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Everton 10/01/2011: Professionally Pedestrian


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.


Wolves 09/24/2011: Cracks Beneath the Paper

There were many reasons to be positive after yesterday’s win over Wolves.

Our first points since Bolton. Luis Suarez’s irrepressible form and inventive genius. Andy Carroll’s encouraging appearance in which he did everything but score. Lucas’s impressive defensive performance in the middle of the park. Steven Gerrard’s return to the Anfield pitch and a very sharp, energetic 10-minute cameo.

Hell, the fact that we managed to grind out the win after Wolves’ great start to the second half should be a justified source of celebration.

In fairness, credit must be given to the boys for sticking it out and digging deep in repelling the golden-clad attacks launched towards Pepe Reina’s goal. The post-match interviews have focused (and will continue to focus) on this ultimately winning performance.

But, unfortunately, the 3 points do not obscure what lies underneath: the fact that we remain a work in progress.

Not that we expected this to be the case at the start of the game, or indeed in the first half. The sumptuous football in display against Bolton a few weeks ago was back, at least for the first 45 minutes. This was the direct, incisive passing that we’ve seen work to such impressive effect against Bolton and in the first half against Sunderland. The Red dominance was such that a 2-0 half-time was no more than we deserved (and we probably deserved more).

But the mirroring of Sunderland’s second half in our own latter 45 minutes brought an unwelcome sense of deja vu. As the game wore on, the fans, the players and Kenny Dalglish knew this. Anfield was rightly subjected to taunts from the visitors for its subdued atmosphere, purely because everyone was so nervous that we would once again capitulate under pressure. And the pressure was there for all to feel after Steven Fletcher’s excellent finish in a criminally under-marked penalty box.

Mick McCarthy sent this troops out well fired from the tunnel, and his double substitution managed to unsettle Liverpool, even if it ultimately didn’t prove to be as game-changingly inspiring as he would dreamed. Liverpool committed that cardinal sin that Kenny condemned so strongly after our trip to White Hart Lane last week: starting slowly and on the back foot.

I’ve said time and again that our mental strength (or lack thereof) is our weakest link, and our second-half showing did nothing to dispel my beliefs as our new signings didn’t give us any evidence that they were big-game players, that they would impose themselves when things weren’t going well.

Charlie Adam rightly deserves credit for the way he went about his passing (and his shooting) in the first half, but he was too often found shirking from his defensive duties in midfield in the second half. His lack of defensive nous and urgency had Lucas scrambling everywhere to take up the work of two men, and the former will have to thank his partner for saving his skin on numerous occasions. Stewart Downing, an England international, should have given Wolves’ new teenage right-back a debut to remember for the wrong reasons. He still has to strike up a telepathic understanding with Jose Enrique down the left, with the latter’s overlapping runs often not found and instead sacrificed for unproductive forays into the middle.

At least Kenny appeared to realize Henderson’s ineffectiveness on the left, since there was no flank switching on display yesterday. But Kenny still has yet to realize Henderson’s ineffective on the pitch. Yes, this is a direct criticism of Jordan Henderson. While 7 games is not a lot for someone to truly establish himself in a Red shirt, anonymity game after game is not acceptable, especially when the reputed workrate only results in headless-chicken-like running to spaces that will not see a pass. Dirk Kuyt’s energetic and important 20-minute appearance off the bench, in which he immediately channeled his physicality and stamina into a nightmare for defenders, should really have shown Kenny that he made a mistake in not starting him. Aside from Kenny’s curious preference against Kuyt in Premier League games, Maxi Rodriguez would’ve proved to be more of a threat with his direct running, close control and short passing, but he was overlooked as well. So, too, Craig Bellamy, who I believe will play a big part in our season this year.

But no talk of substitutions in this match can go without mentioning Steven Gerrard’s impact on his Anfield return after a 6-month absence. The captain showed plenty of attacking verve, clever positioning and forward drive, linked up well with Dirk Kuyt, and reminded the league what he was capable of with a few great crosses and threatening runs. For those who had ludicrously started to write him off before his return, this was an encouraging display from the captain, who will once again be our key man when fully fit.

