Stoke 01/14/2012: Out of Ideas

A mere few days ago, Liverpool traveled to the Etihad Stadium and came away with a battling 1-0 away win to take into the second leg of the Carling Cup semifinal. A dominant first 15 minutes, a crisply dispatched penalty from Steven Gerrard, a subsequent 75 minutes of resolute defending. Now, providing that Kenny Dalglish’s charges stick to the Cit gameplan, Liverpool will have a first appearance at the new Wembley against Championship opposition.

And how a trophy to show for Dalglish’s return to the Anfield hotseat – a first in six years – would capture the imagination.

A revitalized Liverpool, back among the silverware. Back among the Premier League big boys. Storming their way back into the elite, using a much-loved British-centric policy that’s served him so well over the years. Who said he’d be out of depth after being away from management so long?

The subtext is that the Carling Cup looks like the only chance of silverware Liverpool have this season. And that it might even represent Liverpool’s best chance of getting into any European competition at all next season.

Last night’s bore draw at home against Stoke City might have been unsurprising otherwise, given Tony Pulis’ excellent record against the traditional big boys and against Liverpool. They are famous for their organized defence, physical style of play, and grinding out results away from home. Looking at just the match itself, one could’ve been forgiven for concluding that this was just a bad day at the office for Steven Gerrard and co. The possession was there. The chances were there (sort of). Heck, even the tactical surprise was there.

Looking at the larger context, perhaps this was emblematic of Liverpool’s season. Dominating a game at home, but drawing a blank. Dominating the shots taken, but failing to take advantage. (But even by Liverpool’s standards, some of last night’s stats were shocking to say the least. 15 shots, 1 on target. How the likes of Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler must be disapproving. Maybe even Michael Owen.)

But this was not one game. This was not just a bad day at the office. And this was not a mere reflection of our profligacy since August. Given the propensity for goalless draws at Anfield, I expected to stay up watching a 0-0 draw. No, this was a regression.

The lessons learned from the first half of the season, perhaps Dalglish and his team might have taken them on. If you don’t take your chances, you don’t score, he said. If you don’t score, naturally, you don’t get the results you deserve, he said. Taking away the capitulation at Tottenham, we have deserved better results from every league game this season, he said. We have a fit Andy Carroll raring to go, he said.

An Andy Carroll that took an hour to get onto the Anfield pitch. Immediately after his introduction, Liverpool earned a few penalty shouts, and had someone to cause nuisance inside the visitor’s penalty area.

Correction: After Andy Carroll came on, Liverpool finally had someone in the visitor’s penalty area.

We will never know if it is a stunning lack of confidence from all Liverpool players on the pitch or a frightening lack of footballing nous, but the reality is that Glen Johnson found himself as Liverpool’s only representative inside the Stoke box. On multiple occasions. When Liverpool were doing the attacking.

There are a few contexts that viewers should consider. First: where was our striker? The man in question, Dirk Kuyt, the tireless Duracell bunny that he is, found himself so starved of service that he went outside searching for the ball and to challenge defenders, as he always does, as the defensive forward. Second: where were our other players? Whether the forward line, consisting of Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Kuyt himself, who have mustered a combined solitary league goal, had the firepower to score against one of the league’s most famous defences is another question, but their combined failure to take up remotely goalscoring positions in the box was baffling to say the least, tear-your-hair-out frustrating to say a bit more, and frankly unacceptable, to be quite honest.

Third: why did Dalglish stick with five defenders for the entire 90 minutes? As soon as Pulis found out about Liverpool’s five-man defence, he reshuffled his attack to contain Peter Crouch as his specialist striker, just to ensure that the overloaded Red defence would become a waste and blunt their attack, a move that’s had critics quick to call this a tactical triumph for the Stoke manager. (Dalglish commented post-match that “we looked quite solid at the back.” Surely that is to be expected if he decided to play 5 defenders against 1 striker for 90 minutes.) Out-maneuvered at kickoff, Dalglish failed to consider that a collective lack of ideas from his team resulted in the majority of their shots taken being from long range.

A Liverpool team with the best of the pass-and-move attacking philosophy at its heart and with dreams of returning to the top of English football with a swashbuckling style, resorting to long-range shots from hardly prolific long-range shooters.

When Liverpool confirmed that they would not appealing Luis Suarez’s eight-match ban, we all knew that Liverpool would miss his creativity and endeavor on the pitch. The silver lining was that Steven Gerrard was back. But not even Captain Fantastic can carry the team on his shoulders every match.

The sad fourth context underlying Dalglish’s domestically-centered transfer policy is that British players lack the imagination, the flair and the technical ability of continental players. This policy might have suited Dalglish in his heyday, but his stubbornness to acknowledge his transfer dealings and to favor good old-fashioned blind workrate over moments of true brilliance is hindering the progress of a team so aching to be part of a modern elite, but still only has the past to draw from.

