WE’VE scored 49 league goals this season (at the time of writing). One more than Manchester City who are 14 points ahead of us in the table, and we a have goal difference of +15, one more than Tottenham who are 9 points ahead with a game in hand.
The press spent much of the first half of the season criticising our loan of Andy Carroll as a disastrous mistake – never mind him scoring only 11 goals in 58 appearances for the club (and 2 in 12 in an injury hit time at West Ham).
When Fabio Borini (who has scored 1 goal in 16) became injured (with his original foot injury, we wish him well recovering from his recent dislocated shoulder) the press were up in arms that we’d struggle to score goals with one fit senior striker at the club, blaming the failed Dempsey signing as a huge mistake.
It didn’t matter that Borini was not in the side anyway, that Dempsey isn’t a striker, and that Luis Suarez was topping the Premier League goal scoring charts as a lone striker (come false nine).
With the immediate impact made by Sturridge, adding goals and assists, and the encouraging arrival of Coutinho, negative talk regarding our attack has subsided, but our defensive problems have continued. For me, the biggest theme that has consistently undermined our season has been the inability of our defensive players to adapt to the demands of a new system allied with worrying inconsistency in the basics of defending.
Coming into the season, a back five of Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger and Enrique, with Lucas protecting them, looked a very solid base upon which to base our campaign. It has been anything but.
Pepe has not been at the top of his game for over a year now, but he remains a world class keeper and it would be incredibly difficult to replace him. Johnson is having the best season of his career, particularly offensively, and Enrique, though he still lacks composure and the reliability of a top class fullback, has pace, power and attacking panache. Skrtel won player of the season last year and, coming into the season, I would have said Agger was our best defender.
So what’s gone wrong?
Firstly, I personally don’t put it down to rotation. Any player who doesn’t perform over a reasonable amount of time should be dropped, and all of our players (including younger players like Coates and Robinson) have been rightly given a chance at one time or another. All of the back six (including Lucas) are very experienced players, they aren’t teenagers learning the game and for the most part have played together regularly (Carra’s recent return shouldn’t have caused problems as both Skrtel and Agger have spent most of their Liverpool careers rotating to play alongside him). Secondly, I don’t believe either that they’ve suddenly become awful players, even if some of their mistakes (Agger repeatedly losing his man at set pieces) have been difficult to bear.
I believe there are three main problems:
1) The pressing game
The midfield and the fullbacks, as they generally play in midfield, are required to press high up the field and attempt to win back the ball in the immediate few seconds after losing it. This works very well against teams whose defensive players (including midfielders who are in defensive positions) aren’t good at ball retention and don’t possess the technical ability and vision to play their way out of tight positions under pressure. In such cases we do invariably win it back and can recycle the ball to begin another attack. This is a major reason why we have won games against many lower ranked teams by large margins.
However against stronger teams, whose players don’t panic under such circumstances, if we don’t press effectively (or sometimes even if we do), they are able to bypass this line of players and immediately begin the counter attack against our defence. Both Lucas and Agger lack pace and acceleration, while Skrtel (though hardly fast either) tends to over commit to a tackle and not know when it is right to jockey, allowing time for other players to recover and help defensively.
Skrtel and Agger seem most comfortable playing deep with cover, this is unsurprising as they’ve grown up playing alongside Carra (who also doesn’t like a high line) and when they play for their national teams they’re usually defending deep (this goes with playing for smaller countries like Slovakia and Denmark). Neither are good one-on-one, and it has been too easy for a mobile attacker to ghost past them. This leads me to the second point.
Both our fullbacks, when they are playing well, are required to provide width. With our wingers (mostly Sterling and Downing) generally cutting infield, if we do get crosses into the box it is often from one of our fullbacks or Stevie G. This allows the wingers to add to the midfield to control possession and should allow for more players in the box (although neither Sterling nor Downing are good at this aspect of play).
However, it also means that when we lose possession, and our pressing fails, there is often only the two centre-backs and Lucas to defend, with Gerrard often trying to catch up with play from a more advanced position. With Skrtel and Agger’s lack of pace, mobility and discomfort with one-on-ones, if Lucas doesn’t win the ball back, we are severely exposed.
This is far removed from the more traditional, but solid, system used so well by the old Arsenal team of Dixon, Bould, Adams and Winterburn. Defenders first and foremost who only went forward when the balance of the team allowed for it, rather than perpetually holding a high position on the flanks (they did at times hold a high position as a back four as an offside trap but this is a different point). Any lack of pace and mobility was more than compensated for by good positional sense and covering fullbacks.
This begs the question whether Rodgers should be playing this system if his centre-halves, and defensive midfielder, aren’t well suited to cope with it. If, say, Mascherano were playing defensive midfield, he would often use his pace to chase down the opposition attacker, even if the forward had a significant head start. Lucas, for all his strengths, can’t do that.
Similarly, if we had a Des Walker type centre-half, one with pace to burn and strong in one-on-ones, then again we would be able to deal with such situations better. It is interesting that when the opposition breaks following a corner we are better at defending as the players left to defend (with Skrtel and Agger up for the corner) are the likes of Enrique and Johnson who do possess the necessary pace and mobility.
With Carra retiring at the end of the season I would love to see us sign a player with these characteristics (if only Real Madrid would sell Varane!), but until such a time I wish Rodgers would modify the system against better opposition and ask our fullbacks to play a touch more traditionally and let the attackers do the attacking. The best teams produced by both Rafa and Houllier had at least one fullback who put defending first (Arbeloa and Babbel respectively).
3) Unforced errors
It’s a common adage that all goals conceded come from defensive errors, but it is clearly the case that for some goals, players are more culpable than others. When Hulk smashed in Zenit’s first in our Europa League away fixture, we shouldn’t have allowed him to find space in between the lines, and perhaps Skrtel shouldn’t have turned his back and instead attempted a Carra-type diving block, but let’s face it, it was an excellent strike.
On the other hand Agger getting his angles wrong and showing far too much space to allow Lukaku a clean run at Reina for the second goal against West Brom was a clear error. Skrtel’s backpass against Man City, an even more blatant error. For me, our defenders and keeper have too often been culpable for surprising errors that we know they would not normally make. Some errors become more prevalent due to the type of football we are playing (e.g. possession errors by defenders when they would otherwise have booted it forward a la Carra), but many are simply down to the individual’s own standards slipping.
Skrtel didn’t make these mistakes last season, at least not as many of them. Agger, in his first injury-free season, is possibly having his worst ever season for us. Pepe isn’t the same as during his multiple Golden Glove years. Enrique still has too much chaotic frenzy to his defending. Johnson, while occasionally making errors like the one against Zenit for their second goal, is much improved defensively from previous seasons and is, in my opinion, the best right-back in the league.
It is to be hoped that these problems will be resolved by either the players improving, or by Rodgers modifying his system to suit the strengths of our existing defensive players, but so far there is more progress in the former than the latter. I expect Rodgers will make a statement by the type of centre-backs he signs in the summer (please no Ashley Williams!) and then, with better competition, it may be Agger or Skrtel (my money’s on Skrtel) who will find himself out of the team.
I certainly hope Rodgers, with his attack being the focus of most of his signings so far (Sturridge, Borini, Coutinho, Assaidi and Allen), will make the right defensive signings, but as we’ve often seen, this is easier said than done (Torben Piechnik anyone?)
You can catch more from me on my own blog: http://taintlessred.blogspot.co.uk/