West Brom 10/29/2011: More of the Same

This is fast becoming a Liverpool staple.

Lots of chance created. Dominating possession. Points in the bag. Economical.

But for the clean sheet, which is fast losing its Liverpool staple status, and the three League points, this was a typical performances from Kenny Dalglish’s charges. So I’ll keep it short this time.

Two individual things stand out.

First, Stewart Downing is possibly the most directly nonconstructive player on the Liverpool team right now. 10 league appearances, no goals, no assists. How many times has he beat his man on the flanks? How many times has he delivered a successful ball into the box for Andy Carroll to attack? (More on Carroll later.) The #19 looks less and less the missing piece to our jigsaw, as proclaimed by Damien Comolli following Downing’s signing in the summer. His runs and crossing look less and less effective by the game, and Jose Enrique is currently taking on everything down the left flank. Kenny Dalglish’s best summer signing without a shadow of doubt.

A word for Glen Johnson on the opposite flank. Aside from Manchester City’s Galacticos-style rotation policy, the battle for Liverpool’s starting right-back slot has become one of the most fascinating positional battles in the League this season. Glen Johnson showed signs of life, his dribbling and pace causing problems in the West Brom half. Against smaller teams, the more defensively-sound Martin Kelly will have to bide his time, because there’s no denying that Johnson, just like Enrique, can act like an extra winger. But this competition can only prove beneficial to England in the longer run. And don’t forget young Jon Flanagan waiting in the wings.

Second, Luis Suarez began the game with 17 shots off target so far this season, the most in the League. He finished the game with 22, the most in the League. Somewhat unsurprisingly, all his 5 shots taken against West Brom were off target. He is rightly taking the plaudits for making Liverpool tick and for generally causing havoc in every opposition area he comes across, but there’s got to be a certain level of balanced perspective. And Kenny must make sure this doesn’t get to Suarez’s head.

Selfishness is fine, but not unproductive selfishness. The right-sided freekick in the first half, which he insisted on taking at the expense of the left-footed and more prolific Charlie Adam, was a typical example of his competitiveness and willingness to make everything work. It was also a typical example of his off-target shooting.

Now if only Suarez could use his unpredictability to drag away defenders and then create chances for his strike partners, just like his deftly chipped pass to Carroll, whose first-time left-foot volley was smothered by a good block, and exactly like his sublime through-ball for Carroll’s goal.

To be sure, Carroll’s was a sketchy first touch en route to his goal. But it was an underrated outside-of-the-foot finish. In general, this was a game that started to show signs of life in the Andy Carroll-Luis Suarez partnership.

Besides scoring a goal, Carroll impressed with his improved positioning and desire. While Downing put in his non-existent crossing into the box, Carroll’s off-the-ball movement into key attacking positions was noteworthy, and his run into space to receive Suarez’s through-ball also showed signs of increased understanding. It’s time to take advantage of an increasingly confident Andy Carroll.

Perhaps with Carroll firing on all cylinders, Liverpool will finally turn their attacking dominance into goal gluts.

For now, 18 shots still only yielded 2 goals. And currently, out of the Top Six, Liverpool trail by some distance in terms of goals scored.

The finishing is still profligate. More of the same, really.

Three points on the back of an attack that has yet to hit top form. More of the same, please.

Norwich 10/22/2011: Wasteful

Here’s how the post-match reaction will pan out.

Liverpool created lots of chances. Liverpool were unlucky not to get the three points. Norwich put in a brave shift and earned their point. Andy Carroll performed poorly as a substitute and missed an easy header at the end. Luis Suarez was once again the center of all Liverpool attacks and was the man of the match.

Here’s how the post-match reaction should pan out.

Liverpool had 29 shots on goal, only 9 of which were on target, only 1 of which was a goal.

I thought it was just a case of not being on form in the finishing department, but that’s a 31% on-target ratio and a 3.44% chance conversion rate. That is woeful and unacceptable. If someone were to come along and do a league table based on chance conversion ratios, I’m pretty sure Liverpool would be damn near the bottom.

Based purely on these numbers, Liverpool were absolutely not unlucky not to get the three points. The fact that we created 29 chances and should still be worrying about three points is absurd in the first place. And the fact that given all these chances gone begging and Norwich putting together some neat passing play should send Kenny Dalglish and his coaching team back to the drawing room.

Because, let’s be honest here: who wasn’t thinking that Norwich would sneak a result at Anfield given how wasteful we were?

It’s a results business. For all of Damien Comolli’s revolutionary statistic-driven measurements, the single most important statistic in the end is the final result, which depends on number of goals scored. On current evidence, the chances are being created, which is a good thing, but no one is putting them away. The January transfer window must be used to rectify this, or it’ll be a long rest of the season.

Yes, Andy Carroll should have headed that Gerrard cross in. And he will be criticized for that. But spare the boy a thought: it’s his first chance in almost 180 minutes of football. His positioning has improved, and his chance conversion ratio is definitely superior to that of his strike partner.