A word must be reserved for our strike partnership. Suarez’s inventive runs were once again the bane of the Wolves defence, and his performance fully deserved the goal he so thrillingly conjured at such a tight angle. But he remains, in chief, a creator and not a finisher. For him to fully take on the latter mantle, he has to work on his finishing. With the amount of chances put into the attacking third, yesterday’s chance creation was a cause for optimism, but the fact that they only resulted into two goals was a cause for worry. (What about Downing’s one-on-one against Wayne Hennessey? If he was taking a leaf out of Henderson’s book against Stoke, he needs to be reminded that he has chosen the wrong person to emulate.)

As for Andy Carroll, the simple fact is that he played well. He linked up well with Suarez, and was able to make his aerial presence count. Also unlucky not to score following a few good attacking headers, he needs to continue his improvement, but his movement and passing is there to show us that this is a partnership that might just work out.

His refusal to finish when presented with the game’s final chance has been put down as either an indecision due to lack of confidence, or a desire to toy with defenders to score a spectacular goal. Given the confidence shown in his display for the 90 minutes, I tend to go for the latter.

But his was a clear example of Liverpool needing to finish our chances.

Better, more clinical teams will be able to restrict our passing play and chance creation, and we will need plenty of mental strength and finishing ability to get results.

Tottenham 09/18/2011: Time for Introspection

I don’t get it.

I don’t get how we were beaten so comprehensively by a team that just a few weeks ago were labeled as also-rans and no longer realistic competitors for the Top Four. (For that matter, I don’t get how I bought into that hype.)

I don’t get why, with the threat posed by Gareth Bale’s raw pace, we opted to stick with Martin Skrtel as a makeshift right-back. John Flanagan deservedly his share of criticism following his positional mishap against Sunderland on opening day, but when you’re up against a left winger who on his day can terrorize even the finest of right-backs, you’re going to need a specialist on the right – and I don’t think he did too badly against opponents of a similar stature towards the end of last season.

Okay, perhaps Flanagan was not entirely match-fit, or even slightly injured, as has been suggested. That doesn’t excuse the positional naivety on show from said makeshift right-back, who was left utterly and depressingly exposed time and time again by Bale’s runs down the left. If the issue at hand is purely a lack of pace – understandable. But failing completely to keep even an eye on Bale’s positions required desperate attempts from Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger to fill in for ignored space and make up for lost time.

I don’t get why, on evidence of his painful rightfootedness, Stewart Downing is still considered on the right. Surely him cutting in on his left foot is one of our most predictable moves, and surely there are far more threatening options, especially when Henderson, with his painful leftfootness, is wasted on the left. Against a team who can take their chances so effectively, the least we have to do is create chances effectively. On current evidence, not only does this switching of flanks bring instability and imbalance to our formation, it blunts our creativity and width, which was supposed to be the attribute that we were most lacking.

For that matter, I don’t get why, after a summer of splashing the cash and supposedly strengthening the Liverpool team with players who “want to be here,” we remain as one-man a team as ever. We have been led to believe that Stewart Downing possesses that X-factor, that pace, that crossing ability, to threaten a defence and set up goals. We have been led to believe that Jordan Henderson is ready-made for a Kenny Dalglish team, with a keen eye for a pass and all the workrate required from a top-class midfielder. We have been led to believe that Charlie Adam is the key ingredient we’ve been missing in midfield, with that creative vision we’ve been lacking since Xabi Alonso’s departure to unlock our opponents’ midfield and defence.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of their individual ability, but rather as an alarmed notice of their mental attributes, as was on show at the Britannica. When the going is smooth, as against Bolton and to a lesser extent as at Arsenal, we are capable of producing some sumptuous passing play, true to our much-vaunted pass-and-move philosophies. But when the going gets tough, we haven’t seen the most important attribute of a top-class footballer: that he can stand up and be counted.

That’s why I personally can’t wait for Steven Gerrard’s return. Ahead of his much-anticipated return to our first team, much has been made of his age and his supposedly-declining bursts of energy. But where he’s at his unstoppable best for Liverpool is his competitiveness and leadership. When the chips are down, he comes up with the goods. And he’s capable of driving his team on to come up with the goods if he can’t do it just as often anymore.

