Liverpool – where are we at?

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by @CharlieMalam

22 games in. 13 wins. 4 draws. 5 losses. Just 8 points off of 1st place. Be honest with yourself, how many of you Liverpool fans wouldn’t have taken that in pre-season?

The basic statistics look pretty good, but perhaps it is the nature in which Liverpool have lost points which has disappointed fans. Festive away fixtures away to Chelsea and Manchester City were hard to take, refereeing decisions and lapses in concentration perhaps the defining moments in games that Liverpool lost 2-1. Denied penalties. Mignolet mistakes. An “offside” Sterling goal that was 3-yards onside. Eto’o fouls that were never given. There were several negatives that hung over Liverpool’s valiant efforts like a dark cloud. What positives fans did take though, was the heart within the performances they had seen. Despite central figures missing, namely Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool went to two of the most well-equipped sides in the Premier League and gave a good account of themselves. It is questionable that City will face a test as tough on home soil for the remainder of the Premier League season, given that they have already dispatched Arsenal and Tottenham and United, scoring a monumental 16 goals in three games in the process and conceding just four in return. At Chelsea, despite the home side playing perhaps the best 45 minutes of their season, the Reds came back into the game in the second half and could count themselves unlucky against refereeing decisions.

To a larger extent, disappointing results that stick out to Liverpool fans are results against Southampton, Hull, Arsenal and now Aston Villa. The outcome of the home game to Southampton was easily avoidable, Rodgers experimented with a back four of centre-backs – Sakho came in at left back, Skrtel and Agger started in the centre and Toure was shifted to the right. It failed miserably against Southampton’s counter-attacks and ferocious pressing play. Rodgers realised his mistake, switching Agger for Enrique in the second half but it was not enough and they still lost. Toure, in fact, played well and was involved in Liverpool’s attacking play down the right but Sakho, who had been insistent at PSG he was best played as a centre-back, didn’t, and left a gaping hole in the left side of attack. Meanwhile in the game at Arsenal, Liverpool’s midfield was completely overrun and it rarely looked like the visitors were going to take something from the game, bar an offside goal and our inevitable ritual of hitting the woodwork. You can’t massively defend the performance, as on a whole it was poor, and it was culminated by Cissokho who had a torrid time at the Emirates. The less said about Hull the better, I won’t resurface the pain too much, it was simply an absolute shambles. Again, the midfield seemed to be the problem as Huddlestone, Livermore and Meyler dominated Gerrard and Lucas.

There of course is a recurring theme here, of the 23 points that Liverpool have dropped, only 4 have come at home and the other 19 have been lost on the road. Liverpool have managed just 4 victories on their travels, only Everton, Southampton and Villa can match or worsen that tally in the top 10. It HAS to improve if they are to regain European football. What provides promise though is that Liverpool only face Manchester United and Southampton away in the top 10 this season, and City, Arsenal, Spurs etc. are all yet to come to Anfield, where Liverpool have been most lively this season.

Everton, Swansea and Newcastle are perhaps all different cases considering the levels of performance against each. Draws could be considered good results given the fluctuation in performance during each game. These three draws (we’ll get to Villa in a minute) also exemplify the good, the bad and the ugly of the Liverpool team this season, and it’s blatantly obvious which is which. Our attack alone is the good, “SAS” are certainly good enough to get us into the Champions League but the bad and the ugly, our midfield and defence aren’t good enough. In fact they’re below the level required. Whether that’s quality players under-performing or players simply with a lack of quality, is a different matter.

The Reds’ defence this has been nothing short of alarming. Despite the fact they have scored even more than 9th and 10th placed Southampton and Aston Villa combined (53 in total, 22 from Suarez) they have leaked 28 goals. Only Aston Villa and Newcastle can match or worsen that tally in the top 10, and Liverpool have considerably better defenders than those two on paper. Martin Skrtel’s resurgence in the side has coincided with a disturbing tendency to concede cheap and avoidable goals. Summer signing Simon Mignolet too, cannot escape blame, as he has made several errors recently that have led to opposition goals. The Belgian is at fault for goals at Chelsea, Man City, Stoke, Aston Villa and perhaps even a Cabaye strike at St James’ Park he could have done better with. Admittedly he obviously has a lot of talent and has outweighed these goals with numerous superb saves, but he needs to cut out the errors or the pressure will increase.

