- The return to defensive solidity was the only reasonable decision Rafa could make after being out of form for such long periods this season. The foundation of any good team is a good defence and it is certainly something the Liverpool manager has focused on in recent months. Conceding only 1 goal in seven matches demonstrates the turnaround at the back as they had conceded no less than 34 goals this season beforehand. Rafa went back to basics and solved the defensive issues that have hampered his side’s ambitions this campaign but he now finds himself with another problem. Now he has shored up things in defence, the consequence has been a lack of goals and a lack of penetration in the final third. It was something that was very evident in the 0-0 draw against Manchester City and it was a scoreline that was inevitable considering both teams shyness going forward recently. Rafa needs to find the right balance for 0-0 draws will not bring back a fourth place finish at the end of the season
- The restoration of Ryan Babel to the first team against Man City by Rafa Benitez may come as a surprise to some Liverpool fans, but despite the fact he did not impress along with many others at Eastlands, his cameo performance against Unirea last week shows that the Dutch forward still has a lot to offer the Reds. Build up play against the Romanian team was painstakingly slow and Babel gave some much needed impetus to the attack, playing the killer pass from his right foot to set up the only goal of the match. I would like to see him given a run in the team so he can improve his consistency and with the lack of threat in the Liverpool attack at the moment, his pace will cause problems for opposition defences, but I don’t see Rafa doing this.
- Starting with one up front at home against a Unirea who only came to defend was an indication of ultra caution from Benitez. Nearly all eleven players were behind the ball for most of the match and it was clear from early on that they were going to sit deep and hold out for a draw. Considering that they hadn’t played a competitive match for two and a half months and the fact they had a new coach in Israeli Ronny Levy, you can hardly blame them, and Benitez should have been more proactive early on and changed tactics rather than stick to his rigid formation. The lack of penetration was shown by the dead silence that there was around Anfield for most of the match and the only real cheers came when Dani Pacheco came onto the pitch. If Pacheco and Babel had come on at half-time I am sure that the Reds would have more than a 1-0 lead to take to Romania, it is a slender lead which Unirea will be encouraged by when they play the second leg. We will certainly see a different, more attacking style of play from the Romanian side when they play at home this week.
- The lack of pace and passing in recent matches has plainly been evident and it is clear there is no cutting edge in the final third. One major reason for this is Rafa’s decision to focus on defensive solidity in recent weeks, but there is also another factor. Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano have been the favoured central midfield partnership in away matches recently while Alberto Aquilani has been used in home games. Aquilani has struggled for form since his return from a long term injury and it is clear that Xabi Alonso is currently being missed in providing pin point accurate passes to start attacks and put pace on the ball. Certainly Xabi would have started against Man City at the weekend and there could have been a different outcome if he had played in that match rather than Lucas and Mascherano helping to play out a bore draw. The same could be said for the Unirea match as Aquilani struggled to control the game like Alonso would have done. Perhaps with the return of Fernando Torres the cutting edge will be found but I still feel he will be feeding off scraps like David Ngog has been in recent matches. The solution maybe to put Steven Gerrard in central midfield once again to run the show rather than be isolated further up field, but with Rafa’s current mindset, defensive considerations will override any need to open up play a bit more. Gerrard play’s further up field so Rafa doesn’t have to worry about him vacating the midfield area in an undisciplined run forward, and so it would be unlikely to see the Liverpool captain back in that position anytime soon.