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Wolves 01/31/2012: In Which He Came Of Age

After an uninspiring start to life back at Anfield, Kenny Dalglish oversaw a 3-1 win against Wolves that got the ball rolling. Raul Meireles hit a peach of a volley, and Fernando Torres scored his first under a former striking legend. Things were certainly on the up.

Then Torres put in his transfer request. And no matter what anyone at the Club did to mask his departure, and no matter how the Club emphasized the incoming transfers of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, the headlines were always going to be around Torres.

A painful transition of #9s ensued. Out went the poster boy of a briefly glorious generation. In came England’s new superstar forward.

That was a year ago. It’s fair to say that neither has set the world alight since their record-breaking moves.

On Monday night, Liverpol repeated the same fixture just over a year ago, with an almost entirely different teamsheet, and on the back of encouraging results in two competitions already nonexistent in the January 2011 calendar.

Fears that this would be another case of two steps forward, one step back were quickly allayed. There was nothing at Molineux that hinted at another away collapse a la Bolton.

But it was a first half that saw plenty of end-to-end football. As Dalglish’s side have often done this season, the visitors took on the mantle of a dominant home side with the majority of ball possession and chances created.

Dirk Kuyt’s lack of a first touch, Jordan Henderson’s lack of a creative footballing brain and Charlie Adam’s Scholes-esque lack of a half-decent tackle were equally as impressive as the indomitable defending and attacking of Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, the rock-solid defending of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, and the terrier-like defensive workrate of Jay Spearing.

Then there was Craig Bellamy, who, in the absence of Luis Suarez, proved probably the only creative outlet in a Red shirt. A Craig Bellamy who has put in performances that have shattered all expectations that came with his free transfer arrival, who has established himself a mainstay in the starting eleven, who has proved to be one of the signings of the season.

And then, there was Andy Carroll.

As staunch of a supporter of Carroll as I have been, and as much as I’ve insisted that he be given a chance to bed in and really show his worth, I will readily acknowledge that he has been a disappointment, especially given his massive reputation.

But at the same time, any stern critic of Mr. Carroll would have to admit that he has been on an upward curve in terms of recent performances, only with no goal to show for his efforts and improvements.

Not on Monday night.

This might not have been a powerhouse Andy Carroll at his scintillating best, but here was a #9 working his socks off for the team. Bullying defenders in the air and tormenting them on the ground, turning them with a touch and leaving them for dead, laying off long passes and turning them into attacking movements, making a nuisance of himself and buying space for his fellow colleagues.

And this time, he had a goal to show for his efforts. A predatory striker’s finish, one that he used to be known for while wearing black and white. Not unlike a certain former Red.

But a year on, on Transfer Deadline Day 2012, the talk of the town was not of Torres drawing another blank in a blue shirt against Swansea.

Because a year on, Andy Carroll finally exhibited his potential.

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.