In terms of analysing Liverpool’s drawbacks more finely, Rodgers’ system requires high-energy full-backs with the ability to defend and attack for 90 minutes and his side’s full-backs have been vastly underperforming all season, alongside their entire defence, really. Glen Johnson has been appalling this season, there’s no hiding it. Enrique has suffered from injuries and therefore Liverpool have had to rely on experimentation. Jon Flanagan seemed to be performing well, as Twitter fans jokingly donned him ‘Scouse Cafu’ but he too picked up an injury. Loanee Aly Cissokho has been poor and it leaves the question as to why there isn’t more cover in the squad. Martin Kelly must be wondering what has to happen on the pitch before he is given his chance. In addition, Rodgers is yet to really cement his preferred central defensive partnership into place. Sakho and Agger are the two fans are crying out for, but some seem against the idea of a partnership where both are left-footed. Martin Skrtel has regained some solidity but also attracted some criticism, most notably of his bizarre tactics defending or attacking a corner. Kolo Toure started off fantastically but has dipped in form since a disappointing display alongside Skrtel up in Humberside. Injuries too seem to have hit them at inconvenient times, with back-up Sebastian Coates having not kicked a ball all season, Sakho having spent time on the sidelines as has Daniel Agger. Their other summer signing, Tiago Ilori, who could have gone missing for all many Reds knew, has supposedly given several months to adjust and settle into England but has been loaned to Spanish side Granada to get some game time.

Ignoring their defensive issues, Liverpool have still won 4 and drawn 1 of the following fixtures which they lost last season: Aston Villa at home, Manchester United at home, West Brom at home, Tottenham away and Stoke away. They have gained 13 points from a 15 they had dropped last season. Therefore on that basis, progress has clearly been made. But will it be enough? Last season Liverpool finished with 16 wins, 13 draws and 9 defeats from 38. In just 22 they already have 13 wins. Rodgers’ side need just 18 points to equal the tally they set last season, meaning another 6 wins. If they managed that, they would need just 2 more wins to likely secure Champions League. Only once in the Premier League era has a team with 21 wins not made the top four; Spurs in 2013.

In the past six previous seasons (since 08-09), 43 points would have seen your side in the top four at the current stage. In 09-10, Tottenham had 38 points and yet sat 4th. 10-11, Arsenal sat 3rd just 2 points off City and United with 43 points. 11-12, Chelsea sat 4th with 41 points from 22 games. Again, in 12/13 Chelsea sat 3rd with 41 points at a similar stage. Of these five, only Arsenal in 2010-11 had matched Liverpool’s tally of 13 wins. In fact Arsenal shared Liverpool’s exact tally of wins, draws and losses. The Gunners had scored eight less goals (than Liverpool’s current total of 53) but conceded six less, leaving them with 23+. That year, Arsenal continued to finish in 4th place with 68 points, 6 ahead of arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspurs. Certainly, Liverpool would love to match that but the competition this season is entirely different. Only 9 points separate 1st-placed Arsenal from 6th-placed Everton and Liverpool face a tough battle with Tottenham, Everton and perhaps even Manchester United for 4th.

It seems strange than that sat proudly atop the league on Christmas Day, optimism swept over the Red half of Merseyside faster than the bubonic plague spread across London in 1665. The statistic that only twice in the Premier League history had leaders at Christmas not won the league and NEVER had anyone top not finished inside the elusive top four had fans’ mouths watering at the potential prospect of a title fight. Cautious optimists lay in the shadows as Scousers celebrated what they could be about to witness up and down the country. Yet come New Years Day, Liverpool found themselves sat 5th and six points off of 1st place. The rapid fall down the table simultaneously prompted a fresh wave of negativity amongst the fan base. Ignoring that they had just travelled on the two most difficult away trips in the Premier League consecutively, within three days and missing key players, fans assumed the pessimistic frame of mind. The title fight was off, fourth was again the sole aim. Anything better then, well, great. Anything less and we’re undoubtedly in the thick of it. The domino effect will castigate the club back into darkness. Suarez will leave and we’ll be back to square one.

Nevertheless, the January window opened and rumours of Mohammed Salah and hope of a Defensive Midfielder in the likes of Porto’s Fernando Reges or Rubin Kazan’s Yann M’Vila provided us with cause to be hopeful. Given the success Liverpool assimilated from the acquisitions of Coutinho and Sturridge the previous January, this was seen as a “do or die” time for Champions League qualifications. Three weeks into January and nothing. In fact, bar a signing of Matic for Chelsea, Everton’s signings of McGeady and Lacina Traore and a fresh-faced Hull forward partnership, not much has happened at all. The failure to acquire a DM as of yet (I ambitiously write) has sent Liverpudlians into anarchy on social networking. The news that Lucas could face a lengthy lay-off has only increased the flak on the Liverpool board and the owners, “WHERE’S THE DUNKIN’ DONUTS MONEY JOHN?!”.

