It’s been a rollercoaster season so far for Liverpool, but a marked improvement in league form now sees the team aiming for a European-place finish.
Anfield is beginning to look like an extremely difficult place to come for opponents once more and as former Assistant Manager Steve Clarke returns to Merseyside, I take a look at five intriguing plotlines that could be key to the final result.
1. The Joe Allen Conundrum:
Joe Allen was going to be ‘The Rodgers’ Philosophy’ in motion, the ambassador and the remote control. Things have not gone perfectly, with the team seeming performing better without him than with. Whereas ball retention is on-paper better with Allen, and the pace of the game more manageable, without him the midfield unit presses at speed and with force, and gaps in the opposition appear quicker.
To say Allen has been disappointing is off the mark. He is a 22 year old only 6 months into his new job at a new office with new co-workers, but will Rodgers risk playing him against a WBA’s midfield that has already won Round 1? Will he let his short-of-confidence orchestrator be battered and bruised?
What may work in Allen’s favour is home turf, where he is likely to be more protected. Sure this isn’t a blockbuster in the modern EPL context, but shattered confidence is repaired on nights like these. What were once 5 yard passes to Lucas become 12 yard slide-rule passes to Suarez into space. What were once deflected edge-of-the-box volleys (remember Oldham?) become finishes arced perfectly into the top corner.
2. Surprising Statistics, and a Change of Objective…
A lot has been made of Liverpool’s defensive frailties this season, as if, overnight, the powerhouses of Agger and Skrtel have had a positional frontal lobotomy.
But here’s a fact that doesn’t get bandied around as much as it should: Liverpool Football Club has the best defensive record at home of any team this season. 10 conceded, that’s all, and 6 of them were shared between the two Manchester sides and Arsenal. 3 were in the sublimely executed Villa smash-and-grab.
It’s not so much how many the Reds have conceded as much as it is a question of when, and in what manner. The defensive unit seems to have a bad case of Switching-Off Syndrome, and that can’t have been helped by adopting to a new style, makeshift personnel on one side and a central midfield still coming to grips with its varying purposes.
But here’s the gorgeous river card. Total goals scored at the end of last season? 47. Goals scored with 13 matches left to play this season? 44.
Ladies and gentlemen, the defensive unit has had a change of objective. They are no longer stoppers, blockers, tacklers and markers, they are also the first decision makers of attack, and based on statistical evidence, it is working.
Will there be another clean-sheet at Anfield? And if so, how composed will the unit be in scoring it?
It should be a surreal evening for Steve Clarke. When his team were going gangbusters at the top of the season, and Liverpool were a lot more erratic, some wondered if FSG had made the wrong choice. Maybe they should have promoted the less-glamorous Clarke, organiser-in-chief and tactician par excellence ably aiding King Kenny in the lawless jungle of modern football.
Since then, Brendan Rodgers has slowly found himself vindicated, and Clarke finds himself managing a team that has 1 draw and 5 defeats from its last 6 games. Yes, you are right, that is the worst form team in the league at the moment. Add to that Peter Odemwingie’s foolish and baffling flirtations with QPR and you almost feel sad for one of the quietest and most astute minds of the modern British game.
Clarke played over 300 matches for Chelsea, assisted Zola at West Ham to a 9th place finish only to escape relegation by the skin of his teeth the next season. He helped turn around a dire Liverpool just over 2 years ago, only to leave under ‘unorthodox’ circumstances. He definitely has the world-weary experience to handle the stage, but will he be able to communicate that message to his team come Monday night?
4. The Cojones on Reina
That some Liverpool fans want to see Reina out is ludicrous, and has been discussed ad nauseam, so I won’t stir that pot again. I am more interested in his reaction. True, we cannot read his mind, but his body language will be extremely interesting. What makes Reina one of the best is not just his shot-stopping, or the positioning, or the fact that he is now one of the most consistent in the air.
No. Jose Manuel Reina is the forward’s goalkeeper. Always looking to arrow the ball within the first 2 seconds, Pepe is direct. The consistent licence to break that Johnson/Downing/Enrique have profited from largely come from Reina’s pace of thought and accuracy of arm. When they have been caught somewhat flatfooted, it’s his readiness to receive and switch play that gives them peace.
My fear is that if he does take the criticism to heart, that aspect of his game may start becoming conservative. The question: how does Pepe bounce back?
5. The Atmosphere…
There will be a few sub-plots diffusing in the Anfield air come Monday. Can Liverpool avenge the opening day defeat that set the tone for a less than auspicious start to the season? Can Liverpool begin the assault on 4th complemented by a relatively cosy run-in to the end of the season? Add to that list all of the above.
But bottle all of them up, give that a good F1 podium shake, and the resulting metaphorical spray is well and truly humbled by the explosiveness of the potential reception of one Jamie Carragher.
Much has been written on this site and others about the Bootle lad-done-good, and that too by experts far more qualified than I. So I won’t delve into a schmaltzy love song.
All the advice I can give is this: if Carra starts, and as the players come out that legendary tunnel, just turn up your television, pour an ale (or tea) and soak up what is likely to be one of the most emotional (footballing) nights the arena has ever seen.
And if he were to come on as substitute, just hold the television set still, because it will be a cheer that compromises the stability of your lounge’s foundations.