At present as soon as the Liverpool team sheet is confirmed, especially away from home, hopes are either heightened or sent rapidly plummeting towards the ground and the trip to St.Andrews proved to be little different, even with a jump up to 5th place in the table in the offering.
The reason… predictability.
A central four of Carragher, Skrtel, Poulsen & Lucas showed that either not all the lessons had been learnt from a Monday night at Eastlands or the previous over caution of Rafa Benitez away from home or perhaps there was just an element of misplaced hope at a creative level.
Liverpool are by no means a bad side or over flowing with bad players, quite the opposite in fact, but logic and decisions outside of the warmth of Anfield, at least carry the “questionable” tag at present, if not the “bad” one. The team was only going to play one way and play that way it did, a clean sheet retained for the second game in a row cannot be argued with but it was thanks to the brilliance of Pepe Reina.
Reina rightly stole the show, the superlatives and the applause, as a string of saves showed exactly why he is one of the best in the world at what he does, quickly balancing the books from his Arsenal misfortune, not that it was ever required of him. Should Liverpool have grabbed all 3pts on the opening day would a different team have been fielded against City in their first away game, would Roy have run with the momentum? Unlikely most would say, some even still call it the Rafa syndrome, a ghost in the machine yet to be exorcised from the tactics board. The deployment of, or reliance on two defensive midfielders away from home could be seen as more mindset than requirement, an unsureness perhaps in your own abilities.
At Birmingham it was confirmed again that a midfield housing both Lucas & Poulsen is always going to provide you with a lot of lateral movement but little forward drive. With no Daniel Agger at centre half, the problem was compounded further as no “ball player” was at hand to come out from the back and push the play on or provide a different angle, the midfield stayed narrow and without enough vision for the final third of the pitch.
A formation of this nature brings the resulting effect that the ball is always coming back at you. As play gets contained too deep in your own half, defending in numbers commences, you invite the opposition to press you and have minimal exit routes as you width doesn’t get generated. There becomes no creative outlet in the area where it is needed the most, no one to play the diagonal ball between the channels or the perfectly weighted pass that splits a defence.
A midfield devoid of Steven Gerrard was going to always shift the balance the wrong way and lend itself to this trend. Talisman he maybe, but playing too much with his back to goal, is no benefit to the team or the strike rate of Torres, it’s ineffective for too many large periods of the game, his talents just not monopolised. The level of ability that Gerrard possesses cannot be questioned, nor the wavelength he shares with El Nino when sat just behind the Spaniard, but continually trying to influence a game from the “hole” over 90 minutes he cannot, especially outside of Anfield – the game methodology changes.
Without a supply line, centrally and wide, the abilities of these two players was always going to be done an injustice, too reliant on a moment of individual brilliance as opposed to a steady flow of created opportunity. Add to it the decision to not press high up the pitch and Liverpool were well on the way to helping the opposition more than themselves at times without needing to play badly. Frustration creeps in and players become less effective. One player off form, or the system not working for them, is enough to impact the invention of any side, let alone several. A Maxi covering for the injured Kuyt and lacking game time was enough evidence of this as just an example on the day, of how quickly unbalance can occur as the team reacts to compensate. Reaction never occurred quick enough to the problem on the day but the outcome wasnt disastrous.
Liverpool are yet to see the benefit of a run of games with Joe Cole in the side, that will come in time and hopefully allow Liverpool to build consistency in both performance, the system and the players that Hodgson chooses to deploy. At the moment it is a game of adaptation, trying to get the jigsaw back together again. The Reds have played a very similar pattern away from home over the last 12 months, when results were not going their way. The system was tightened up to try and reinstill confidence and put points on the table but in being pulled a little too tight, over caution was presented and expression removed.
A point gained is far better than 3pts lost and Birmingham have certainly proven to be no mugs at home against the so called bigger teams of the Premier League but Birmingham it was we were playing, not Barcelona. A formation of that nature is either a credit to those that hail from St. Andrews or a further note to just how much has changed in recent years for Liverpool. The more that teamsheet is seen the more the eyes of the fans will continue to roll as Liverpool are actually better than that.
It is logical that the role of a Lucas or Pouslen alongside Gerrard will be more effective on the Reds travels, Meireles needs time to settle and could well be far more effective at home for a side with a 12th man while he adapts, than when you have far less in your corner at battlegrounds like the Britannia Stadium. The game is gone and there are plenty more to come, hopefully lessons were learnt and matters now rightly turn to those of their own visitors Steaua Bucharest on Thursday.
Players don’t improve if they are not on the pitch, nor have the chance to show a glimpse of their worth but equally so players don’t find consistency if they are removed from it, the age old conundrum faced by any manager. Roy Hodgson is now faced with the regular European, or midweek dilemma, of rest versus game time in the search for consistency and improvement, as the small matter of Man Utd lurks in the background asking for its own consideration.
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