November 24, 2013 at 2:17 pm

99 Problems, but the League Table Isn’t One

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The first Merseyside derby of the season and Brendan Rodgers’ 50th Premier League game in charge of Liverpool was one of caveats, contradictions and all-too-familiar problems. Despite providing yet another assist, Steven Gerrard was woefully poor, casually strolling amid the eye of a derby storm. John Flanagan, a young player few thought had a future at Liverpool, gave the kind of assured performance so few of his teammates could muster and was only robbed of the Man of the Match award by a Schmeichel-like display from Simon Mignolet, whose shot-stopping heroics were marred only by the erratic kicking Liverpool fans have come to expect.

Goals are seldom a problem for this Liverpool side, but despite the three scored at Goodison, this was a poor attacking display. Suarez huffed and puffed as usual, and Coutinho showed superb composure in controlling and poking the ball over the line for his first goal of the season, but the slick offensive movement and inventiveness typical of Rodgers’ team was largely missing. Instead, Liverpool’s goals came from set-pieces. Steven Gerrard’s delivery from dead-ball situations is the best it has ever been, and arguably as good as anyone in the world right now. Just as well, because when the ball is moving, Gerrard is too-often stationary. The captain’s ever presence continues to be a talking point, with many fans convinced his lack of mobility and individualistic style are unsuited to Rodgers’ philosophy and stopping the team from playing with the fluidity, control and coherence the manager desires. Gerrard’s loyalists point to his five assists in seven games as evidence of his importance to the team, but four of those have come from his pinpoint set-pieces, and there is an argument to be had about whether his contribution when play is stopped merits his inclusion when its in full flow.

As Liverpool looked to hang on to a 2-1 lead it was Joe Allen who was substituted having missed a glaring opportunity to put his side 3-1 up. The Welshman’s return to the starting line-up had been unremarkable at best, but within four minutes of his withdrawal Everton equalised, and ten minutes later the Toffeemen were ahead for the first time in the game. Between those goals Daniel Sturridge had been brought on in place of Lucas in an attempt to restore the lead, but in doing so Rodgers left his defence devoid of any protection as Everton started to rampage through the middle. In such a high-energy game, perhaps taking off Gerrard instead of Lucas or even Allen would  have maintained more control and solidity in Liverpool’s midfield, but, of course, it was from a Gerrard free-kick from which Sturridge rescued the red half of Merseyside in the closing stages. And this is the Gerrard conundrum in a nut-shell. Was his assist justification for him remaining on the pitch in favour of others when defensive stability, rather than dangerous free-kicks were what we needed? Or, if Gerrard had made-way instead of Allen or Lucas, could a more energetic and defensively disciplined midfield have made sure another assist and another goal were never needed?

This is not to say that Allen or Lucas had good games, however. Neither player did, and once again Liverpool’s defensive frailty had it’s roots in a midfield unable to control the game. Starting his first game of the season and thrust into the melting pot of a derby, Allen can perhaps be given some slack, though many will see his miss at 2-1 as unforgivable. Lucas Leiva is another player, who like Steven Gerrard, currently divides Liverpool fans. For those of us who would like to see him replaced, the issue isn’t so much with Lucas himself, as with the role he should, or shouldn’t be doing. Brendan Rodgers calls Lucas a ‘controller’ – the kind of defensive midfielder who reads the game, positions himself well and dictates play, but is this really the Lucas we see on a regular basis? The Brazilian’s strengths are in closing players down and nipping in to win the ball, but this means he is often drawn out of position by his own instinct to regain possession, rather than acting as an anchor-point for other players to set their own positions by. Lucas is more Mashcherano than Alonso, and perhaps with a more thinking, less reactive, genuine DM in beside him, he could be vital to the team as a designated ball-winner. Lucas certainly didn’t have control of the game, or even Ross Barkley, who was a constant, impressive threat. Two of Everton’s three goals came from free-kicks given away by Lucas – both on Barkley – and his five yellow cards already this season speak of a player not in control, but one whose lack of positional awareness and discipline in knowing when to tackle and when not to chase the ball is often detrimental to his teammates’ efforts.

And yet, after Lucas was withdrawn Everton sliced through the Liverpool midfield at will in scenes reminiscent of last season when the Reds all-too-often appeared soft-centred. When your only defensive midfielder who isn’t really a defensive midfielder is subbed, this is to be expected, so no wonder many fans were thrilled by the sight of Yann M’Vila watching the game from the away end. The Frenchman is everything Lucas is not; elegant and composed, M’Vila’s game is all about the vision and positional awareness a real ‘controller’ of a DM must possess, but there were some positives on the pitch as well as in the stands for Liverpool fans.

Erratic kicking aside, Simon Mignolet was superb, papering over the cracks of a midfield and defence too often waltzed through with a string of excellent one-on-one saves. In the absence of the long-term injured Jose Enrique, John Flanagan was Liverpool’s best outfield player, and reminded fans, the manager and perhaps even himself that he can still have a future at Liverpool. In doing so, however, he surely clarified that Ally Cissokho will not have one with the club. Enrique’s injury means Rodgers could do with bringing in another left back in January, funds permitting, and if Flanagan is rightly ahead of Cissokho in the pecking order, it might even make sense to cut the Frenchman’s loan short. If cash for signings is needed, either or both Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel could be used to boost the coffers. Neither showed that they deserved inclusion ahead of Sakho or Toure, and both lack the physical dominance stopping a player like Lukaku requires. For a footballing defender like Agger, that can perhaps be forgiven, and offset by pairing him with a more imposing centre-back partner. If only either he or Sakho were right-footed, they could make a formidable pairing. For Martin Skrtel, however, who lacks confidence and grace when in possession of the ball, an inability to boss opponents physically – as demonstrated in his failure to beat Barkley to the ball for Everton’s first goal – is one shortcoming too many.

Although a draw having twice led is always disappointing, this is a good Everton team under the leadership of a quality young manager, who should have had Mirallas sent off for a dangerous tackle on Luis Suarez in the first half, so some perspective is required. With games against Hull, Norwich and West Ham next in line, and having already played four of the top seven teams (Everton, United, Arsenal and Southampton) Liverpool sit second in the table after almost a third of the season played, only four points behind leaders Arsenal, with the Gunners yet to visit Anfield.

There is so much to find fault with this in Liverpool side, and so many problems obvious to the naked eye. And yet, despite all of them, this young, still developing team continues to defy expectations and remains perched – perhaps even poised – just off the top of the table. It is a team that will only get better as young players become established and weaknesses are addressed during transfer windows. Perhaps the flaws many of us see should not appear as question-marks casting doubt over the managers’ decisions or unwillingness to solve seemingly obvious problems, but mouth-watering reminders of just how good this team can eventually be.

2 Comments

  • Good article, don’t entirely agree on criticism of Lucas and Gerrard but I’m a bit sentimental about those two. It would be great for M’Vila to come in, as you said he could really add some quality to a midfield that can feel amateurish sometimes.

    • Thanks. It’s hard because Lucas and Gerrard have been two of our most loyal and committed players – particularly Gerrard – for many years now.

      The way I see it, if M’Vila or someone similar came in, both Gerrard and Lucas could still play big parts. Against strong opposition, Lucas might play alongside a genuine DM as a ball-winner, breaking up play and generally being a thorn in our opponents’ side, while against weaker teams, Gerrard could be afforded the luxury of pulling the strings without having to do too much running, as he has done at times this season.

      Some competition and rotation could really help in midfield in my opinion.

      Thanks for the comment.

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