Wigan 3/24/2012: That’s It For Now

Liverpool used to embody everything I aspired to be.

When I first watched Michael Owen in my early years, I wanted to be like him. Young, talented, successful, and with never-ending potential. I wanted to make things happen.

When I then recognized Steven Gerrard’s importance in the Liverpool team, I found the idea of being a creator even more appealing. The energetic, creative, hardworking team player who thrives on giving others opportunities. With an unparalleled ability to handle pressure and stress. That was true leadership. Not by words, but by example. As I grew into Liverpool during my high school years and became a fully-fledged diehard in college, Steven Gerrard was the very embodiment of the kind of person I wanted to become.

When I saw Rafa Benitez, I saw an intelligent and versatile manager who could work around problems and come up with ways to get over obstacles. Someone who could make do with having less talent at his disposal, but able to make up for lost ground simply through strategy.

When I watched Xabi Alonso play, I saw someone so classy he was able to make some of the hardest tasks look routine and effortless. Someone so humble and down to earth about his abilities, and so keen to give others credit. Someone whose contribution and talent he never needed to acknowledge, because everyone would realize even more during his absence.

When I fell in love with Fernando Torres, I wanted to be effective, composed, and so in tune with a collective cause that I’d be willing to sacrifice short-term gain for a long-term vision. In Pepe Reina I saw someone who championed the value of the team so highly that he would be the first to celebrate David Ngog’s clincher against Manchester United, that he would be so selflessly professional in giving Iker Casillas penalty tips.

And finally, when I watched Liverpool, I realized and connected to the importance of never giving up. Sure, Liverpool loved to do things the hard way – extra-time goals, last-minute goals, penalty shootouts. There would be frustrations along the way, but finding everything I connected to in the team and on the pitch every week, despite some trials and tribulations, was worth rooting for to the very ends of the earth.

If you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m not one to wear my heart on my sleeve. But it was the fact that I felt so in tune with Liverpool Football Club that I’d proudly wear my Liverpool shirt to class and around campus on the day of a Liverpool game, leave lectures early and run back to my dorm for a live Champions League broadcast, and wake up at 7 in the morning every weekend for Premier League action.

It was a love affair that I never thought could end.

But now, I see my erstwhile beloved team wilt away in the face of adversity.

I see them give up when the going gets tough.

I see them continue to come up with excuses to mask over problems.

I see them stay stubborn and not address areas that need substantial improvement.

I see them freeze when there are so many options to take, when they should be ecstatic at the sheer possibilities of what they can do.

I see them lie down and be unsportsmanlike.

I see a Liverpool Football Club that, contrary to what the coaches and the players claim, is heading further and further into the foggy realms of mediocrity.

And as I watch a Liverpool Football Club that used to promise so much and mean so much in my life, I’m getting more and more disillusioned and apathetic.

Because how can you muster the commitment and passion to follow a team when they don’t reciprocate that commitment and passion?

How are you supposed to buy into a club anthem that tells us to walk on with hope and to walk on through the wind and the rain, when those associated with the club don’t have that hope, and aren’t willing to battle the elements?

The Liverpool Football Club that I knew and loved is no longer.

And until that fire within me is rekindled and my support is once again deserving of its “unconditional” status, this will be it from me for now.

Everton 03/13/2012: That’s More Like It

Finally, three points to show for a dominant performance.

And what a performance.

Liverpool barnstormed to a Steven Gerrard-sized destruction of Everton in the Merseyside derby last night. The skipper’s hattrick marked an emphatic return to winning ways, and in some style.

Every single player on the pitch – even Stewart Downing, who played much more central than normal and was much less effective than he’s threatened to be in the past few weeks, and Jordan Henderson, who went through the motions of an insipid and uninspired first half – was excellent.

So where would we start?

Perhaps with Martin Kelly. Given the quality that we’ve always known to exist within Kelly, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that Glen Johnson is still out injured. With pace, power and positional awareness, Kelly put in a top-class performance as a marauding full-back. He might not have the close dribbling and guile that Johnson has, but he’s a handful all right. Would have made the England squad by now if it weren’t for Johnson’s form this season.

Or Jose Enrique. More evidence of his pure physical strength was on show last night as he bulldozed Everton’s right side to submission time and again. But this is what we’ve been accustomed to for most of the season. Shouldn’t be a surprise.

How about Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel? The much-maligned vice-captain came in and looked like he’d never left. He even cut out the long ball over the top to Carroll – I would’ve offered to eat my hat if anyone predicted that before the game. Skrtel was shifted to Daniel Agger’s usual left side, but he didn’t care. It was just business as usual as he proceeded to dominate all the one-on-ones and aerial battles that came his way. The considerably bulky Victor Anichebe and Denis Stracqualursi were reduced to nothingness and substituted having made zero meaningful contributions to the Everton attack.

And Jay Spearing? The Liverpool lad always saves something extra for the derbies, and what he lacks in pure technique and finesse, he makes up for in passion. A ubiquitous showing from the covering defensive midfielder – though, of course, we have to recognize that he can’t be the long-term back-up for Lucas.