And that’s why I also don’t get why Dirk Kuyt didn’t even get a look-in for this game. There aren’t many games bigger and higher-profile than Spurs at White Hart Lane, and Kenny still opted to leave out our most consistent fighter.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty: on another day, perhaps Skrtel could’ve had a blinder against Bale, and perhaps Charlie Adam would not have been sent off. On another day, perhaps Andy Carroll could’ve shown the same mobility and awareness displayed by Tottenham’s own targetman, Emmanuel Adebayor, and perhaps Scott Parker would not have proved to be such a bargain signing for Harry Redknapp’s midfield.

But hindsight is useful in evaluating our own options and how we move forward from here. And thanks to hindsight, I now get that all of our failings in this match were of our own (un)doing. Today, we weren’t outdone by controversial refereeing decisions. We were completely outclassed in every department by our fellow contenders for a Top Four spot.

Liverpool, and Kenny Dalglish, will have to take a good long, hard look in the mirror and see how we can pick ourselves up from here. Things are suddenly not so rosy anymore.

Stoke 09/10/2011: Early Days

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.

Bolton 08/27/2011: Oh When The Reds Go Marching In

Bear with me here: there are so many things to digest from this weekend that I will be struggling to keep this one short, because this was the weekend that set so many milestones in this young and budding Premier League season.

This was the weekend that saw Tottenham capitulate against City after initially appearing to be capable of holding them back; that saw Dzeko produce a center-forward’s masterclass with a majestic four-goal haul (Andy Carroll take note: this is what a target man should aspire to); that saw City turn on the style and deal a ruthless punishment on a slowing Tottenham defence (the match commentators mentioned the attacking similarities with Arsenal and how City, on this form, might already be superior to Arsenal and should be comparing themselves with Barcelona); that saw Tottenham lose so much yardage in the race between the erstwhile Big Four pretenders (what would Modric think, seeing Spurs’ much-vaunted “ambition” devored by City’s billions?).

This was the weekend that saw Arsenal get humiliated and absolutely torn apart by a relentlessly breathtaking Manchester United side; that saw Arsene’s young pretenders get completely upstaged by the new generation of Fergie’s Fledglings (I should mention that I initially strove to offer some perspective to my United-fan friends in that the injured and suspended Gunners were weaker than an Arsenal Carling Cup team, but towards the end the gulf in class was just too huge for this to uphold); that saw the pressure pile in droves on Arsene Wenger, and for the first time quite rightly so, as Sir Alex showed him exactly how to run a successful youth policy; that, finally, saw Arsenal in unprecedentedly bad need of short-term fixes if they are to avoid a depressing slide down the table this year.

But, (unbelievably,) these are merely sideshows. Back to the main topic. This was the weekend that, in my eyes, saw Liverpool establish themselves as strong, strong contenders to finish back in the Top Four.

I feel the need to embark on a mini-digression here, as the above statement is one that many of those who know me should be surprised at seeing. I am of the cautious optimism school (low expectations, low disappointments). I have been trained in these past few years to focus on effective counter-attacking football, obtaining points in unfavorable situations, and causing upsets in Europe, largely due to the influence of Senor Benitez and the successes of Mr. Mourinho, whom I publicly despise but secretly admire (perhaps envy would be a better word choice here). So I am somewhat breaking one of my own rules here.

I say that we are strong Top Four candidates, because Tottenham and Arsenal are on alarming form as addressed above, yes, but also because we were very, very good against a Bolton side that pushed City all the way just a week ago. Yes, City played at the Reebok Stadium last week and we were at Anfield this week, and yes, Samir Nasri was still playing for Arsenal last weekend, but to some extent the comparisons still hold. But enough (finally) about what our competitors and opponents can or cannot do.

We played Bolton off the park, simple as. This was possession play, pass-and-move, never-ending attacking philosophy, constant closing down, all at their highest levels: in other words, Sunderland first half, extended to a full 90 minutes.

Never had I heard so much applause in a Liverpool match. And not only applause and cheering for goals (because the 8-0 trouncing of Besiktas will take some beating), but also for general movement and play. The players enjoyed themselves on the pitch; that much was apparent. Kenny enjoyed himself on the sidelines. These translated to us fans enjoying ourselves on the terraces (and for those of us on the other side of the world, in front of the TV). The last time I saw an unrelenting Liverpool side as attractive and exciting as this, we finished second as we blitzed past our unfortunate opponents towards the end of the 08-09 season.