Yes, we went back to route-one football after Carroll came on. But that’s because Kenny took out Stewart Downing, who is consistently disappointing in every aspect of the game other than crossing. And because Steven Gerrard, who’s capable of the teasing crosses that yielded that last-gasp chance for Carroll when he’s playing on the right, can’t deliver balls in from the wide areas if he plays in the center. When Craig Bellamy, Downing and Gerrard were peppering John Ruddy’s goal with crosses in the first half, where was Carroll? On the bench.

And yes, Luis Suarez is mesmeric. He is mercurial. He is also frustrating and wasteful. There are no two ways about it. For eight games I’ve been complaining about his lack of finishing ability. Today he has shown everyone why he’s not world-class. Yes, he creates chances all by himself. Yes, he makes things happen out of nothing. But what good does that do when nothing comes of those chances? What good is carving space for yourself from a neat turn or a good show of upper strength when you don’t have a finish at the end of it to show for your efforts?

The great Bob Paisley once said, “If you’re in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net and we’ll discuss the options later.”

Every single player in this Liverpool team would do well to listen.

ManUtd 10/15/2011: Forced to Settle

In the end, the points had to be shared.

Let’s be honest. After around 20 minutes of first-half action, most of us watching wanted the halftime whistle to go.

With Sir Alex Ferguson opting for an experienced midfield quintuplet, the middle of the Anfield park was congested. And with neither side starting with an urgency and flowing movement that have been evident on several occasions already this season, it was no lone fault of ours that the first 45 minutes were entirely forgettable.

The pedestrian and boring start to the game featured a plethora of misplaced passes straight to the opposition. And even when the passes did find another player in a Red shirt, they often ended up going horizontal or backwards. With an already congested midfield and Steven Gerrard yet to approach peak fitness, there were no barnstorming runs from the center of the park, and no razor-sharp vision to find the diagonal balls to the wings.

But if there’s one thing this Liverpool team doesn’t lack in, it’s team spirit and a desire to keep going until the end, and that much was evident in the second half, especially after Hernandez’s equalizer.

United’s switch to a 4-4-2 saw Liverpool fashion plenty of chances, and Jordan Henderson turned in an impressive performance having come on as a substitute for Lucas. His movement in the midfield and in the attacking third opened up plenty of space for Liverpool to attack, and he alone had two great chances to kill off the game, first via a sumptuous volley that David de Gea brilliantly turned over, and second in the form of a header that met Stewart Downing’s cross.

A quick word on Fergie’s team selection.

United reverted to a 4-5-1 formation, with such big-game players as Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher starting at Anfield. Their substitutes bench was littered with world-class names and they were able to bring on Wayne Rooney, Nani and Javier Hernandez, who might as well be the best substitute trio in the League this season. but the question is: why weren’t they starting?

As much as some onlookers may want to pin it on Rooney’s mental state and the travel weariness following the international break, Ferguson’s personnel choices reflected a cautious respect for Liverpool.

It could have been a yearn to break our three-game winning streak in this fixture. It could have been a formation to deny us the space we crave to pass and move. But it was definitely a nod to Ferguon’s pre-match claims that this was the biggest game in English football. And that we’re starting to rise again to be a major competitor for United.

The men in Red showed that his concerns were not misplaced on the day.

Liverpool attacked well in the second half on Saturday. We defended well for the entire game, the defensive lapse leading to Hernandez’s goal aside. (And that wasn’t a corner anyway.)

On the pitch was some United attack. And opposite them was some Liverpool defence. Martin Kelly and Jose Enrique particularly caught the eye with assured performances and solid attacking support. It’s not everyday that Manchester United are limited to two shots on target in 90 minutes. It’s not everyday that Ashley Young is subdued for 70 minutes (or that he only lasts 70 minutes). And it’s not everyday that Nani is kept quiet on the pitch.

So, the good news is: with Kelly and Enrique on the flanks, Liverpool possess a very complete partnership on both our wings. (This is very, very bad news for Glen Johnson.)

Here’s another piece of good news: Steven Gerrard is back. Let’s first take a moment of silence in response to those who dared suggest that he wouldn’t be able to get back into the team.

Anyway, Steven Gerrard is back. And him being deemed fit enough to start and fit enough to last the entire 90 minutes can only be a good thing for Liverpool.

For all of Kuyt’s and Henderson’s industrious work-rates, Gerrard’s energy and ability to make incisive attacking runs will make a huge difference, and he will add an extra dimension to the Reds attack if he stays fit. His dead-ball and crossing prowess mean that chances will be created for our strikers to pounce on, and we will hopefully no longer be restricted to the left-foot specialties of Charlie Adam. His passion for the Reds cause will see him track back and make crucial tackles in his own half. His on-field, lead-by-example leadership will inspire confidence and instill calm in the Liverpool side.

Oh, and he’s capable of scoring important goals.

Unfortunately, this brings us back to the age-old question: Are Liverpool (still) a two-man team?

And unfortunately, the answer to that question is (still) a resounding yes.

