By Mike Nevin
LIVERPOOL are bloody awful at the moment. Six defeats in 7 games tell their own story, with, in particular, the displays at Old Trafford, Sunderland, Newcastle and at home to Wigan hard to defend. The spectre of facing a highly-motivated, confident Everton side at Wembley looms large and Liverpool need to wake up quickly if they are to compensate for a dire league campaign with a second dose of silverware.
The Reds have dipped massively in performance since Christmas, when the major gripe was not achieving the wins – through a combination of poor finishing, finding opposition keepers in great form and some rank bad luck – our displays merited. Most recently, against Newcastle, a typically bright start couldn’t mask an insipid further 70 minutes, to match a lifeless, almost gutless surrender to Wigan at Anfield a week previously. Throw in the late collapse at Loftus Road, a meek effort at Sunderland, and being outplayed at Man United and you have performances in stark contrast to the qualified optimism that arose from our early season form.
The win at the Emirates, the victory at Goodison, dual success in league and cup at Chelsea, the home games against Man City and Man United (twice) saw Liverpool look like a different side to that seen in recent weeks, and all against good quality opposition.
So what’s gone wrong?
First of all, the loss of Lucas Leiva has been a crippling blow. We don’t have a player of the same ilk to deputise and his value to the team is more evident now in his absence than it appeared to many when he was running his penultimate game before injury (against City at home), and at Chelsea in the League Cup when he suffered his knee injury.
If there’s criticism to be levelled here, why did we not try and address this in January with an attempt to bring in a defensive midfielder? And having made that decision, why haven’t we worked out the best solution with the players available to compensate with a consistent selection in midfield since? Henderson, Adam, Gerrard, Spearing, and now Shelvey appear to have been rotated into a perm any 3 from 5 policy, in a vain search for an effective midfield. We’re as far away from finding the right blend in the middle as we were when Lucas’s gloomy injury prognosis became evident four months ago.
Amid the midfield conundrum, there is continuing debate over the best position for Steven Gerrard. It’s without question that he no longer possesses the legs to be the barnstorming player he was 3 years ago. And yet, his Derby hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Everton – an oasis of hope in a desert of recent mediocrity – showed how effective he can still be, albeit, and this is the key point here, in the opposition’s final third. Similarly his returning cameo as a sub against Newcastle at Christmas saw him change the game, but again in an advanced position. Otherwise, starting from a deep-lying central midfield role, Gerrard has looked too weary to get involved further up the pitch, at times looking lethargic for long periods, while his distribution from deeper positions has been far from consistent.
Other players don’t seem to flourish or be brave enough to take responsibility for influencing the play with Gerrard exclusively demanding the ball deep inside his own half. Compounding the issue, has been the acute drop in form of both Charlie Adam, before his injury, and Jordan Henderson who both at least showed some glimpses of drive and creativity earlier in the season, leaving Kenny Dalglish short of alternatives to Gerrard in the middle of midfield, when he might secretly be inclined to play him closer to Suarez and/or Andy Carroll. Either way, we’re not seeing the best of Steven Gerrard, (even if he is fading) in his current, withdrawn role.
In the case of Henderson, who is now out of the side after being consistently selected for much of the campaign, the wrath of the Anfield crowd appears to have taken its toll on his confidence just at a time when an opportunity to probe from the centre, which many supporters were advocating previously, should be the making of him. Instead, we have a young player shorn of belief, with growing pressure falling upon him to accompany an already burdensome price tag, mulling things over on the bench. It remains to be seen if he has the mental fortitude, when called upon, to contribute significantly for the remainder of the season.
In the case of Stuart Downing, there have been too many false dawns. As recently as the Carling Cup Final, a man-of-match performance and a winning goal of some quality against Stoke in the 6th round of the cup has failed to convince Dalglish to award Downing a regular place despite Craig Bellamy’s irregular fitness patterns and Dirk Kuyt’s admirable but declining solidity. A consistent Downing would at least see some pace injected to a sometimes pedestrian midfield. Again, on balance, the winger’s season has been one of disappointment for the money invested, reflected in a stark lack of goals and assists for an attacking player.
