AS the season draws to a close, with everyone looking for some closure on the draws, I’m going to make a case for a summer of simple integration at Liverpool Football Club. It’s my contention that, like Humpty Dumpty, Liverpool just needs put together again, and that all we need to achieve that are a couple of judicious signings, and the right kind of navel gazing, analysis and leadership behind the scenes.
Here’s my case – by all means rip it to shreds, and as usual, maybe we’ll learn something from the post-mortem.
HUMPTY’S GREAT FALL
In my view, Liverpool’s season turned on a single incident at Stamford Bridge at the end of November. Juan Mata contested a loose ball with Lucas Leiva, Lady Luck provided just the wrong kind of pressure at just the wrong kind of angle, and bang! Lucas Leiva’s anterior cruciate ligament was injured to such an extent that it ruled him out for the rest of the season.
The team’s form had up to that point, White Hart Lane aside, been promising, with the team playing some genuinely encouraging football while still featuring most of the summer recruits on a regular basis.
But the stats (with one game to go) provide a clear foundation for the case.
With Lucas, we won 23 points won in 12 games. That’s 1.91 points per game.
Without Lucas, we won 29 points won in 25 games. That’s 1.16 points per game.
Had we enjoyed the ‘with Lucas’ points return for the remainder of the league season, we’d be sat after 37 games with 70 points – 18 more than we have now, and safely in 3rd place.
Of course, common sense suggests that he’d have missed a few games at some stage (he missed Norwich at home in the early part of the season, for example), but even taking margins for error into account, there’s a strong case to suggest we’d have been in the hunt at this stage had Lucas, or a player of his ilk, been available for selection.
SYMPTOMS AND ROOT CAUSES
Of course, even when Lucas was still in the side, there were frustrations at certain aspects of our play. The results, we felt, weren’t always reflecting our control and often domination of the play. But those issues clearly became acute from December on, and for me at least, three core ‘symptoms’ of the club’s footballing malaise appeared.
1. tactical incoherence.
2. poor decision making with the ball.
3. players somehow forgetting how to finish.
When looking to address these issues, it’s easy to focus on the symptoms, and jump to the conclusion that wholesale changes are needed, with player sales aplenty, and replacements throughout the first team squad. But if you focus on root causes, I’d argue things look a little simpler.
The team lacks coherence now, but when Lucas was there, for the most part it looked pretty nicely ‘joined up’ (and that was without Gerrard, lest we forget). The team seems brainless in possession now, and lacks the calm and sang froid to make the right choices on the ball… but when Lucas was there (you see a pattern to this?).
When you have a solid foundation for your play, the players who carry your threat can really commit themselves forward, and it’s easy to forget how potent some of our players can be when they’re focussed in that way, and in close proximity to each other on the pitch. Thankfully, with the right sway in the midfield against an under-strength Chelsea, we got a timely reminder of what the right platform can bring.
Establish that tactical coherence, and the whole side gets a little calmer. When the whole side’s a little calmer, the decision making tends to get a little better. When you’re more controlled and dominant, and you’re less worried what will happen if you lose the ball in transition, you tend to make better choices. And when you’re making better choices, and those choices are happening within a coherent and balanced tactical framework, your game gets that little bit more ruthless. And we just need to be that crucial little bit more ruthless.
Platform, Not Personnel
There’s plenty of evidence to support this view, and we don’t have to look too far for it. Look at Scholes and his return for Manchester United. One small change, but it transformed their fortunes for the remainder of their domestic season. When Arsenal’s lost Arteta to injury, we saw the opposite effect.
In the microcosm of a single game, with Manchester City needing the win away at Newcastle, the simple introduction of Nigel De Jong changed the balance of their side, allowing a big threat to move forward where he could do more damage, and ultimately win the game.
With that in mind, and with the impressive performance of Henderson and Shelvey fresh in the memory from midweek, I’d argue strongly that Liverpool only needs to solidify that midfield platform in the summer, while taking whatever opportunities to freshen and prune present themselves elsewhere.
Lucas, we hope, will return from injury, and assuming he returns with renewed vigour and strength, we’ll be once again well placed to push on. But the risk will remain that, if he’s injured again for an extended period, we’ll be building our play from an unstable platform, with all the symptoms we’ve seen this season likely to reappear, almost no matter how strong the players ahead of that area.
Replace Spearing with a solid functional defensive midfielder with athleticism and presence, and the squad would benefit massively. Replace Spearing and Adam with two of them? And ideally at least one of them approaching the standard of Lucas or Alex Song? And we’ll really be on to something.