Back then, we had our Gerrard-Torres axis in top, exhilarating form. Neither of them played on Saturday, for contrasting reasons, but we didn’t need them. Adam, Downing, Henderson, Kuyt, Suarez: they interchanged positions a la the famous Revolving Doors tactic, and Bolton had no answer to this unpredictable movement. The aforementioned former three played their best games for the club so far. Adam with some exquisite Alonso-esque long balls, picture-perfect set piece delivery (how unstoppable was that corner to Skrtel?), and a first goal to round it all off (on his right, too!). Downing in his best position down the left, hugging the touchline, getting into the box with great timing (how unlucky not to have scored off Suarez’s jaw-dropping outside-of-the-boot cross), and fizzing in crosses that Carroll needs to learn how to put away. Henderson playing his heart out, producing defence-splitting passes time and time again, producing great crosses and a great finish, thereby forcing me to temporarily take back my criticisms of his anonymity during our first two games.

And what about Lucas’s constant haggling and perfectly timed tackles? Enrique’s fantastic wing play and solid defence? Skrtel shining in an unfamiliar right back role? And do I need to mention El Sua’s constant threat everywhere on the pitch? The only downsides in the game: the referee (honestly, I could spot that back pass from 8,000 miles away), Suarez’s zero-goal haul, Kelly’s hamstring, and Carra’s late travesty.

But there were far more positives than negatives. With North London’s surrender against Manchester this weekend, this now puts a “favorites” tag on Liverpool in the race to finish in the Champions League places. Having set such a high benchmark this weekend, we now have it all to do to maintain this form over the course of a season. I daresay we have the strength in depth and the correct philosophy to give it a damn good go.

Stoke will be a good test of our credentials. But now we have to wait almost two weeks for more of the same (hopefully). Excruciating.

Arsenal 08/20/11: Efficiency

You don’t go from a top side to an average one overnight.

Much has been said about Arsenal’s depleted squad, but just think for a moment about RVP’s capability to produce random moments of genius, Arshavin’s 4-goal haul, Walcott’s terrifying run to set up Adebayor. Thomas Vermaelen had a cracking game matching up to the underwhelming Andy Carroll and Wojciech Szczesny will clearly be a top-class goalkeeper (and there will come a time when I won’t need to look him up on Wikipedia every time I write about him). The Emirates is not an easy stadium to go to by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, and I almost forgot about Samir Nasri (no, I’m not a closet Gunner).

This was no swashbuckling performance in the class of our 4-0 demolition of Madrid, 4-1 of United and many other breathtakingly ruthless dispatches towards the tail-end of the 08-09 season (yes, here I am again, reliving my Rafa memories). Nor was it a depressing show a la our 0-3 reverse against City last year (we all have our fair share of Woy’s woes). This was somewhere in between. Yet, the result was as ruthless as United’s dismantling of Arsenal’s Invincibles at Old Trafford and as rock-solid and impenetrable as Mourinho’s Chelsea: you also have to add in the Fat Lady’s blessings to complete the whole picture.

Of course, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. I would be singing a different tune had Suarez and Meireles not had enough time to freshen things up from the bench, had Frimpong not been walking a fine line all match, had Miquel’s clearance not ricocheted off Aaron Ramsey. But besides our luck lining up nicely, this was a believably efficient performance.

Without Suarez, there wasn’t much of the pass-and-move football on show in the first half against Sunderland last week, but rather plenty of long balls hauled up to our man mountain (who should start learning how to be less of a mountain and more of a mobile striker). But with Dirk Kuyt running his rainboots off (his immense run to take the ball off…Nasri, was it? was phenomenal) and Lucas destroying plays as destroyers are wont to do, and with Martin Kelly fully justifying Fabio Cappello’s post-match praise, JC and Dagger gobbling up most Arsenal attacks (and the latter making some fine runs of his own), and new-kid-on-the-block Enrique dominating Theo Walcott – we controlled the midfield and were beyond comfortable at the back. Make no mistake: Arsenal didn’t get played off the park at all, but we were good enough, efficient enough.