The problems up front are well documented. We are crying out for a goalscorer, or at least a consistent performer to share some of the attacking burden lumped on Luis Suarez. Suarez hasn’t been able to mirror his prolific Ajax scoring record in the Premier League, but he remains Liverpool’s only consistent goal threat. His form, purely in a creative sense has been erratic since his ban, when many thought an enforced lay-off might have benefitted him as the season wore on. He has also developed an infuriating tendency to be easily dispossessed, perhaps trying too hard to create something from nothing.
There have been few signs of Suarez and Carroll developing a partnership, but this hasn’t been helped by Dalglish leaving him out when seemingly on the verge of some better form. Conversely, Liverpool have looked most fluent as an attacking force since Dalglish’s return, this season and last, when operating with a more mobile arrangement up front with the likes of Kuyt, Bellamy or the under-used Maxi Rodriguez playing off Suarez. The whole issue of selection, and the intended style of play that Carroll’s inclusion decides, seems confused by the size of the fee paid to Newcastle last season. Although Carroll played at Wembley in the Carling Cup Final, he has often been benched against quality opposition, which suggests Dalglish remains unconvinced.
More to the point, if the intention when signing Suarez was to pair him with Fernando Torres, before his decision to jump ship, why did Dalglish and/or Comolli opt for a player with such contrasting attributes in Carroll?
The whole issue of who spearheads the recruitment policy is one which has fans scratching their heads, and while it’s Liverpool’s policy to keep such things under wraps, some clarity regarding who is actually responsible for this season’s largely disappointing signings would make judgement of the whole situation a lot easier – at least for the supporters. Dalglish’s willingness to bench Carroll, Downing and latterly Henderson hints at dissatisfaction with the very players whose failing contributions are bringing him personal criticism from impatient supporters.
Until last month, we were at least able to boast an excellent defensive record, but as the wheels of the season have gradually loosened, we are now shipping goals far too readily. The loss of Daniel Agger’s calming presence at centre-back can’t be over-estimated here, especially as it has coincided with Martin Skrtel looking shaky for the first time in an otherwise excellent season. Sadly, Jamie Carragher’s star is fading, which manifests itself in him looking panic stricken whenever the opposition play a searching ball into Liverpool’s penalty area.
The absence of the brittle-boned Agger also tends to see us play with a deeper defensive line; one which often seems on top of an under-pressure Pepe Reina. Reina’s frustrations at a poor campaign by his very high standards were all too evident at St James’ Park; which has left us with the prospect of an untried keeper (Doni, or even Brad Jones) marshalling a wobbly rearguard for the upcoming, potentially defining clash of the season against in-form Everton at Wembley. The return of Agger is crucial ahead of that game, as is that of Glen Johnson, who is under-rated defensively and lends an obvious extra attacking dimension to a side currently struggling to create meaningful chances.
On the face of it, Liverpool have a myriad of problems, but in the main they are identifiable and rectifiable, even in the short term. It’s easy to lose sight of the form which propelled us to a first Cup Final in 5 years, and the brink of a second. It’s easy to forget that with key players fit and in-form, we had lost just 2 league games before December. It’s easy to forget that we won our first trophy for six years only a few weeks back. Now though in the wake of several embarrassing defeats, whatever the actual quality of the players at Dalglish’s disposal, it’s fair to say that all but a few are under-performing. It’s a huge test of his management to see if he can muster some strength and determination in this adversity from his players. It’s time for the familiar pre-match talk of “delivering” to stop and for us to actually see some of the qualities identified when we signed these players.
A winnable FA Cup semi-final lies ahead, but only if the Reds show some of the nerve, passion and quality that has been sadly lacking from their vapid efforts in recent weeks. They owe us, the manager, and most of all themselves a performance at Wembley.