Steven Gerrard has been shifted into the DM role, but even admitted himself after an out-of-sorts performance against the Villains: “If Brendan (Rodgers) watches that game back I might be playing further forward next game. Or be on the bench.” A critical, yet honest review of his dismal defensive display. Gerrard completed just 30 of 41 passes (73%), the 1st of which took him 22 minutes to complete. He won only 50% (2/4) of his tackles, the two he failed both in and around his own box and lost all 6 of his headed duels. He also managed 0 interceptions. Contrast this with Villa’s defensive midfielder Ashley Westwood, who sat further back than El Ahmadi (substituted for Sylla in the 62nd minute) and Delph, and you will see the difference. Westwood failed to complete only 5 of 31 passes, won 3 of 7 attempted tackles – all within his own half – and whilst he contested in no headed duels and made 0 interceptions, Westwood performed the role to a greater effect. Perhaps, for this game at least, interceptions can be dismissed given that Squawka’s app says Villa only completed 3 and Liverpool 6. (Compare that to 24 made my West Brom and 9 by Everton in their game on Monday night). Nevertheless, Westwood alongside his two midfield counterparts dominated the home side in the first 45. Though Westwood didn’t push forward, as he typically tends not to (he has mustered a lowly 12 shots all season), his passing was considerably less erratic than Gerrard’s and helped to control the midfield area. Consider the Reds’ captain’s contribution away at Stoke: 42 completed passes from an attempted 56 (75%), 4/5 successful tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 of 6 successful aerial duels with Lucas’ (in the same DM position) at home against Hull City. That day Lucas completed 70 of 76 passes (92%), won 6 of 7 aerial duels, won 2 of 6 tackles and made 4 interceptions. Granted, the system and the opposition may play a part, but there’s clearly a difference.

Okay, so let’s put it into context. Gerrard’s role is normally one of a robust, dynamic box-to-box midfielder who is involved in everything his team does. Though as I’m sure you’ve read and noticed, he hasn’t got the legs to continue smashing in 30-yarders and then making crunching tackles back in his own-half every game anymore. This means he is restricted, in Rodgers’ current system the only position he can realistically play against most teams is the DM role. Realistically, note, not fulfill. There are many areas lacking to his play, a popular example to most his innate desire to play the “Hollywood pass”, unlike Andrea Pirlo, the ageing Juventus deep-lying playmaker whom some have drawn comparisons to recently, so frequently means he gives possession away when the shorter ball Lucas or Joe Allen might have played could have meant increased build-up attacking play. Of course, this works vice-versa also. However Steven Gerrard’s role in this position requires him to be careful and fruitful with the ball, whilst also maintaining defensive stability. His poor performance suggests either more time will be needed for him to ease into the role or that he may never fit into the role, in fairness it may be the former, as to his credit he did begin to play better as the game got on against Stoke at the Britannia. For long periods in the first half, he was sat in between the centre-backs, suggesting his uncertainty as how to perform his duty. Liverpool need to time to implement Stevie into the system as Rodgers’ currently wants to, in the midst of a crucial season, can they afford to tinker their system to accommodate him?

The two goals conceded against Villa meant that this was Liverpool’s ninth occasion in which they have conceded two or more goals in a game. Furthermore they have kept only five clean sheets, with just one coming away from home. On their travels they have experienced harsh difficulties defensively. The most notable appearance away from home came when Gerrard was sat in the Sky Sports’ box watching the game with friend and now presenter Jamie Carragher. That game was of course at White Hart Lane, where an energetic midfield trio of Allen-Lucas-Henderson was vital in a 5-0 crushing of the home side. The pressing and intensity caused huge problems for Spurs, and also for Manchester City. The space and time provided by Allen and Lucas allowed Henderson to flourish and put in his best performance in a Red shirt against the North London club.

Brendan Rodgers gambled against Aston Villa, believing that a 4-4-2 (that seemed more like a 4-2-2-2) with Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho behind Suarez and the returning Daniel Sturridge and backed up by a pivot of the industrious Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard as the defensive midfielder could contain Villa’s two banks of three – Delph, Westwood, El Ahmadi and Weimann, Benteke and Agbonlahor. He was wrong. The front three exploited Rodgers’ miscalculation and gave Villa a 2-0 lead by the 36th minute, completely overpowering the hosts. Before the break, Sturridge grabbed one back to give the home side a ray of hope but Twitter was not a pretty sight at half time. The performance was nothing short of shocking. Given that Liverpool had a near perfect home record bar a loss to Southampton, it was tipped they would walk over Paul Lambert’s side who have struggled this season. Pundits reminisced of Villa’s 3-1 romp at Anfield in December 2012, pondering a repeat given their prolific Belgian forward’s poor run of form. Surely not, they concluded, but yet Liverpool’s frailties again showed.

