YOU may or (probably definitely) may not have noticed that I didn’t meet the Monday morning deadline for my weekly column to go up. I noticed. To be honest, I pre-empted it.
You see, I was in Magaluf from Friday night to Sunday morning on a whirlwind tour. Magaluf, for fuck’s sake. The only holiday destination in the world that exposes your weaknesses and presents them on a platter for you to worry about endlessly in the blink of an eye between your last bevy and your first. The only holiday destination in the world that could be twinned with Knowsley Road save for the fact that there’s more sun. I was acutely aware of the looming deadline and relatively sure that I wouldn’t meet it given that my body had taken on a new role as a vessel for doom, acid (the burny indigestion type not the spangled off your walnut ‘hey man’ type) and self-loathing, but the boys at The Anfield Wrap are nice lads actually; they won’t mind, they will probably give me a cuddle, tell me everything is going to be alright and send me on my way.
How wrong can a man be. They are without a shadow of a doubt a massive gang of bastards. Probably the biggest gang of bastards on the planet. A gang of evildoers and unclean spirits if ever there was one. You see, instead of sending me back with a shot in the arm and a boost to my morale they nominated Josh (the sub-editor) to send me an email politely telling me that I needed to do a column and suggested it would be great if I could watch the Southampton game back and critically analyse James Milner’s performance. I can’t get the image of them in the Monday morning content meeting laughing their clogs off brainstorming their way to finding me the worst possible ever gig since big Donnie Trump advertised for volunteer gymnasts to create him a human bed for a night in with friends. Evildoers, mate.
So, here goes. The bad news is my Virgin box hasn’t deleted the game. The good news is that the first six minutes are missing. Get in. Further investigations uncover that my wife was late pressing record. Good god – what a woman. I’m off to get changed into my white air force suit and carry her round town.
Milner first touch – seven minutes. Keeps it well. Jesus Christ, this is boring, la. The first thing to note is that he is always square on to receive the ball, facing the opposite touchline. The by-product of playing a right-footer at left-back.
11 minutes. Loose studs. Lovely close up of his loose stud, there. High point so far. Lovely bit of interplay and hanging up of the ball to the back stick. In fairness, he has started well, here. Going back to the right-footer thing. You see a fair bit of criticism of Milner which fixates on him having to come back inside – hang on…
15 minutes, good clearance from an all-fours position which is a bit strange given that he is slipping with full studs on. Would have thought he had mouldies on if it weren’t for the highlight of the half and some wondrous TV close-ups…
…but no one seems to mention the deployment of a right-footer at full-back might be deliberate. I think this is by design and is something Jürgen Klopp actively wants to assist in the creation of chances and to control the way we play. Milner’s strengths as a player are his ability to keep the ball, spot a pass, move in tight spaces when playing in little combinations and his endurance and stamina. He isn’t really being asked to play left-back. Left back is a misnomer. He is playing as an attacking midfielder almost as a playmaker from a traditional attacking left-back position. The failure of this and other performances in contrast to the start of the season isn’t Milner’s or Nathaniel Clyne’s fault, it’s a consequence of the balance in the team being off with Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson missing, it’s nothing to do with Milner being able to beat a man down the line and get a cross in. Who are we meant to be, Blackburn in 1995?
28 minutes – nothing has happened. Milner and the team are actually playing quite well, I think.
This season’s Liverpool was designed to be able to break teams apart who were intent on sitting deep by Gegenpressing (geg and pressing is the scouse for this i.e. to geg and press, I gegged and pressed, he gegged and pressed, and so on) the life out of them, then moving the ball quickly, with Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Lallana and Milner interchanging to create space down the inside left flank with Mane’s excellent movement in the box to capitalise on anything coming over.
Hang on; 38 minutes – Milner gets the ball at left-back and effectively stops the ball while kneeing the frig out of the pitch and then follows it up a couple of minutes later with a good old one-two that turns into a one – what the bleeding hell was that?
The key to Liverpool’s early season success was the combination play on the left between all of the above with the added threat of Mane being able to use Clyne as a decoy if needed and beat his man at will. If it didn’t work on the right we could recycle the ball to the left, to Milner (back to sideline) to start the play, overload their full-back, move it quickly and look for an opening again until something worked. Teams couldn’t cope. Spaces were created, opportunities made, goals scored and teams battered because we could hit them either side, win the ball back whenever they got it and keep doing it until they relented.
Its half-time, by the way – looking back I think the Reds are playing quite well although Milner has just had 10 minutes to forget.
Unfortunately, the issue now of no Mane and the presence of Divock Origi has reduced our attacking threat on either flank considerably. The ball is still being recycled to the left but instead of having up to four options around him, moving constantly, dragging men out of shape, Milner is often faced with just two options. A short pass inside to Coutinho or a backwards pass inside to either a deep-lying midfielder in Lucas Leiva or Emre Can, or a centre-half. Origi is more often than not stood in the box offering nothing. Firmino is over on the right unable to offer. Lallana’s perpetual motion is replaced by a more strategically and defensively-placed central midfielder. On the right, Clyne has got the same problem, only his is compounded by the fact that he isn’t as good a wide attacking midfielder as Milner. What we end up with is a lack of options, an attempt to keep the ball and see if anything opens followed by a ball being crossed in the hope that it is perfect to hit a stationary centre forward.
The problem with the Reds isn’t a lack of creativity caused by our full-backs being unable to beat a man. The problem with the Reds is that the options around them, upon which this season’s team has been built, are missing. To blame the full-back would be to miss the whole point of why we were so good at the start of the season. Would it be nice to bring on a left-footed full-back who could beat a man in games like this? Well yes, it probably would but wouldn’t it be nicer to just have more strength in depth to ensure we could go back to plan A without making compromises across the rest of the side? If Mane’s out wouldn’t it be better to have a direct replacement for him? If Firmino can’t play upfront wouldn’t it be nice to have someone whose movement and combination play is just as good to play in his place? If Lallana, Coutinho or Henderson can’t play wouldn’t it be… you get the point, don’t you?
Give the full-backs a break. We are asking them to do the almost impossible. Name me a full-back in Liverpool’s history who could open up games on their own and I’ll show you a man who went to Magaluf and didn’t come back like a dead tree waiting for a storm.
Let’s get back to the second half then, yer? Good God, James, why are you on all fours again? Did the TAW lads make you do it? Did you let them down for a podcast? Evil doers, aren’t they?
Up the bastard TAW Reds.