By Ernie Fox
Beaten 3-0 at home! It wasn’t just another bad result, but another performance that has many of us wondering what happened to that side that came so close to winning the title? Looking back to that match at Anfield over a year ago when Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip allowed Demba Ba to break the deadlock in a match that cost Liverpool the league title, it has me wondering whether it was more than just the title that we lost on that fateful afternoon.
That season Brendan Rodgers blew fresh life into the Premier League with his exciting and attacking style; even when all the experts said we should be playing for a draw he put out a team looking to stretch the opposition, dominate the possession and beat the blues into submission. On that occasion it didn’t work, but over the course of the season it was an approach that won numerous matches and got the fans believing in the impossible.
In numerous matches especially at home, Rodgers used three quick paced forwards in the likes of Sturridge, Sterling and Suarez up front, sacrificing the extra man in midfield by having Coutinho playing just behind them. We were quick, aggressive and forced teams back onto the edge of their own areas allowing space for our midfielders to control possession. How times have changed since then.
Obviously playing a high tempo, possession style of football isn’t easy otherwise all teams would be doing it, but ever since that day against Chelsea, Rodgers seems to have become overly cautious. That is not to say that we don’t need to be conscientious about conceding goals, but when we consider his team selection on Saturday in our 3-0 defeat to West Ham, there are a number of differences in the one that took the league by storm just over a year ago.
First of all, we were playing a home fixture against a side who had lost their last two games. We were building momentum whilst West Ham were stuttering under new leadership, it was the perfect opportunity to allow either Danny Ings or Divock Origi to stretch their legs and pressurise the Hammers’ defence. But instead of finding a partner for Benteke, Rodgers elected for a 4-1-2-2-1 system. A holding midfielder behind the pairing of Can and Milner and then the two play makers playing behind the lone striker. It all seemed strangely narrow and cluttered in the middle of the park and hence we made defending for West Ham rather easy as all of our attacks were only ever going to go one way.
Just to add to our lack of width, Rodgers settled with Joe Gomez as left back; the 18 year old, a right footed centre back has admittedly performed admirably in his first three outings as a resilient and reliable defender, but offers little by way of attacking options. In a game where the emphasis was always going to be on us to find an opening and break the visitors down, the selection of Gomez seemed rather negative when we already had a defensive midfielder offering further protection of the back four.
After four matches not all is lost, seven points is a reasonable start to the campaign, but we now have an agonising two week wait until the next match which has me wondering where the goals are going to come from. We have just two goals to our name so far and from judging the manner in which Rodgers set us out on Saturday I can’t help but feel he took criticism of our defensive frailties during his second season in charge a little too much to heart.
The trouble is, if Rodgers has lost faith in his high intensity, quick flowing, possession based, attacking football, then how are the rest of us to feel? Over the last twenty years we have watched Liverpool fall into the trap too many times, there are occasions when a tight, cautious approach are beneficial; but there are others when the best option is to take the game to the opposition. I can’t help but feel that too many times over the last season and a bit Rodgers has bottled this option and instead sent out a side looking to win by boring the opposition to death.
The trouble is that when a team visits Anfield and doesn’t feel threatened by a barrage of Reds’ attacks, they are more than willing to allow us to maintain the majority of possession then at the right moments force mistakes in dangerous positions. That is what has happened on numerous occasions, I don’t recall one game we lost last year because we attacked too much, but rather we were caught in possession as we continued to look for space whilst our attacking players cluttered the midfield and provided little by way of width or forward movement. In fact, throughout Rodgers’ tenure, how many times have we lost owing to being too gung ho? Compared to the number of defeats we have suffered when we’ve played more cautiously and failed to create more than a handful of genuine goal scoring opportunities.
I honestly thought that Rodgers’ philosophy was to pressurise the opposition, not just off the ball, but whilst in possession as well. He would get the forward line running at the opposition and the crowd roaring at the onslaught, that is what we saw transpiring during his first couple of seasons in charge; but not any more. Arsenal are renowned for playing a high defensive line and getting caught sleeping at the back by fast paced counter attacks, and yet despite the pace of Firmino, Ibe, Origi and Ings at our disposal, we elected a different approach, one which won us a point but failed to find a gap in the Gunners’ defence or the net.
I was excited during the pre season at the arrival of Origi, Benteke, Ings and Firmino, it suggested Rodgers was going to revert back to the exciting style of football that got us all cheering and defenders quaking; but I’m afraid to say that at the moment it looks as though he may have bottled it. One substitute appearance in four games for Ings, and Origi is yet to get a touch of the ball, and our next match is away to Manchester United. So far it doesn’t bode well.
This season is massive gamble for Rodgers, but the only way he will still be manager come the end of the season is to do exactly that. If we see Liverpool go out and attack each and every game with passion, I’m sure the fans will be far more amenable than if we are to meekly stumble towards another UEFA Cup qualifying position.
Rodgers needs to rediscover his faith in the style of football that won him so many fans, otherwise even the most loyal of Reds will lose faith in him.
Written by Ernie Fox