After taking an early lead in last night’s Europa League tie against Augsburg, I was hoping to see Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Daniel Sturridge really run rampage up front and give us the goals that would have provided the perfect boost prior to the League Cup final on Sunday. But while there was some decent football on show, particularly in the first half, it was once again our weaknesses that stood out the most.
There’s no doubting the effect that Sturridge has on our game when he plays. After another season of struggling strikers and improvisation up front, I was just enjoying watching him do the simple things that top quality attackers do. The way his first touch killed a heavy pass from Alberto Moreno dead, allowing him to quickly swivel away from the opponent charging towards him expecting a loose ball. The way he knows when to attack the six yard box, and when to pull away and anticipate a cut-back. His telepathic relationship with Coutinho that results in some sublime link-up play. I even forgave his poor miss in the second half, as it was his own brilliant touch and turn that opened up the opportunity. And we all know that he doesn’t miss many of those, so we can certainly afford to put that one down to rustiness.
His pace also adds significantly to our attack, while his movement allowed Firmino, Coutinho, and James Milner to seamlessly switch positions and move into appropriate areas, while Sturridge almost ‘hid’ momentarily, before bursting forward to support his teammates.
In that sense, we should have much to be optimistic about. It may only have been a penalty that separated the sides last night, but our general attacking play finally looked like it had clicked into place and had a style and tactical plan to it. How long that lasts, though, largely rests on how long Sturridge can remain fit this time.
Unfortunately, our weak spots were just as glaring as ever. Far too often our final ball consisted of a bog-standard ‘hit and hope’ cross into the box, with little direction or threat at all. In fairness, the front three did what they could to make our attack vibrant and fluid, but Henderson, Milner, Moreno, and Nathaniel Clyne were all guilty of floating or drilling aimless balls into the box with very little intent other than hoping one of our better players somehow came up with a bit of magic to turn it into a decent cross. Our corners were once again excruciating to watch, with several landing straight into the goalkeepers hands, and one short corner arriving at the edge of our own box within a matter of seconds.
But even more significantly is in midfield. It’s partly fascinating, partly mind-boggling to watch a midfield do almost everything except what a midfield should do. The aforementioned front three – supplemented by the industrious Milner when he’s needed – should be enough to create and score the goals for us in attack. But when we have possession, they need to be provided with the ball as quickly as possible when they pick up smart positions in advanced areas. We never have anyone to do this, as more often than not, our midfield is a gaping hole. Jordan Henderson finds himself needlessly marauding forward to become another body in a congested area up there with the forwards, and Emre Can drifts left and right covering for the full backs or just generally chasing the ball wherever it goes. There’s simply no one in the huge block of space in the middle where a game can be taken under control.
Mamadou Sakho will occasionally bring the ball out of defence and ping a pass forward, but what we need is a man in the middle who constantly makes himself available, and whose natural instincts on the ball is to immediately look forward to find the ‘number 10s’. Can does it from time to time, but he seems to consider himself a far better dribbler than he actually is, and too often tries to burst past his man, only to have the ball stolen from him and then find himself out of position. And Henderson has an incredibly annoying habit of letting the ball run across his body before he takes a touch, which usually means he is facing backwards or sideways with an opponent closing him down – meaning his only options are to pass in those directions. I want to tear my hair out every time he does it, as it completely kills our momentum. His passing is hardly crisp and clean at the best of times, but why he makes it harder for himself is anyone’s guess.
The issue becomes a bigger problem due to the fact that our backup options are very much in the same vein. When Milner plays centrally he goes on walkabouts just like Henderson, while Joe Allen is similar to Can in the way he dribbles or plays short one-twos to move forwards with the ball, as opposed to one killer pass that cuts through the opposition lines and sets a Coutinho or Firmino on their way. Lucas Leiva is the holding midfielder when we need one, but he’s very much a ‘no thrills’ player, and he isn’t going to be single handedly dominating games for us.
I haven’t been surprised to see us linked with the likes of Ignacio Camacho, Leon Goretzka, Granit Xhaka, and (if you want to be really optimistic) Ilkay Gundogan, as our midfield desperately needs something different. A deep-lying playmaker such as one of those would improve our game immeasurably. We are a side screaming out for someone to sit in midfield, dictate our tempo, and pull the strings for us. Augsburg didn’t make it particularly difficult yesterday, but when teams do take the game to us a bit more, we fall into the trap of having our attacking players drop deep just to see anything of the ball at all. And then our whole plan of attack goes to pot as we have Coutinho and Firmino doing things on the halfway line that they should be doing on the opponent’s 18 yard box.
Xabi Alonso used to be credited with ‘assisting the assist’ a lot for us. He could pick up the ball just in front of our defence, then with one drilled pass forward he’d cut out five or six of the opposition players to find Steven Gerrard in acres of space, as the other team weren’t anticipating the ball coming to him so quickly. Then, while they worried about regrouping and getting back into position, Gerrard would use the space to turn and find Fernando Torres, who in turn would usually put the ball in the net. To replicate that dynamic, with Coutinho and Sturridge now filling the boots of our former skipper and Spanish number nine, all we are missing is that midfield maestro to be their puppet master. We find that, and we’d soon start to look a totally different beast.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)