THERE’S a danger in getting carried away with things.
In January 2006 Everton released a DVD to commemorate their strong start. They called it ‘Off To A Flyer’. This was not to herald a decent return for the beginning of the season, mind. Oh no. This was the beginning of the New Year. The New calendar Year. Yes, for a bit of unwrapping, an insertion of the disc and the pressing of a few buttons you could enjoy six wins in seven games as our neighbours attempted to break into Europe’s elite. They finished eleventh thanks to just one win in the final seven games. The follow up DVD, ‘Off To A Therapist’ failed to make it to the shelves.
Alright, it’s very easy to mock ridiculous commercial enterprises so, in the interests of balance, let’s not forget that we support a club who are currently offering an LFC Pet Bed for the measly sum of £25. The point is that it’s important not to get carried away. You’ve got to love Everton cherry picking seven games from the middle of an average season but equally it’s vital that we don’t get above ourselves. Despite our good start to the season that will undoubtedly act as a foundation to our relentless and inevitable march to the nineteenth league title and will no doubt be wrapped up by such a vast points margin that we will be able to issue a cricket styled declaration with a dozen games to go, we must promote caution.
I quite fancy us for the Ashes too.
See, that’s the problem with success. It’s a one off moment that requires treading minefields of disappointment. The euphoria is heady but concentrated and you can’t spread it out over the season. This isn’t helped by the fact that since 1990 many of us have long gone past the point of unbridled optimism. The 1997, 2002 and 2009 seasons saw us get close but as P.G. Wodehouse once observed ‘Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove’. We’ve seen false dawns. We’ve seen progressive teams undone by Senegalese players. We’ve seen David James come for what he thought was the ball but was merely the glare of a floodlight. We’ve seen Liverpool.
But this is a good start. No question of that. This is written before the Arsenal game so as yet I haven’t witnessed our poor/magnificent performance against the weak-spined/Invincibles II Arsenal side which resulted in a romping victory/stale draw/unlucky defeat but even before that it still represents, last year’s word, progress. We’re playing some nice stuff, we’re also playing some pretty dull stuff at times and we’re either picking up points despite only playing well for two thirds of a game or we’ve just been damned lucky. I’m happy either way.
Like America, Liverpool FC is an unfinished idea. I doubt very much if Brendan sat down on his first day and dreamt of three centre backs, a conundrum of a midfield and a dream forward line but this is where we’ve arrived and it seems to work for now. Management is all about trial and error and some of the experiments have been downright bizarre. Starting Suso on the right at Goodison, playing Borini out wide or not at all when he’s obviously a box player and any formation that involved Jonjo Shelvey have all been decisions that have led to scratched heads and furrowed brows but that’s in the past now. Now we have 3-5-2 with a centre back coming out with the ball and a central midfielder playing as the 10 as and when he’s needed. This isn’t the final formation; it’s just where we are now and it seems to be working.
So why the improvement? It could be a great number of things. Firstly, Sturridge has been frightening since he became the lead striker. For a player who was marginalised at Chelsea and seems to have ‘attitude problems’ (whatever they are) he dug in post Bitegate and took on the responsibility he clearly needed. Some welcome that ‘it’s up to you now, son’ situation, some don’t but Daniel has been little short of a revelation. There’s something else too. He absolutely loves playing football. I adore that. One of the greatest things about Fowler in his pomp was his sheer enthusiasm for the game. He was a kid playing in front of the Kop and everything was going in. Why wouldn’t you enjoy that? Sulky McManaman can sod off. Football is about joy and Sturridge’s stupid dance is not only joyous because it means we’ve scored but also that he’s enjoying himself. That doesn’t half help your performance.
Last term’s biggest problem was clearly the midfield and it seems to be the case again this season. There’s an unbalanced personnel which is yet to be resolved. Lucas is the only specialist defensive midfielder, Gerrard has to be played no matter what, Henderson is the energy without being especially creative and Joe Allen is supposed to be the Alonso of the side but has yet to play such a role as he’s either helping his deeper lying midfielders when they’re under attack or he’s injured. Somewhere within that midfield is a solution that allows us not to be overran in midfield when we’re attacked (West Brom away albeit when we were down to ten men, Arsenal at home and Southampton away being just a few examples), a creative outlet, a ball winner and a passer but as yet there’s no real solution. I’m not sure there will be for a while yet. Personally I’d hoped we’d brought in Diame who can do half of those jobs but it’s debatable if you need a player like that in a 3-5-2 and its variants. Do you need a midfield general if you have two lads screening the back three? I’m not sure but it will be interesting to see what type of midfielder Brendan brings in next.
The three centre backs have worked well. Skrtel has enjoyed the safety of sitting in the middle without the responsibility of covering his full back. Kolo seems happy wherever he plays as long as he can be in an opponent’s ear (look out for it if you’re on a low row in the ground. He doesn’t shut up) and Sakho likes to clear a ball and can take care of any right winger/forward as well as the chaos that is Jose Enrique. I suspect that Mamadou knows the Spanish for ‘cover me’ by now.
We started the season with problems from set plays and although this has improved of late our concentration still needs work. Last season Agger, a fine player in many ways, switched off at regular and crucial intervals to the team’s detriment. This wasn’t helped by the paper thin screen of defensive midfielders in front of him at times (again, Joe Allen at Southampton) but the introduction of Sakho and Toure with the aerial prowess can only help as they settle into their roles.
Has Brendan stumbled onto this formation? Well, he switched to three centre backs for the second half at Goodison once we became overrun thanks to having too many kids on the pitch but never really went back to it. It’s interesting that he only took it seriously once Carra had retired. I’m not sure if he thought Carra couldn’t play in a three but given that that defensive formation needs a shouter, an organiser then he seems to suit it perfectly. Maybe Brendan wanted to look at other areas first before he went to three centre backs. Certainly the acquisition of Sturridge and Coutinho were rightly a priority last January.
With Suarez back in the fold for the time being at least (I think he’ll stay if we carry on playing like this) and Coutinho to come back we seemed to have an abundance of creative flair up front. Little Phil hasn’t pulled up many trees this season, pre-injury, so it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in to this new side. Left of a three? Behind the strikers where Moses has been playing? Hard to say. It’s a lovely problem to have though. Who’s going to make way? Moses seems likely but I’d like to think there’s a role for him somewhere. He won’t play won’t wing back now Johnson’s back unless Glen switches sides,so maybe he’ll be a twenty or seventy minute player according to taste or opposition. Options are nice though.
I vowed to go to the game just to enjoy myself this season but now the match has also become interesting as well as a laugh. Everyone’s beatable now so it’s fascinating to see just how other sides set up against us. Arsene Wenger is a little too set in his ways but the Chelsea and particularly the City games are going to be intriguing given their squads and options.
It’s been a good start but let’s not get ahead of ourselves although, following our recent seasons, we can at least afford to dream.