Mention the other components of the Liverpool spine (Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Dirk Kuyt) all you want, but Liverpool remain a two-man team. Just like Fernando Torres during his time at Anfield, Luis Suarez finds the majority of Liverpool’s attacking chances at his feet. But, for all his unpredictability, invention and hunger, he is far from a world-class goalscorer. When Suarez found himself with only David de Gea to beat in the first half, he shot straight at the keeper.

During Fernando Torres’ days at Atletico Madrid, before his move to Anfield, he was labeled more as a scorer of spectacular goals than a spectacular scorer of goals. This seems to be an accurate description of Liverpool’s #7 right now, and while he is seen to be more versatile and creative than Torres, he needs to get his finishing up to the old Torres’ level, simply because the bulk of Liverpool’s goalscoring chances are now his.

Which brings me to my next point: Where were Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy?

Given the number of inviting crosses sent into the United box, especially towards the end of the game, and given the physically culpable duo of Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans, this was a perfect game for Carroll to make his mark. Instead, he found himself on the bench for the entire 90 minutes, which must have been as disappointing for him as it was for us Reds fans.

With all the chances being created, Liverpool need to step up a gear and actually finish them off, or risk losing points when they really should be taking them on board. This is where Andy Carroll, with his aerial and finishing ability, and Craig Bellamy, with his pace and experience, come in. Or should be coming in anyway…

But instead, in the end, the points had to be shared.

Everton 10/01/2011: Professionally Pedestrian

Professional.

That’s what Kenny called our derby win at Goodison Park. That’s what the players will say in the interviews leading up to the next game. That’s what the journalists will write in their post-match reports. That’s what the fans will claim after the labored win.

But the fact of the matter is that Jack Rodwell’s sending off, so undeserved even from a Red perspective, was the turning point in a match-up that’s seen the most number of red cards issued in Premier League history. And Everton’s reduction to ten men didn’t result in an immediate advantage for us either.

As much credit as David Moyes and his men in Blue deserve for grinding out a solid, hardworking performance the ultimately couldn’t resist Liverpool’s finishing, Kenny Dalglish and his charges will shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for a tepid affair.

With Dirk Kuyt restored to the starting lineup, the big-game player, the clutch finisher, the erstwhile derby hero, we fans rested assured that Leighton Baines would have to endure a troublesome 90 minutes. And so this proved, with the left-back rarely enjoying a yard of breathing space. It is a testament to Kuyt’s evolution (or devolution) from an out-and-out striker into a defensive winger, and to the importance of his dogged workrate in this position, that his contribution to this game will be judged based on his closing down of Baines’ left side and how unlike Jordan Henderson he was, rather than his penalty miss.

Of course, he would be remembered for his first penalty miss in a Red shirt had the game ended in anything but a Liverpool victory.

On the back of a solid game all afternoon, Everton’s defence will have been disappointed with their lax marking of Andy Carroll, allowing him to finish clinically into the far corner following Kuyt’s classy dummy from Jose Enrique’s cross, and infinitely more so with Sylvain Distin’s careless clearance straight to Luis Suarez’s chest. That’s how you take your chances when presented them, and let’s hope both strikers, especially the former, will take great confidence from their goals.

The more worrying aspect of the performance was the lack of mobility and movement across the front third, and in Rafa’s jargon, between the lines. On one side of the coin, it’s pleasing to know that we possess the strength in depth to bring on two experienced attackers, Steven Gerrard and Craig Bellamy, with pace, energy and creativity, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to know that both of Liverpool’s goals were scored after their substitute appearances. On the other, it’ll be a cause for concern that we needed the injection of said attributes before we were able to break the deadlock.

We often accuse our midfielders and strikers of passing the ball sideways and backwards when in possession of the football, but it’s also down to a collective lack of penetrating and incisive movement in and around the box. With the ball out wide, the only movement we see is the full-backs providing support but no movement whatsoever in the middle of the park. The ball once again stays forced out wide, and the crosses that do come in aren’t being attacked by our header-in-chief, Mr. Carroll. Where was the constant switching positions so evident early on in the season? Kenny and his coaching staff need to ensure that the bright footballing start to the season doesn’t fizzle out, because if this pedestrian showing persists, we could be in for a long season.

The bright sparks were the substitutes. With Gerrard and Bellamy’s desire and energy so evident in their 20-minute cameos, they should be considered as strong contenders for a first-team spot. Gerrard’s encouraging return from injury has in particular been the highlight in our recent underwhelming performances. Let’s hope he will add some much-needed pace and leadership from the center of the park.

With this potential banana skin out of the way, our upcoming clash against Manchester United has been billed as a key encounter, a test of our credentials. Following their unrelenting start to the season, United have arguably dropped down a notch in their recent performance levels. We’re capable of catching them off-guard to get the optimism back at Anfield in full force.

But my interpretation is slightly different. As much as our matches with United are always important, I see our subsequent fixtures as even more pivotal to our season. Next up in the League are Norwich, West Brom and Swansea, and we know how important it is to be able to kill off these so-called lower-table teams. I’ll hope for stylish, but I’ll be more than satisfied with professional.