Luis Suarez was back to his mesmerizing best, and he ripped Everton’s defence open with two assists for Gerrard. He was played largely in a supporting role behind Carroll, and that’s where he should be in the long run. Cut down on the theatrics, and we’d really have a gem on our hands.

Andy Carroll wasn’t half bad either. In fact, he was pretty darn good. Who would’ve thought he’d dominate almost all his headers against the man mountain that is Sylvain Distin? Or that he’s actually capable of Peter Crouch-esque great-touch-for-a-big-man flicks and turns? Or – I can’t believe I’m about to say this – that he can pick out a pass from the midfield like Xabi Alonso once did?

Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit over-excited, but this is some sort of minor vindication for all the support I’ve given Carroll (and all the flak I’ve taken for doing so). But seriously, it was so pleasing to see that he is actually capable of playing in a pass-and-move team. There’s plenty of hope in him yet.

And then we arrive at Stevie G.

What words can I use to describe this man that I haven’t used before?

Of course, this is the same man who’s powered me through an entire workday on the back of less than four hours of sleep – I certainly don’t regret that sleep lost its battle against a 4am match.

This was Gerrard at his midfield general, talismanic best. Putting his body on the line with some great tackles and blocks, and driving through the midfield like the Gerrard of old, he delivered a true captain’s performance. It’s not one we should be getting used to, given his advancing years, but one up there with his best, and one we should treasure. Truly first-class, and his link-up play with Carroll and Suarez was a joy to behold as well.

In case this wasn’t clear enough already – it’s been a while since I’ve felt so good about a Liverpool display.

Sure, the Carling Cup win was great, and to see some silverware was definitely satisfying – but the shootout win over Cardiff was more a relief than anything. As with so many other wins this season, because it’s been a year of such fine margins that goals have more often been greeted with relief rather than pure joy.

Not last night.

Finally, the performance we’ve almost trademarked at times this season has yielded the three points that we’ve always threatened to come away with, but have never actually succeeded in doing.

It might be too late to salvage a Top Four finish, but it’s never too late to salvage pride.

The Case for 4-2-3-1

Here’s a list of words that can be used to describe Liverpool at various points this season: thrilling, depressing, frustrating, swashbuckling, infuriating.

In fact, the list is almost as colorful as the number of different formations employed by Kenny Dalglish and his management team.

Since Dalglish took over in January last year, we’ve seen a variety of tactical approaches to games: 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, and so on.

While having different options can be beneficial over the course of a season, we have yet to see Dalglish fixate on a first-choice starting 11 and tactical plan.

It’s been a tumultuous year and two months for the Liverpool manager in terms of personnel, to say the least, with Andy Carroll, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Lucas Leiva all out of the side at various points during Dalglish’s tenure.

Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson have also underwhelmed since arriving at Anfield in the summer, and the rises and falls in their form have meant that they haven’t had a chance to fully cement a place in the first team yet.

Add in the frustratingly profligate performances up front and the unfortunate knee situation that prevents Craig Bellamy from playing week in, week out, and we have a Liverpool team that has yet to fully gel on the pitch.

After all, Suarez, Carroll and Gerrard only got their first ever start together earlier in 2012.

But provided that this summer’s transfer business is at least as fruitful as last season’s—the only signings last summer that have truly caught the eye have been Jose Enrique and Bellamy—Dalglish will have a bigger and better squad to work with in 2012-2013.

The back five—Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Jose Enrique—basically picks itself, and the considerable strength in reserve means that any additions to the defensive ranks would merely bolster its impressive defensive record.

It’s the midfield and forward lines that need a system suited for Liverpool’s multi-faceted approach, and 4-2-3-1 is exactly that.

Assuming no further additions to the squad, let’s explore how the current team would work best on paper in this formation.

When Lucas returns from injury, he should slot straight back into the defensive midfield position he has made his own. Alongside him would be Charlie Adam, who seems most comfortable in a deep playmaker role akin to that of Xabi Alonso. He might have had an inconsistent season so far, but he remains Liverpool’s most direct threat with long and diagonal passes, and his attacking tendencies would be a decent foil to Lucas’ all-action approach.

There is an alternative to Adam as Liverpool’s regista, of course—forgotten man Alberto Aquilani. Contrary to Dalglish’s assertions that Aquilani is most comfortable in Gerrard’s second striker position, he is equally impressive as a deep-lying midfielder, as his cameos during his only season at Anfield showed. He represents a classy option in the middle and would arguably be a more important component in the first team than Adam—but the key is whether or not Aquilani still has the appetite to succeed in English football.

With Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson also capable of filling in, that’s the “2” solved.

Before we move to the “3” in support of the lone striker, let’s first look at the candidates up front, and there is only one serious candidate within the current squad: Andy Carroll.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Carroll—more downs than ups—but he remains the best option to lead the line. Dirk Kuyt has taken his conversion to the right wing a bit too close to heart to excel as a lone striker, and Luis Suarez’s creativity and relative profligacy makes him a traditional support striker rather than an out-and-out forward.

