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.
With our noticeable drop when absent with Lucas, it really struck me how the most expensive team assembled in British sporting history also essentially relies upon one player. The difference in Man City when Yaya Toure was at the African Cup of Nations seemed big, he was also the player who scored a lot of the key goals at crucial times in their title chase.
A billion pounds spent on transfers and wages in the last few years and the essential difference between title success and failure comes down to one indivudual
I should underline, thanks to Tony Barrett’s point on twitter – this in no way takes away from the fact that FSG *must* address the stadium issue.
Lucas’ injury was the start of our decline, then the Suarez / Evra farse amplified it.
We surely can’t have the same bad luck next season and that alone will be worth 2 or 3 league places. Coupled with the right signings and next season will be very different.
Yes the Suarez /Evra situation massively unsettled the club. i notice our illustrious press have had virtually nothing to say about the Messi allegations from Drenthe.
Of course maybe i am just seeing conspiracy’s everywhere after all you know what us Liverpool fans are like
I honestly think everyone’s battle fatigued on that front mate. The issue isn’t racism at all, it’s pathetic.
We made a decision to move away from a more solid platform though, Roy, at the start of the season. This has been and remains my concern. This was very much a managerial decision. Should have been a Lucas/Henderson centre mid from Sunderland at home onwards (or even significantly different recruitment strategy in there). It may be less creative, but more solid and frees everyone down to the full backs up to be more creative like you say.
Completely agree it needs to be two in there. While we won against, say, Wolves at home, we were poor, ill-prepared and not solid enough for long periods of the second half. Swansea was poor. We got centre mid wrong before the season started and continued to get it wrong pretty regularly throughout the campaign.
Whoops – should have hit reply here big man – see below!
I worry that Kenny will slot Charlie back in midfield with Lucas. Do you think there is any chance of that happening?
Good piece as usual Roy, cheers.
Whilst Lucas has of course been missed, we also benefitted from having an established back four for eleven league games in a row, and haven’t been as good at the back since that was broken up either.
Of course, two of those players (Johnson and Agger), frequently suffer with injuries, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that we weren’t able to keep it together indefinitely.
But if we can regularly get Lucas in front of Johnson/Skrtel/Agger/Enrique, then I think we’ll be a lot more solid in future.
With regards to promoting youth, it will be interesting to see if they will be called upon to fill the gaps during the cup runs or if we will look to bring in new players.
Personally I’d like to see Robinson, Flanagan, Sterling, Suso, Coates and Teixeria given chances. We may save millions of pounds by allowing these players to take the step up.
Excellent article Roy. I think you make some very salient arguments and let’s hope you are right about next season. I do worry that Lucas may take at least 6 months to get back to his absolute best so we need to buy some cover.
Why not use Gerrard or Agger as cover/additional DM and promote Shelvey in the forward midfield role that Gerrard occupied. Coates can then be promoted to fill Agger’s role. Coates will be too good next season to be left out of the side.
I agree with much of this, and the point that Neil makes is an interesting one also. The Wolves home game was a good example of a game against inferior opposition where we took a 2 goal lead in at half-time, and then got over-run for 20 minutes in the second half. The midfield platform was not quite strong enough (even with Lucus) to withstand the pressure from a poor team trying to get back into the game.
The midfield parter to Lucas that day was Adam, but he does not provide a solid platform – not defensively minded enough, gives away fouls, does not direct play intelligently enough.
The Mascherano / Alonso platform was perfect because you had someone who broke up opposition attacks and covered exposed gaps, and a partner who orchestrated and directed our offensive play from a deep position.
We obviously need cover for Lucas (we looked awful without him in pre-season, and I really wish this had been addressed last summer). The problem I see is that the existing candidates to partner Lucas in the centre have not proved themselves suitable yet.
Gerrard – does he have the discipline to accept the limitations of the role? Perhaps age/wear and tear will force him to accept this. Will he stay fit?
Henderson – encouraging signs, and everything he does is neat and tidy, but is he the sort of player to boss the midfield, impose himself, and get the ball into dangerous positions?
Shelvey – has worked well with Henderson recently in the centre, but limited evidence on which to judge him – seems more inclined towards the final third, and on a bad day quite a lot of passes go astray
Just a wild card here, but could Agger play as a defensive midfielder? The obvious disadvantage is losing him from central defence, but his distribution is excellent, he reads the game well, and having him nearer the opponents goal would give him more shooting opportunities.
Ta for the comments guys.
Neil – I know we’ve discussed this before (and I happen to agree with you in terms of way I like the game to be played), but I’m being more general to be honest. If there’s a capable holding player there to field instead of the options we’ve used since December (including Carragher, which says everything doesn’t it?), then whichever setup the manager favours, it’ll be more effective.
I do agree though, and it in no way detracts from the other questions you’ve discussed so thoroughly on the podcast.
It’s more aimed at avoiding a complete overhaul, which would be expensive you’d think, and would mean us starting again from square one.
I think (again) hearing Commolli talk about the game again today, that the fella straight up doesn’t understand the game. This intensity of running metric taken out of context… the sudden realisations related to Alonso and his merits… the whole thing sends shivers down my spine.
Lucas score goals for fun .with him back we will be top 4 again …NOT !
Great article. We need to buy one more high quality DM that can play alongside Lucas or even replace him if necessary. That, along with a winger or two and a experienced striker should comfortably push us into the top 3.
Good article Roy, when we get a fit Levia back on the pitch it will be like two new signings because Gerrard will be able to move further up the pitch and play his normal game. We do need good cover for Lucas though incase of further injuries.