And nothing is more emblematic of a more glorious past than the ever-increasing recounts of the 2008-2009 season by the collective Liverpool fanbase.

Need I remind you that no silverware was won then.

But my word, did it capture the imagination.

ManCity 01/04/2012: New Year, Same Problems

To those who thought Liverpool’s relatively clinical performance against Newcastle in the last game of 2011 would be a sign of Liverpool finally approaching the end of a long, dark, profligate tunnel: yup, another false dawn.

I’m beginning to lose count of the number of false dawns we Liverpool fans have experienced this season. Sure, the future doesn’t seem to be as bleak as it was under Roy Small-Club Hodgson, but as the old adage goes: the higher the expectations, the bigger the disappointments.

I bet Kenny Dalglish was one of those who thought a bright end to 2011 would mean a bright start to 2012. His post-match interview certainly showed as much, as he had the following wise words to offer: “I’m not so sure the scoreline reflects the way the game went. I’m not saying we deserved to win, but I think the lesson we’ve learned from tonight is that if we’re not clinical we’re going to suffer.”

So it took half a season to learn this all-important lesson.

Perhaps my cynicism stems from the fact that I go by the mantra that is “the end justifies the means.” In this competitive, cutthroat football world that so many call “a results business,” I like to see wins and points. And that means I’m a fan of Rafa Benitez’s underdog European scalps, and I’m a fan of Jose Mourinho’s win-first, everything-else-second policy. I even reluctantly admire the swagger that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams have had over the years. I don’t like the attitude, but I like the wins.

The talk has long been about Liverpool not having the luck we’re due. About in-form goalkeepers playing the games of their lives against us. About an astonishing number of times we’ve hit the woodwork.

But luck plays a part perhaps in a game or two. Perhaps maybe over the course of a month or two. When you’re talking about a luckless half season, there’s something underlying that is the issue at hand.

First, it’s the poor additions to the first-team squad. I touched on my thoughts on the price-quality relationship of our summer buys in my last post. I would like to resume for a moment. It is high time I made my pronouncements clear: Stewart Downing is rubbish. He doesn’t take on his man, he doesn’t have pace, he can’t cross, he can’t shoot, and he cost a fortune. Jordan Henderson may prove to be a decent player in time, but his anonymous displays in the center of midfield do not suggest a workmanlike performance in his favored role; they embody a young man short of confidence. Charlie Adam is clumsy, rash and if his set pieces are worth 10m alone, then Steven Gerrard’s crosses alone are worth a world-record fee.

Second, it’s the lack of creativity. We already saw what a Liverpool team is capable of without a predatory Fernando Torres. Now we’re seeing a Liverpool without that and a creative Luis Suarez. Followers of this blog, scant as they may be, might be well-versed in my thoughts on the frustrating, profligate and unproductive Suarez. But at least he has the courage to try his tricks, to run the channels, to make things happen. Without him in the side, Liverpool looked dead yesterday. Sideways pass to sideways pass, backwards pass to backwards pass, long diagonal ball to long diagonal ball. I dread that prospect.

Third, it’s the over-reliance on the old guard. Dirk Kuyt is no longer the clutch goalscorer he used to be. Craig Bellamy’s knees do not allow him to play two consecutive games in just a matter of days (although, given our next game is an FA Cup tie against Oldham, I struggle to see why Kenny couldn’t have started Bellamy and given him a solid hour). Steven Gerrard is still working his way back to full fitness. Maxi Rodriguez can’t be expected to score on every single appearance. And Fernando Torres is not a Liverpool player anymore, as much as some of us wish he was. So it’s up to the new generation to deliver. Please see above for my verdict on said generation.

This is easily my most critical post since I started this blog. At the 20-game mark, we’re over the halfway line, and while many people suggest that we should be satisfied with the progress made in a year, I would respectfully suggest that last year was the worst in recent memory. If you’re celebrating progress made from the bottom of the pit, then you might as well celebrate staving off relegation.

For the first half of the season, Liverpool have been wasteful. A goal conversion ratio like City’s, like United’s, like Spurs’, would see us in the Top Three for sure. We have the second-most potent attack in the league in terms of chances created, but one of the lowest goals-scored tallies. In this half year, the lesson I learned is that the final hurdle is the toughest one to overcome.

Did I need an insipid, sluggish and uninspired performance at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium to learn this lesson? No. It just made it painfully obvious that things need to be done, and quick.

But let’s just say I really only learned this lesson last night – then perhaps I’ll fall back on our recently favorite habit of drawing comparisons to last year.

Last year, we started the new year poorly. This led to Hodgson’s and Torres’ departures. After Kenny came in, results started improving. Dramatically, some say.

If we want to see a good year ahead of us, a good transfer window is absolutely imperative. Only then will the end of the tunnel prove more than a mere mirage.