BLACKPOOL, Wigan, West Brom, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace. No, not a list of likely relegation candidates, writes CRAIG RIMMER, nor the UK’s least desirable holiday destinations 2015, but an ever-growing group of also-rans who came (under little expectation), saw (nothing to unduly concern them) and conquered Anfield over the past few seasons.
When West Ham added their number to the not-so-select group of teams to have breached Fortress Anfield in recent times back at the end of August, they became the first Hammers side to claim a win in L4 in more than half a century.
It’s a worrying trend. Whilst the mythical conceptualisation of Fortress Anfield still persists, the evidence points toward a steady decaying of its once world-renowned fortifications, a fading aura of invincibility and a once-great footballing citadel in need of urgent reinforcement.
There has been a traceable decline in Liverpool’s home form since around about 2010. A trend which coincided with the demise of Rafa Benitez and the doomed reign of Roy Hodgson, but a tendency which has continued (with the notable exception of 13/14) under the stewardships of both Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers.
The current manager did for a time look to have rediscovered the missing formula and seemed on track to reinstating the reputation of Anfield as Liverpool’s stronghold, a venue to be both feared and respected in equal measure. Then came defeats to Villa, Palace and West Ham, and a general scarcity of home goals and lack of convincing performances.
In recent months Anfield has once again become a venue where visiting teams fancy their chances of causing an upset. West Ham were obvious beneficiaries, but Bournemouth also played with a belief and intent, and were arguably unfortunate not to take something from that game.
Both Norwich today and Aston Villa will also turn up on Merseyside in the next couple of weeks with little to lose and genuine aspirations of inflicting more pain on the home crowd. Not least considering the fact that Villa have themselves been one of the main beneficiaries of Anfield’s recent decline, having taken three wins and a draw from their last five visits.
The 11/12 season was a particular low point. A season when success in the cups failed to mask a dismal home league record of just six wins all campaign, and a run of results which resulted in the eventual demise of King Kenny. The home win ratio in 11/12 was just 32% and the Reds took a paltry 27 points at home all season.
Since taking charge, Rodgers has enjoyed a significantly higher home win ratio of 61% — comparable with the likes of Benitez (69%) and Houllier (55%). Although, if we were to ignore 13/14 (a season in which the Reds won a Premier League-era club record 16 home games — 84%) then that figure drops dramatically to just 50% — or an average 9.5 home league wins a season.
And this is problematic for any team with ambitions of regularly making top-four and challenging for league titles. The benchmark for top four over the past decade has been an average 12 home wins (63%), and no team has made top-four in the past 10 years without winning at least 11 of their home league matches. Liverpool have achieved that mark on just one occasion in the past four seasons.
On the other hand, Arsenal — a club that represents seven of those last 10 fourth place finishes — have made a habit of winning their home games, and more specifically, of beating the bottom 12 or 13 teams on their home patch.
Arsene Wenger is clearly aware of the value of reliable home form and their regular qualification for the Champions League has been built on just that, despite a scarcity of recent title challenges.
So, what is the reason for Liverpool’s recent home troubles? And what has happened to the club’s once imperious home form?
Psychology plays a part. When Crystal Palace, Norwich or West Ham turn up at the Emirates, Stamford Bridge or the Etihad there is an air of inevitability about the pending result, among the team and fans alike. Few hold much hope of victory and a point will probably be heralded as a genuine triumph.
The same could have been said about Anfield in seasons past. Between the summer of 2005 and the summer of 2009, Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool lost just three home league games, went the entirety of the 08/09 season unbeaten at Anfield, and failed to lose a single home match to a team outside of the then established big four in four consecutive seasons.
But then, when Blackpool, West Brom and Fulham turn up and leave rewarded, the mask began to slip. Teams who previously held little hope of a result began arriving with confidence and belief in their ability to cause an upset, while still under very little pressure to actually achieve one.
They were suddenly facing a home side themselves visibly lacking in self-belief, and confronted by a hostile, and increasingly toxic, home crowd — and not in the manner of old, but this time, more than ever, hostile towards their own.
Admittedly, there has been a general trend throughout the league towards more away wins and fewer home-bankers. To use the first few weeks of this season as an example, there were a meagre nine home wins across the 30 matches spanning the first three weeks of the season.
Chelsea drew at home to Swansea and lost to Palace. Arsenal lost at home to West Ham, and West Ham to Bournemouth. Even West Brom failed to register a win at home to the then 17th-placed Chelsea…
There are a number of possible reasons for this. First of all, a number of the top sides started the season slowly after a particularly brief pre-season, and have probably been more vulnerable as a result.
This will likely change as the season progresses, but there is also no getting away from the fact that it’s also easier to set up a team to be solid and disciplined, whilst trying to snatch something on the break, as many of the “smaller” teams do when playing away from home.
Also, due to the influx of cash, the rest of the league has arguably got closer to the top sides and are capable to being more competitive, at least in one-off matches.
Then there is the problem of an increasingly sullen, and sometimes toxic, home atmosphere. Anfield isn’t an especially patient crowd. We aren’t good at the kind of patience and perseverance required to break down a well-organised defence, nor the resilient, at-all-odds support which can help push the team over the line in a tight game.
The team are equally culpable. Themselves too often lacking the patience and nous required to unlock a determined rearguard action, and too often playing into the hands of the opposition.
Chelsea at home in 13/14 is the most often used example, but more significantly, Liverpool and Rodgers cannot afford to continue hemorrhaging home points to West Ham, Crystal Palace and the like.
Home games against the bottom 13 offer 39 must-have points every season.
So far, Liverpool have three from six. If the manager is to reverse his fate, there is little doubt that he needs to take the vast majority of the 33 still available, and that starts with must-win games against Norwich and Villa.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo