Tag Archives: stoke

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.

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.