By Ernie Fox
When I was a child, my grandfather once explained to me that the thing that made Ian Rush such a great player was his defensive qualities, his ability to close down defenders and pressurise the ball when Liverpool weren’t in possession. It seemed crazy to me at the time, Ian Rush was a proven goal scorer, what did it matter whether he could tackle or not? After all, attackers were paid to score goals, right?
But I had much to learn about football, and seemingly so do Fenway Sports Group.
Football is one of the simplest sports in the world, but it’s simplicity makes it one of the most complicated. The basic principle is eleven men trying to put the ball in one goal whilst an opposing eleven try to do the same at the opposite end. That’s the principle. In every team you have a goalkeeper, a set of defenders, midfielders and attackers; if you concede too many goals there is a problem with the defence, if you don’t score enough there is a problem with your attacking department. And if you can’t quite figure out why you’re losing games you replace the midfield. All simple so far?
That’s the basics, but there is so much more to the game, which is where the amateurs get left behind and the champions emerge. Defenders don’t just defend, attackers don’t simply attack; each position impacts on all of the others and it is vital to get that balance right otherwise the entire side will suffer. For Liverpool that means starting with the basis of the side, not at the back but the other end of the field. Our failing forward line; not just because we lacked goals this term, but because it is the first line of defence. It comes as no surprise that in the final game of the season when we played with no recognised forward at all, we conceded six goals because the best forwards do so much more than just score goals.
It would be almost insulting to sit here and try to explain that FSG need to invest in a new striker to score more goals because the statistics speak for themselves on that front, but we need to ensure we sign the right players because it is from the front line that Liverpool have achieved success in the past, including last season.
Firstly, a strong forward line provides far more space to the midfielders behind to play. With the pace of Suarez and Sturridge last season we forced opposing defenders to play deep, if they did attempt to play a high line and add numbers to the disrupt the midfield they would most likely be caught on the break from a fast paced attack as Arsenal discovered in February 2014 when we hammered them 5-1. It means the only way to counter such movement and devastating pace is for teams to play deep, just across the penalty box but in doing so it allows the Liverpool midfield the time and space to control the ball and dictate the play.
Chelsea may thrive on allowing the opposition to attack them, absorb the pressure, then catch them out on the counter attack, but that isn’t the Liverpool way and never has been. We have always been known for quick passing and movement, creating space for players to dominate, but to do that you need to stretch the opposition. You need to create a threat down either wing causing the opposition to have to cover the entire width of their defensive line, but then also threaten to exploit any space between the defence and the keeper, causing them to drop deep.
When Rodgers adopted a three man back line he enhanced the opportunities of attacking down the wings with the two attacking full backs and suddenly we started to see more space in the middle, Henderson began to find he had more time on the ball and his performances around January 2015 made us believe we still had a chance of making the top four despite the absence of Steven Gerrard in the winter, but we were missing that extra threat up front and when it came to the better sides we didn’t have enough power up front to maintain that pressure.
Secondly, English defenders are renowned for being uncomfortable in possession of the ball, when you have an attacking player who is willing to pressurise the ball and challenge defenders, mistakes will be made. Luis Suarez was constantly snapping at the opponents’ heals, as were many great Liverpool strikers before him, his work rate was phenomenal and it is what makes him one of the world’s top strikers, but applying that type of pressure does so much more for the team than just possibly cause one or two slip ups.
Every team needs a solid foundation to build on, whether it is as part of a passing style building slowly up the field or hoofing the ball from one penalty area to the other; either way the defenders of the side need time on the ball to be able to set up an attack, when they’re not given the time to do so it obviously alleviates the pressure on our own defence. By disrupting a team’s flow from the very beginning, by applying pressure all across the field, it allows us to dictate the game which is what most Liverpool fans want to see from the team.
This season we have clearly been lacking a strong forward line up and as such the entire team has suffered; of course Mignolet’s confidence was struck rather badly in the opening few months and there are still issues when defending set pieces but for me a lot of these things have come off the back of a weak forward line being led by an immature 20 year old striker.
By failing to apply pressure on the opposition or providing any real, tangible threat we allowed sides to attack us; we enabled them to gain momentum and put our defence under pressure. Pretty soon the entire team was demoralised, passing became erratic, and the trust and belief in one another needed for quick passing and movement was lost. When confidence is low it becomes incredibly hard to rediscover that form without reverting to route one tactics and therefore it can be no surprise when we see extended periods of increasingly poor performances and results.
As we look to the future it is imperative we identify the right forwards to lead the line; whether it remains as Rodgers at the helm or somebody else, the fact remains the same, the players we currently have upfront are not good enough to mount a challenge for a top four spot. We have to spend the money that will bring in a forward that will strike fear into the opposition, one that will look to find space behind the opponent’s back line and pressurise them when not in possession.
It is my belief that had we signed Alexis Sanchez last summer things may have been very different, but more importantly, I believe we had every chance of signing him. We held all the cards in the summer, Barcelona wanted Suarez, they would have done anything to sign him and yet we failed to take advantage of that. I realise Sanchez stated that moving to the capital was the reason for choosing Arsenal, but there was much more to it than that. Wenger made the effort to target him during the World Cup and persuade him to choose Arsenal, what did Liverpool do? How much effort did we put into bringing him to Anfield? We must do better if we are to succeed and learn from our failings.
In short, we need to do whatever it takes to get the right men for the job. This isn’t about building a squad, forget strengthening all across the pitch because without a decent forward line we will be no better off no matter how many players we sign. Bringing in a world class forward line has to be a priority, not just to add goals to the side but for the sake of all the other departments. It will cost us, we will have to spend big to get what we need, but no matter how much money it takes it has to be done because too many more seasons like last will see us firmly slip from the top sides in English football to mid table obscurity.
Written by Ernie Fox
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