The decline of points per game after Lucas’ injury definitely says a lot of his importance in the side, but I don’t believe thatit’s a valid excuse for being 8th at the moment. Although we may not possess another individual who can do the same job as Lucas and provide that ‘platform’, a solution could have been found using a combination of players. Indeed, this solution was found on the odd occasion, such as the 3-0 win against Everton with Spearing and Henderson both providing cover for Gerrard. Yet this didn’t stick for whatever reason, and often we still tried approached games with constant flows of attacks, which won’t be efficient or decisive without a SOLID platform. I don’t think there would have been anything wrong with aiming to win by with a few less goal attempts as long as we had control of the game and if attacks were more efficient.
Basically, two of our midfielders could have done the same job as Lucas, and despite the consequent compromise of having less players committing themselves forward, those forward players would have more intelligence, more confidence and better decision-making.
Great Piece, in particular the concept of ‘the platform’ – we need look no further then our 2 recent CL finals to give credence to this, It was the introduction of Didi that turned the game in Istanbul, and the departure of Macherano did the same in Athens (the ‘Xabi affair aside, I still reckon that was Rafa’s biggest error, he had Kaka in his pocket!!!)
The gen of your position is that we don’t need mass recruitment, I can kind of agree with that, but I would contest that the absolute minimum we need is a Striker, a (Defensive) Midfielder and ‘light up Anfield’ Wide/Attacking Midfielder (AM) – which is ironically where we’ve spent big in the two windows FSG have been active in, so understandably they’re gonna have questions; but reasoning is like this;-
Undoubtedly an improved platform will help our forward play but I think we are fooling ourselves if we chalk our low goal tally down only to bad finishing and/or bad luck. I said this before but your striker dictates your ‘Goal Scoring Philosophy’; We need more options here because fundamentally Suarez and Carroll are forwards you play the ball to, as oppose to play the ball for. Carroll has been unplayable of late and we all know that Suarez has a claim as one of the most talented players in the league but neither are players who you can pass the ball into space for. This also utilises what is still our most potent weapon, Steven Gerrard in the 10 role (he can play there for years to come – think Del Piero and Totti; don’t doubt SG in the 10 role – Torres has only ever been ‘great’ playing with him and that includes for Spain, Athleti and CFC.) Also, we are, and have been for a number of years, very light up front, in terms of options, but also in just bodies – Take Stoke City, they have Crouch, Walters, Jones, Jerome, Sidibe and Fuller – that’s six against our 2, maybe 3 at a push.
I don’t think I need to argue why we need this type of player, what I suppose I might have to defend is why only one, (the answer btw is because I would use Suarez as a wide forward, although of course if FSG can afford another, fantastic). The real argument here is whether to keep Downing, I guess that all depends on how much FSG are willing to net spend, are they willing to go out and spend another 20m on the player they were supposed to have purchased last Summer for 20m, if they are, great, if not then Downing may have to go. The thing is, and again this feeds into our goal scoring philosophy, for how the majority of crossed balls are converted, see Johnson’s ball to Carroll against Chelsea (which he missed), or Torres header against CFC for us last year, i.e. it’s more about speed and movement then ariel domination. A winger crossing from the near the sideline to a stagnant number 9 is not going to yield you a lot of goals, what you need to yield BETTER CHANCES is a wide man who can get closer to the striker and create. To be fair to Kenny he hasn’t swallowed the ‘you must play Stewart with Andy’ rubbish, and he has also played Downing on the right, but the lad just doesn’t seem to have the killer pass, or the ability (or certainly not the confidence) to grab goals.
You’ve argued the case for this better than I could, again the debate rest around who we have and what we do with them. Adam and Shelvey are not built for DM to my mind (though Shelvey looks like he could be excellent cover for SG in the 10/AM role). In isolation you could argue that Henderson is improving, but we don’t play in isolation and meanwhile, Spurs, CFC and City and others have better players on the bench (Essien, Sandro, Huddlestone, De Jong); I know this is not the whole story as the sum of the parts is more important than then the components as Man U have proved over recent years. Maybe Henderson could carve out a niche for himself as DM and be effective at the top level in the same way Parker has (he was a box to box CM in his Charlton – the new Beckham and all that – but realised he wasn’t quite good enough against your Gerrards and your Scholes and so adapted). With Henderson though I am unconvinced. If it were up to me I would throw what ever it took to get Rodwell, including Henderson if needs be, (I know, it’s my impossible dream), I also like Inler who went for only 10m the other year, and maybe De Jong – the salary issue not withstanding (I know it’s pretty childish to throw names about it’s just the venting of a restless mind)
I think Jonny Blaze has hit the nail on the head.
We need, as a minimum if we are to harbour ambitions of a Top 4 place next season, a…
Striker – Ideally a poacher and someone ready to run onto a through ball. Not a tricky little bugger like Suarez and not a target man like Carroll.
A winger – a pacey, take-people-on wide man with an end-product (shot/cross to completion); someone to break-up/skirmish-with the well-organised ‘two banks of four’ that have foiled us with ease this season.
A DM – because sans Lucas, we don’t have an alternative. Spearing is willing but limited, Adam is just limited, and Gerrard isn’t disciplined enough. This person would play alongside Lucas or Henderson, depending on the game/opponents in hand.
In defence the only weakness is LB. If we assume the Enrique will be back to his early season best, we are still short of quality cover. Agger at a push but who else? Robinson still needs a bit of nurturing, but perhaps he is due more game time.