With Liverpool facing Europa League football into the latter stages of the season (you’d surely expect that, wouldn’t you?) the first team squad is going to have a lot of games to play, and as a result, you’d hope we focus on beefing up our quality in that department. Even marginal improvements would make a big difference, while another player genuinely at Lucas’s level would introduce the reasonable expectation of consistency.
Build On Your Strengths, Compensate For Your Weaknesses
Some would have us sell Downing and Henderson, of course, and some despair at Enrique’s decline, but again, setting the right foundation in the middle of the park would see people taking a different view (if they could exclude the purchase price from their thinking at least, difficult though that is).
Liverpool has, on its game, one of best defensive units in country, Enrique’s recent form notwithstanding. Meanwhile, in Suarez and Gerrard they have two of biggest ‘virtuoso’ threats in world football – most would accept that as true. Some would add Andy Carroll to that list based on his recent form – you only hope that’s consolidated.
Elsewhere in the squad, we have peripheral players who most perceive as having limitations to their game. But add the right midfield players, and those limitations would be compensated for.
Take Stuart Downing. He has bags of talent, but when compared with the player we saw for Villa, he lacks confidence, audacity, and bravery. He’s been timid in a red shirt, and his conservative decision making with ball has held us back. But take away the worry of what might happen if he loses the ball, and add the physicality inside that makes him feel a little more secure, and arguably you’ll see a different player – something closer to the player we hoped we might see (fee notwithstanding).
Take Jose Enrique. He has bags of talent, but when he has the ball, he trundles up blind alleys, and when he doesn’t you worry whenever he’s isolated one-on-one with powerful wingers or wing backs. Add players who naturally cover over for him, supporting him defensively, and giving him reliable options when the ball’s at his feet? Arguably we see a different player.
Gerrard? If he trusts the players behind him, he stays further forward, or at least doesn’t stick around quite so much when he feels compelled to move deeper. The forwards? Instead of being isolated, they’d have more players in red shirts in closer proximity to them on the park. The same is true whichever players are selected in front of the midfield. Suarez, Carroll, Downing, Shelvey, Pacheco… whoever else is fielded on the day, the mere fact there’s a foundation in place allows at least four players to work together and ideally bring others, like our full backs, into play.
And it’s important to underline what I’m not saying here – I’m not saying that we should always have our midfield players sat conservatively deep. You’d hope we have players with the intelligence to know when to move forward in support, and when to break into the box and beyond the forwards if appropriate – the two needn’t always be mutually exclusive. What you’d hope for is the intelligence, athleticism and controlled aggression that Lucas displays, writ large across the centre of the field. To me that’s a boon to our attacking play, rather than a brake. With the right players, we’d be able to play that little bit further forward, and truly build on the athleticism we have at our disposal in our defence. ‘Why aren’t we pressing teams’, we ask ourselves? Well, it’s because without that platform, they can pop-pop-pop it round us and get a clear run on the defence.
Set the right platform, and we gain the ability to sustain a more aggressive balance in our play, and the benefits would flow throughout the squad. It’s the kind of side and set up Pepe Reina thrives on, lest we forget.
Opportunism and Promotion
Of course, there will be good players available, and even players who can do a good job for the club, while fitting the criteria evidently set of wanting to play for Liverpool FC. A quick glance at the two relegated clubs, for example, whets the appetite for some.
But you’d hope we embrace the risk that comes with promoting from youth and reserve ranks where there’s quality to back it. Sterling is the obvious example, and it’s clear he’s on the cusp, but there are others who you’d hope could get a dozen games under their belts in various competitions, particularly when several senior, highly paid pros are alleged to be leaving the club.
There are also several players currently on loan who might be worth a look, of course, but whichever way we go, you’d hope the road from youths to reserves to first team is further reinforced in the coming season, because there’ll be plenty of games to accommodate it.
Putting It All Together Again
Of course, making all this happen would involve all aspects of the club working together to make the right decisions, and it’s clear we’ve been lacking on that front, as evidenced by the recent sacking of Commolli. The club has lacked support and leadership on this front since Fenway Sports Group took the helm, and you’d hope they’re looking seriously at the issue, and to appoint the right kind of leader behind the scenes who can work to integrate the operation, and truly support the manager and footballing staff – all staff, in fact.
It’s not just on the field that the club needs a solid integrated platform. If its potential is going to be expressed, and the talents and strengths of its employees are to be maximised, everyone needs to know that they have the right support. Fail to put it in place, and, just as on the park, we’ll never see the right blend of audacity, creativity and ruthlessness to put us where we hope to be.