Let’s get the formalities out of the way.
A 0-1 loss at Stoke is by no means a devastating result. The Britannia is a formidable place to visit these days.
It’s hard to imagine that Stoke City were plying their trade in the Football League as recently as four years ago. To turn them into a very solid Premier League outfit is an often-underappreciated achievement, and plenty of credit should be going Tony Pulis’ way every season. As it stands though, Stoke are apparently a “rugby” side that play route-one football, bullying their opponents out of their way.
Just a few words on their playing style – I myself don’t see any problem with it. Football is ultimately a results business, and Jose Mourinho never seemed to get as much flak from Messieurs Wenger et al for playing a stifling and physical game. But that takes some of the limelight away from their actual style, which any seasoned observer would describe as multi-faceted. They have very decent wingers and are capable of playing some well-worked football on the ground. (I also feel the need to include a shout-out to Jonathan Walters – he’s been playing out of his skin, and generally very un-Jonathan Walters-like, since joining Stoke; I’ve been very impressed with him every time I’ve seen him in Stoke colors.) And they’re very much an ambitious club on the up: just look at their deadline day signings. My predictions for their season: top ten for sure, and possibly even darkhorses for a European place.
But, yet again, I digress.
Without being nearly as clinical as our performance against Bolton at Anfield, we took the game to Stoke last night. No question. We flew out of the traps and played some scintillating stuff, but I choose today not to focus so much on the positives, as I’ve already mentioned them in abundance in previous posts, but rather on areas in which we can improve.
Again, we were excellent until the penalty decision that’s been dubbed controversial by some. Now, there are plenty of grey areas with regards to penalty decisions, and we have to consider the pace of the game, which makes the referee’s job as tough as anyone’s. That is not the main point here. When the referee confirmed the penalty, Jamie Carragher, who is usually the first to protest any decision in his half, held his head in his hands. That body language, to me, showed plenty: penalty or not, he was the culprit. A seasoned European competitor allowed Walters, a Football League regular, to hold him off so easily and wreak havoc in his area. Like many of us Liverpool fans are beginning to think, Carra knew right away that it was his fault.
Forgive me here, but I’ve never been Carra’s biggest fan. It’s not a case of jumping on the bandwagon now; those of you that know me will be able to testify to that. For all the heart-on-sleeve commitment and the no-nonsense tackling that he contributes, he doesn’t play the ball out of defence, he doesn’t present any sort of threat from corners, and he will be continuously exposed this season due to his declining pace. I appreciate him for being our one-club man, but at the same time, I hope that as much as he turns up to save the day with an incredible last-ditch tackle, he will be mentoring the development of our new defensive partnership of Coates and Agger. And, please, stop hitting the ball over the top. It gets quite infuriating.
But the loss was always a matter of mental strength, which Carra does not lack at all. To be fair, I thought we coped with the “Fortress Britannia” quite well, but the decibels from the home section were not the defining factor. I maintain that ours is a season of transition, because ours is a squad that is relatively new to big game environments. In front of our own supporters with a lead splendidly earned, we rode on the confidence to finish Bolton off. In adverse circumstances, where a great start is tempered by an against-the-tide penalty, our mental resolve is not quite the finished article yet. Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, who on their game (as against Bolton) can spot and pick out an inch-perfect pass, succumbed to an urgency that led to them only seeking out Hollywood passes while misplacing simple passes directly to the opposition on numerous occasions. The latter, of course, elected to finish straight at Mignolet’s legs not once but twice in a frantic 20-second exchange.
After his sublime left-footed effort two weeks ago, I thought Henderson had finally shaken free of the shackles that came with his pricetag and increased expectations. Perhaps this was purely a matter of inconsistent finishing ability, but in hindsight I would’ve preferred to see Lucas in that one-on-one situation, as I believe his mental strength would’ve brought us a goal. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of technical ability, as we’ve seen on multiple occasions through Dirk Kuyt.
More on finishing. As unpredictable and threatening as Suarez is, he is not yet a top-class finisher. A Liverpool-era Fernando Torres on top form, or for that matter a fit Steven Gerrard, would have not have chipped Bolton’s Jaaskelainen over the bar, and he’d certainly have been a surer bet to finish Mignolet’s parry straight to his feet last night. This is why I’m excited for Craig Bellamy’s return, and why I’ve clamored for a stop-gap, experienced finisher like Ruud van Nistelrooy or Diego Forlan. This is not to say that I was dissatisfied with Suarez’s performance last night, of course, not in the least. Quite the contrary, actually, and he really should’ve gotten a penalty against Upson.
A final word on mental toughness. We saw plenty of desire, albeit in a rushed frenzy, on the field last night, and I look forward to finally seeing Steven Gerrard back on the pitch to bring in some composure, and God forbid some save-our-skin strikes. But I was quite disappointed to see some of our on-pitch decisions last night. Given the threat that Charlie Adam poses on corners, I fail to see why he’s not in charge of corner duties, especially when Andy Carroll is on the field. We failed to keep a cool head towards the end of the game, electing instead to take short corners with non-crossers sending in the final ball, which of course led to clearance upon clearance from a resolute Stoke defence – this after Skrtel finished with aplomb at Adam’s inswinger against Bolton.
And where was Carroll? I have no problems with him not scoring, as we all know how hard it really is to change a game upon coming on as a substitute. But he was outside the box trying to get the ball and play simple passes instead of attacking crosses in it, and he was nowhere near any of the decent balls that came in off the feet of Enrique, Downing and Bellamy. I acknowledge that he is not currently on form, and that’s understandable, but the lack of desire and positional sense is not. Step your game up, Andy.
But to end this (apologetically long) post, I’d agree with Kenny in saying that we definitely deserved something, and with our players that if we play like this week in week out, we’d be in pretty decent shape come next May. And I’d also like to give credit to the way Kenny dealt with post-match questions on the referee’s performance: the epitome of class.
Alas, this was a result that wasn’t meant to be, and as such we continue our away woes – Tottenham at the Lane next week will be a severe test of our Top Four credentials. We’ve got more pressing matters to attend to closer to home, though: we all saw the importance of having a fearsome home reputation last night. Let’s get Fortress stenciled back in front of Anfield, boys.