“Lord, grant me chastity and continence… but not yet.”
– St Augustine
Norwich. A happenin’ place, inhabited by a curious race of mustard-making yokels wot talk like Wurzels, and bankrolled by (possibly quite literally) the mother of all TV celebrity chefs. A place that, it’s fair to say, has gained great fortune by ‘sticking it in the mixer’ over the years. And things were no different the other Saturday night, were they?
Their goal was a nice simple goal. A slip occurred, imbalances resulted, and they punished it. Clinically.
Charlie forgot to tell his mummy that he’d gone off somewhere, Gerrard didn’t know whether to stick or twist, Hotlips Houlihan had them both in a Mash, and before you know it, Pepe was flapping at the fresh autumnal air as the ball nestled stylishly in the onion bag. “Here we go again”, it’s fair to say a few of us thought at the time.
After the game, a great many respected Liverpool writers pondered the incident, and the broader themes presented by the game, and almost all came to two conclusions: Liverpool were profligate, but most of all, Liverpool lacked balance. Three of my favourites provided quotes to that end.
Against Norwich, neither Steven Gerrard nor Charlie Adam protected the back four sufficiently well, particularly in the second half when the pair visibly tired.
The pitch was so open it was scary… loads of room to play. The man who exploited it best was Houlihan who pulled more strings yesterday than did Gerrard and Adam together.
…if there are any Liverpool fans still out there that don’t rate Lucas Leiva, rewatch this game and see how many times Steven Gerrard was totally unaware of his surroundings in key areas of the pitch. Norwich had players running at Skrtel and Carragher time and time again.
A lack of balance in midfield.
And when that balance is lacking when you’re trying to impose your game on a side, to play a dominating, ‘play making’ style, you’re running a big risk. One misplaced lateral ball from your own man, one miscontrol, or one crafty incisive player with well coached organisation and counter attacking movement on the part of your opponent, and you can quickly find yourself under extreme pressure, with Manchester City players running at Evans and Ferdinand time and time again, to reuse and abuse Brian’s phrase above.
A lack of balance isn’t unique to Liverpool FC in its current guise – not when compared with its rivals in modern day football (Manchester United have suffered it for years), nor with Liverpool FC sides of the recent past.
Cast your mind back to 2005, at home against Bolton, for example, with John Welsh and Igor Biscan deployed in front of Pellegrino and Carragher. The sight of Bolton players getting a run on that centre back pairing still sends a chill down my spine. Xabi and Didi weren’t always available, after all.
A central theme of Rafa’s ‘trading up’ policy naturally centred on the gradual upgrade of that part of our machine, and of asserting the kind of balance and control he valued so much, and that many of us came to innately value so much. We traded a Sissoko, a Zenden, a Mascherano, and eventually we arrived at the kind of belt, braces and elasticated waistband we needed to keep our incontinence pants from the cold light of day.
You see, there’s a theme hiding in there somewhere. Yes, in recent years we’ve had some truly great central defenders, and some truly great central defensive pairings, but at no stage could you honestly say we boasted the complete central defensive package: blistering pace, bullish aggression, aerial dominance, distribution and playmaking ability, and tactical and positional awareness. We’ve always had to compromise on one or other of those fronts. And because of that, we’ve developed ways to compensate.
Carrying deficiencies in your central defence isn’t so bad when you’re a side in transition, and when sitting back and hitting on the counter is a viable option for much of the season; but when you’re trying to genuinely assert a dominant style of football, you can’t carry indolence, hesitance, or a lack of pace in central defence – neither with nor without the ball. If you do, you better learn to tolerate either an overly controlling midfield, or a cavalier relationship with risk, or chances are you’re going to tear a lot of hair out.
You see, even when fielding our midfield greats in recent years, we still suffered the occasional humiliation when faced with the right blend of midfield craft and power. It didn’t happen often, mind; but even with a squad boasting our perfect blend in midfield of Gerrard, Mascherano and Alonso, we still occasionally lacked proper balance in the side, and it caused us problems. It rarely manifested in the same way it did last Saturday, true – but it did often result in stolid and disjointed football when we did get the ball. Remember Standard Liege away with Plessis and Alonso? Remember Spurs away that season in the League Cup with Plessis and Lucas? There were two examples, weeks apart, that showed the two extremes of mis-struck balance. One stolid and fragmented in the attacking phase, one disorganised and cursed with fatal vulnerability. Yet that squad arguably boasted one of the most finely balanced midfields the game has ever seen. Go figure. And in each case, the issue was compounded, and in large part created, by issues once removed from the critical glare.
The entire spine of a side needs coordination and balance, not just the midfield. If one part of the spinal unit is out of kilter, it should be no surprise that a disc gets thrown out from time to time. And the longer you work within the context of those limitations, the more slipped discs you’ll see. Midfield openness and central defensive vulnerability – they’re two sides of the same coin. You can address one, or address the other, but ultimately it’s best if you address both: the chastity belt and braces, and the incontinence pants.
Fast forward a few days to Stoke. A happenin’ place, inhabited by a curious race of “Ghost”-style potters, albeit who don’t all look like Demi Moore – more Alan Moore – who’ve become adept at moulding raw clay into quite the presentable creation, and who have, it’s fair to say, gained great fortune by ‘sticking it in the mixer’ over the years.
Faced with a combative, energetic, and sporadically incisive midfield – a side that, it’s fair to say, is well coached in its organisation and counter attacking movement (and who before our eyes are gaining valuable European experience in that mode), our pairing of Lucas and Spearing provided a nice counterpoint to the performance and balance we’d seen a few days before. But even then, one exposure of Carragher’s ‘quickness’ to Etherington’s pace, and we saw what can happen.
And again, for their goal, you might argue the reason we were stretched was partly down to Coates’ lack of quickness. But, for me at least, things improved in the second half – the central defenders coped far better. Skrtel had entered the fray at the expense of Carragher. Is there a lesson to be learned there?
For me, an ongoing focus on the midfield’s defensive and positional balance, our chastity belt, precludes a proper discussion about the more chronic problem we’ve tacitly accomodated for years – our central defensive limitations – our leaky incontinence pants.
Isn’t it better to live a little than to constantly worry about the problems? Isn’t it better to flirt outrageously with footballing risk than to banish ourselves in a tower and padlock our punders? And isn’t it better, at the root of it all, to learn a little bladder control, than to constantly think of ways to mop up the pish?
I’d much rather we set out the way we did on Saturday. They might have had a run on us, but we created chance after chance after chance. Control is all very well, but we’re playing domestic cup and league football, and we can reserve the control for the day we dust off our passports again. Let’s explore other ways to cope as a unit, and think about developing a truly progressive game that’s built on genuine strength at the back as well as midfield control.
I’m with St Augustine. Let’s play our own game and worry about control next season.