I get a disorienting feeling watching Liverpool FC these days, like when one is playing FIFA and someone toys with the Ball Physics option.
Your controller feels like a disconnected pillow. Your five yard passes go astray. To compensate, to make up for ‘yardage lost’, you try your Hollywood passes. You shank your one-on-ones. You miss your tackles. You are handing over possession.
All of the above, all of them, occur because the opposition is closing you down at every opportunity.
The midfield: That reminder that football was borne out of a need to control territory and stamp authority, and not only with the point of scoring goals. If that was the case, it would have evolved into Australian Football (AFL) or handball. There wouldn’t be any offside. Or maybe Futsal would have been the main course of football rather than the honing ground, the Matthew Broderick to your Alan Ruck.
Five points if you get the reference.
At least 3 times this year I have seen Liverpool turn in shambolic midfield performances against the teams with apparently ‘fewer resources’ at their disposal: Southampton, WBA and Aston Villa.
Even Oldham – but the less said about that better eh?
Note that I have avoided using the phrase ‘weaker teams’, the go-to whenever we try and describe jarring, unexpected, reality-inducing defeats.
To flip the status-quo, in this piece I would like to think of ‘weaker’ in terms of physical strength, and by that measure we would be one of the weakest in the Premiership.
You see, there’s the rub; Brendan Rodgers deserves substantial credit for the way he has picked up morale in a team that looked short of ideas, but he needs to learn one more Premiership lesson. And fast.
Fearlessly, he gave the extremely promising Sterling a run-out in at season’s beginning and has now rested him. Though I think ‘rested’ is also a shorter, more PC way of saying “now Raheem, well done! You’ve got your new contract and you know you’ll be with us, but here’s a bit of time on the pines to make sure you hungry for more, recover physically and get your private life in order.”
He has given Suso and Wisdom chances to shine – with varying degrees of success. Downing is rejuvenated and seems to have rediscovered that feeling Luis Suarez never, ever forgets: the blood-rush of close contact street football. The one-upmanship; the cheek; the energy. Henderson and Jose Enrique, two players I have always thought were rather harshly judged, have blossomed; the latter especially.
Brad Jones (+/N), Reina (N/-, but I wouldn’t sell him) Johnson (+), Enrique (+), Agger (N/-), Suarez (+), Gerrard (+), Coutinho (+), Assaidi (N), Henderson (+), Sturridge (+), Coates (-), Downing (N/+), Lucas (N/-), Carra (N), Allen (-), Borini (N), Suso (N/+), Sterling (+), Shelvey (N/-), Kelly (N), Skrtel (N/-), Wisdom (N/+)
Admittedly, the game above is subjective, but let’s look at a few outstanding positives, and what I believe has been the biggest contributing sporting factor.
Enrique hasn’t overnight learned to pass or cross a football. He has transformed into a better player by virtue of discovering how to better use his body. More often than not, he does not panic when wingers squeeze him on the touchline. He holds the ball up and rolls it along. That makes his odd dashes into space even more unpredictably dangerous.
Coutinho and Sterling have impressed not only because of the flicks and slide rule passes, but because they harry quickly, they cover ground and throw their light frames into risky 50/50s. Downing was a case in point when he hunted down Kyle Walker’s pass back to Lloris and forced the error that forced the goal.
Now I shall, admittedly controversially, introduce the idea that no one seems to want to speak about constructively: the fact that we have (perhaps) the weakest formational spine in the Premiership.
Agger and Skrtel are playing less physically than last season. It seems they are so wary of quick counter attacks that they tread further and further back. They put themselves in tight spaces where, inevitably, the more ball-friendly forwards create multiple chances per game. Last season there was a catenaccio-like commitment to challenges in the final third. This season that idea seems to be on a hiatus.
Joe Allen and Lucas, whether played together or individually, have looked brittle and desperate. The latter cannot be blamed because he is recovering from a knee injury and plays in a position where any form of physical weakness is visibly obvious. Has too much been asked of him too soon?
I have tried to defend Allen, and we have been advised that he is the Xavi of this team, but here I would like for everyone to think back to a Barcelona before Xavi was Xavi.
Frank Rijkaard’s 2004 vintage were a lowly 12th by January. Recognising the need for steel, they turned to Edgar Davids (and his goggles). That 6 month loan deal provided a masterstroke and gave their creative fulcrum (Ronaldinho: 22 goals, Saviola: 21 and Kluivert: 10) the protection they needed to flourish. They finished 2nd that season. The rest, is of course, history.
The lesson? Though few midfields have bossed around United’s, Spurs’ and City’s like ours, we have consistently struggled against the following combos: Ramirez/Cork, Morrison/Dorrans/Mulumbu, Nzonzi/Whelan and Bannan/Lichaj/Lowton.
Almost none are recognised names, but all were hungry and energetic.
We need a refined water-carrier it seems. The Allen’s of the world resemble posh valets – maybe it’s time we appreciated the more artisan midfield approach of Jordan Henderson?