game, but Liverpool are not close to mastering this yet.
Liverpool’s weakness in this area was cruelly exposed in Manchester last Sunday. The midfield three of Gerrard, Lucas and Allen that Rodgers selected is theoretically fine when Liverpool have the ball (although this wasn’t the case last week as Allen and Lucas were badly under-par when they had the ball at their feet) but United dominated the first half of the game because, when they were in possession, it was so easy for them to play around their rivals. Liverpool didn’t get close enough to them, they didn’t press them well and they barely offered a tackle for 45 minutes.
It was men against boys in a one sided first-half. Liverpool’s lack of mobility and physical presence in the middle of the park was all too obvious as United passed the ball around them with consummate ease. You need only look back at Robin van Persie’s goal to see that the move that led to the Dutchman’s finish should have been interrupted several times before he swept home to open the scoring. Joe Allen and Stewart Downing both chose not to attempt interceptions that were available and a couple of seconds later United had the lead.
Skilful players who win you matches with flashes of brilliance or play amazing cross-field passes that take the breath away are always in demand and highlighted, but pragmatism is needed at times and Liverpool have too often lacked in this area this season. The Reds played against United last Sunday as they have against too many opponents this season, they played naivety. The game plan was seemingly weighted heavily on what they could do with the ball rather than what would happen when they were without it.
Jordan Henderson may not be everyone’s cup of tea but can anyone suggest that he shouldn’t be on the team sheet these days given his form and the attributes that he has in comparison to an out of sorts Joe Allen or a clearly unfit Lucas Leiva? While Lucas, Allen and Gerrard stood and watched United pass around them as if they were training cones on Sunday, Henderson sat on the bench probably wondering why he wasn’t on the pitch closing the spaces that United were finding and exploiting so easily. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard on the ball, but he has a key component that any functional midfield, especially Liverpool’s, requires in regards to his athleticism.
Joe Allen may keep the ball better than him, Lucas may be more adept at playing from deep than him and Steven Gerrard may have more footballing ability in his big toe than him, but Henderson can help Liverpool to develop their new approach by offering what those three players can’t at this stage: Dynamism. His omission against United was hard to fathom as it left Liverpool’s midfield devoid of any running power on that large Old Trafford pitch and ultimately, the Reds paid the price. Henderson is not the sexy choice in midfield for Rodgers, but the team must come first and the talents that he does posses make him the pragmatist’s choice right now.
It isn’t that long since Liverpool were criticised for focussing on their opponents too much using too many pragmatic players over those with more ability, of course. Under Rafa Benitez, Liverpool supporters often bemoaned a lack of flair in their side, particularly in wide areas. However, for four straight seasons, no matter what his form was like, Dirk Kuyt was selected time and again by the Spaniard. He offered no little threat when the Reds had the ball in terms of goals and assists (though people at the time were often crying out for a more creative and exciting winger to replace him) but crucially, he offered even more when Liverpool didn’t have the ball. He chased, harassed, and ground down plenty of opposing sides from the front with his intelligent and ceaseless pressing. He won the ball back high up the pitch for Benitez’s side and even if he wasn’t always reliable with the ball at his feet, Benitez kept him in the team because he knew how fundamental Kuyt was when Liverpool weren’t in possession.
Benitez’s most celebrated signings were technical wizards like Alonso, Luis Garcia and Fernando Torres but after one season of Premier League football, the Spaniard recognised that Liverpool required more steel to their game. They were a soft touch too often, not unlike their present day incarnation. Momo Sissoko was a perfect example of how Benitez solved this problem. He didn’t posses high levels of skill and sometimes his touch was almost comical, but until an eye injury derailed his career somewhat, he, like Kuyt, was a huge part in Liverpool’s resurgence under Benitez. He had boundless stamina, real physical presence and recycled the ball exceptionally well from midfield. His role was simple: seek the ball, win it and give it to someone like Xabi Alonso or Steven Gerrard to affect the game in an attacking sense.
For every Luis Garcia, Xabi Alonso or Fernando Torres that Benitez brought to Liverpool, he also signed a Momo Sissoko, Javier Mascherano or Dirk Kuyt. Benitez knew the importance of combining talented individuals with players who could push the opposition back and be effective without the ball. Rodgers’ Liverpool are yet to find that same equilibrium.