Liverpool’s continual hauntings reappeared again and again at Anfield. Wasteful in possession and lacklustre in defence, they were desperately in need of change and so they came. By the 90th minute, Liverpool had rescued a point. A contentious penalty decision the talking point, luckily masking the seriously below-par performance against a side they should be beating given they aspire for Champions League football. Excuse the cliché, I mean no win is a guarantee but having finally conquered their demons on a cold, wet night at Stoke you’d have backed them to have overcome a team who had taken nine points from a possible 30 prior to their Merseyside trip. It is important to remember that this is the first time Liverpool salvaged points from a 2-goal deficit in 5 years. The last time was in December 2008, when they turned rescued a point at home against Hull. 195 games ago, to be precise.

The “We’ll score more than you” approach to football is exciting for the neutrals and inevitably for many Reds’ fans, but is it likely to pay off over 38 games?
Liverpool have adopted a “gung-ho” style similar to that of Manchester City’s. That’s where the similarities end however, as Liverpool’s midfield and defence does not have the quality or depth of Pelligrini’s side. There is no argument against the style of play Liverpool have currently adopted, it is a simple definition to their goal difference which far outweighs their closest opponents (Tottenham have +3 and Everton +15, compared to Liverpool’s +25 – Liverpool have scored 24 more goals than Spurs and 19 more than Everton, but conceded 2 more than the North London club and 9 more than their rivals across Stanley Park).

To change the negative slant to a slightly more positive one temporarily however, Liverpool have one of the most potent and creative attacking forces in the league. Even with Coutinho’s somewhat mediocre form, typically summed up by his wastefulness in front of goal, and Daniel Sturridge’s absence for several weeks, Suarez has miraculously improved on his rich vein of form from last season and has scored more goals than Cristiano Ronaldo, contributing 44% of the Reds’ goals. The Uruguayan has found another gear, ramping up his shot conversion rate to 22.9% and scoring every 84 minutes. In fact it was once every 65, before the game against Villa, the first time he has failed to score at Anfield this season. Suarez has won plaudits from everyone and on seven occasions, he has scored two or more in a single game and he has two hat-tricks (one was a quadruple) to his name already, the same number he managed in 33 league games in the 2012-13 campaign. He also has five assists, averages 2.9 key passes per game and has been awarded 10 WhoScored MOTM awards in just 16 GAMES. Such to the extent is Suarez’s impact that Liverpool have not won when Suarez hasn’t scored since his return from a 10-game ban.

Others who have stepped up to the plate are the English duo of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling who have rightfully received heaps of praise. Henderson, with six assists to his name (five to Suarez), has matured greatly and accepted the responsibility at his shoulders and consequently he has began to show his worth. His fantastic performance in the 6-0 rout away at Newcastle at the latter of the 2012-13 campaign was bettered in their 5-0 smashing of Spurs in which the 23-year-old was instrumental. Hard work and furious pressing have been matched with guile and flair, in that he has gained himself several exquisite assists against Villa, Tottenham, Cardiff etc..

Raheem Sterling has reignited the spark he showed when he first burst onto the scene at Anfield, with 3 goals and 2 assists in 11 starts. The stats may not be mind-blowing his performances on the pitch have not gone unnoticed and should he add even more end product to his work, he will only increase his popularity amongst the Kop.

A home game against Everton awaits the Reds in the league. Their away form has seen them win four, draw six and lose just one, away to the impenetrable Manchester City. Obviously it will be a tough test, the 3-3 fixture earlier in the season at Goodison serves as memory as to how good Martinez’s side are. With the addition of Aiden McGeady, Liverpool only have more threat to contain and Reds will be hoping Sakho and Allen (despite his infamous miss) will have returned to help restore much needing control to the side.

Liverpool’s fixture next up-and-coming against Bournemouth in the FA Cup this Saturday provides Rodgers with another opportunity to experiment. Will he rest key players or will he show that he is serious about silverware this season? Last year he was evidently disappointed at losses to Oldham in the FA Cup and eventual winners Swansea in the Capital One Cup, but will he prioritise it this at the potential sacrifice of fitness for a huge derby clash just days later?

Both games are important and two wins on the bounce would give Liverpool a much-needed confidence boost into a string of tough games. Liverpool picked up just 6 points from the next 15 last season, and will be hoping to improve upon that this season. Will January provide some extra additions or will Liverpool hold it out with the current crop? Who knows, but I’ve never enjoyed such a season since the topsy-turvy highs-and-lows of the Rafael Benitez era, and if that means anything, I’m placing my trust in Rodgers to prevail.