Even after we managed to get an Emirates-sized monkey off our back, we’re still taking flak from all sides and quarters on how we didn’t tear apart a depleted Arsenal as full-strength United and Chelsea sides oh-so-definitely would. Well, we’re formulating a new side and integrating new signings into our lineups. And without our captain and our erstwhile first-choice right back, we’re not at our full strength yet, either. We won’t go from an average side (over the last couple of seasons, we Liverpool fans have to admit we’ve been average) to a top one overnight. But we’re adding a certain efficiency to our game.

I experienced a new and strange feeling when Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle on Saturday. A strange, anti-climactic feeling at a frankly average attacking display, but a new, refreshing feeling that only comes from winning on the back of a not-so-good performance. At last, it seems we’ve gotten that winning mentality in our systems. Took us long enough.

Sunderland 08/13/11: The Proverbial Game of Two Halves

So. This marks my first official foray into football journalism, if I am qualified to call it that. The alternative name would just be rambling about the team that I follow like a madman week in, week out. Either way, it’s the start of my new project, one that I’ll be keeping up with every week this football season. Very ambitious.

Just like the project that’s going on at the magnificently-sponsored Etihad Stadium, whose bloated coffers are bringing in a terrifyingly effective Sergio Aguero. Or our own Kenny Dalglish’s project here at Anfield. Oh, didn’t you see that coming.

Speaking of which, you know what Luis Suarez didn’t see coming? Kieran Richardson’s tug from behind on 5 minutes. And what Kieran Richardson didn’t see coming? A yellow card instead of a red for a professional foul. And what I didn’t see coming? All the above, plus El Sua’s talent for emulating Steven Gerrard at shooting down clay pigeons from the pitch. Pssst, Luis, that ad was not entirely real.

Let me go off on a tangent here and posit this thoughtful question: why was Charlie Adam not in charge of that penalty kick? I presume he was brought here for his dead ball skills, and a penalty kick is a dead ball situation. The (variable) pecking order for PKs should be Gerrard, Kuyt, Adam. I still hold fond memories of the tail-end of the 08-09 season, where we seemed to score within the opening 10 minutes in every single match. When we got that PK in the 5th minute, I had a brief, pleasant sense of déjà vu. Alas.

Well, I suppose notching the first goal on 11” kind of makes up for that. Mr. Deadball doing what he does best, being in charge of dead balls, and Mr. Suarez picking up those great little pockets of space. A great combination. Of course, we would go on to see plenty of good combination plays and confident, flowing football in the first half, which was a pleasant surprise, given the minimal amount of time that these players have had together. We saw Stewart Downing slalom his way from the halfway line and hit the bar. A couple of decent long-range hits from Charlie Adam. Good link-up play between Downing and Jose Enrique. Quick, assured passing from the midfield.

And then half-time happened. Somewhere in that dressing room, some memories, collective and individual, were lost. We forgot that we were playing at Anfield, not the Stadium of Light. John Flanagan forgot that he has a far more accomplished predecessor (Martin Kelly) and an England international (Glen Johnson) in front of him at right-back. Jordan Henderson forgot that he is a ways away from being the big-game, consistent workhorse that is Dirk Kuyt. Stewart Downing forgot that his main job as a winger, be it left or right, is not to disappear from the match entirely. Andy Carroll forgot that he was capable of producing such great finishes as the one that got chalked off in the first half. Or, God forbid, Kenny Dalglish forgot all of the above.

Now, I recognize that Kenny is widely regarded as our best ever player, and that our last league title came under him. I think it’s an appropriate time to announce that I only truly started following us when Rafa Benitez came in. I am a huge Rafa fan. To me, just like Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish will need to prove himself as manager. He’s had us produce some scintillating stuff at times, but if we are ever going to get back in the top four, we need to reproduce that on a weekly basis. There will come a time when I comment on his transfer policy, not in the least because the new guys have only had so much time together.

But our season opener, while offering plenty of good moments in the first half, showed our Mr. Hyde in the second. Without European football this season, there will be no escaping the spotlight. We will need, and we are looking forward to, more of the same, Kenny. Just please make it the pass-and-move from the first half, not the non-existent second.