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.


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