While Carroll has disappointed in many of his performances, he has the strength, power and aerial ability to be an effective (and even prolific) targetman for the Reds. His shooting and pace, despite underwhelming this season, is underrated. He has all the elements to be one of the best attacking forces in the League, and he should be given the opportunity to spearhead the attack—again, in the context of the current squad. Of course, he also possesses the ability to create chances for the attacking trio behind him, which has been a criminally underused tactic this season.

Now onto the “3.”

Dalglish finds an overwhelming number of options for the three positions behind the lone striker, but the combination that might just work best is Craig Bellamy, Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard.

All three possesses creativity, work rate, pace and finishing ability, and we have seen on various occasions this season that they are capable of combining intricate passing plays—the crux of the much-espoused pass-and-move style.

Bellamy and Gerrard can cross too. Their wing play on the flanks would create ample space for Suarez to exploit down the middle and for an onrushing Charlie Adam or Alberto Aquilani, and they would be able to put in the kind of crosses that Carroll feasts on.

Simply put, this 4-2-3-1 lineup would be a perfect fit for a possession-heavy playing style that Liverpool have exhibited this season—and would also present a considerable threat on the counterattack.

Which should come as no surprise—after all, this was the system that Rafael Benitez tailored to perfection during his reign, and his counterattacking Reds were one of the most fearsome attacking combination during their peak.

That’s not to say that simply adopting a 4-2-3-1 system would shoot them up the league table next season—far from it.

There’s plenty left for the coaching team to do—not least the abhorrent finishing. Kenny Dalglish should strengthen his squad this summer to provide better quality competition for first-team places at Anfield, and to find a productive solution to their at-times scintillating build-up play this season.

But in the long term—if Kenny Dalglish stays on for the long term—there should be a more-or-less established first 11 and a strong bench to provide a game-changing spark if needed.

And in the long term, Liverpool can do no wrong by going with a 4-2-3-1.

 

Original article from the Bleacher Report

Arsenal 3/3/2012: Over and Out

Same old Anfield, just without a point.

Once again, Liverpool won in all the statistical battles but came out inferior in the most important one of all.

Perhaps, with two posts hit, a penalty missed and a few fine stops from Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny, Liverpool were unlucky to win. But with a total goal tally of 30 (Robin van Persie has 25 himself), Liverpool are just not doing the business in front of goal.

Which means our unimpressive home record this season is a deserved result from such a profligate attack. No two ways around it.

It certainly didn’t help that Craig Bellamy, arguably Liverpool’s most effective player this season, and Andy Carroll, who would have enjoyed a field day against Arsenal’s porous and ponderous backline, weren’t thrown on until it was too late for them to have any sort of significant impact.

Not that the defence are to be absolved any blame. Far from it.

To say that the two goals conceded were not a result of a defence falling asleep would just be a false statement.

Liverpool proved that Daniel Agger will be a massive loss over the next few weeks. Without his cultured style, Liverpool resorted to Jamie Carragher’s long-ball-first strategy that was as unfruitful as it was unpretty. As far as Carragher is concerned, his performance was one that fully justified why he’s been left out of the starting eleven this season. It was his poor positional play that led to van Persie’s first goal, and he didn’t look convincing at all in the Liverpool defence.

And it’s not that Liverpool didn’t want the result, either.

The players played their heart out today. Jay Spearing and Dirk Kuyt summed up Liverpool’s desire to get something out of the game with a typically wholehearted and never-say-die performance. When game-changing genius like van Persie’s is in short supply, it is at least comforting to see that the players want it as much as we fans do, but only somewhat.

Because alas, work ethic is just not enough at the top level.

But at least it’s better than whining and exaggerating, the kind of play that Luis Suarez has come to perfect in recent months.

By making himself the center of negative attention in every play he’s involved with, he’s making the same mistake that Fernando Torres used to make during his time at Anfield: spending an inordinate amount of time each game trying to win fouls, protest decisions and generally not being constructive. What happened to getting up and getting on with it? Where are his priorities?

Suarez is definitely not in a purple patch right now. Unfortunately, it just seems that there will be no period this season when Liverpool as a team will be on form.

Just ask Charlie Adam.

His £10-million corner kicks once again came to nothing against Arsenal. And not only did he fail to create any set piece threat, he didn’t manage to trouble the Arsenal defence at all. He showed a lack of inexperience at the top level and a serious deficiency in decision-making as he broke down Liverpool’s attacks time and again, choosing the wrong pass option and going for a Hollywood pass instead of a more constructive one.

If he’s to be the crux of our midfield play and creativity, he’s got a damn long way to go yet to fill the humongous shoes of Xabi Alonso.

At this point, I’m getting so tired and so used to the fact that our attack almost seems unwilling to score and put away chances that I’d be surprised if we got out of Anfield with anything more than a point. I’d even guessed that it’d be another bore draw for both teams, which would’ve been bad enough for both teams.

I just never thought we’d come away with nothing.

 

Modified from a Bleacher Report article