Monday, 30 December 2013

The Shirt Hits The Fan

I often write about rule changes I’d like to see in football, as many of them seem nonsensical.  However, a lot of them are trivial and do not have any great bearing on a game, but sometimes the littlest things puzzle us the most.

One rule change I would like to see is the one where you are cautioned for removing your shirt after celebrating a goal.

Last week we had another example of this.  Sunderland, yes that Sunderland who were so far adrift at the foot of the Premier League their owners decided they had to change the manager after just 5 matches, were up against the might of Chelsea, League and European Champions in the past few years.  This was a League Cup tie, a competition in which the likes of Arsene Wenger has convinced the FA of its importance so much so that it must be settled in one attempt.  No replays, just extra time and penalties.  The game is 1-0 to Chelsea with barely two minutes remaining and Sunderland grab an equaliser to force extra time.  In front of their own fans, who’ve endured a miserable time of it lately, save the ‘massive’ derby day win over Newcastle, the place is buzzing for the effort their boys have put in.  Deep into extra time and there’s still nothing to separate the two sides.  The fans are shifting in their seats about penalties, many of the players will also be anxious as they will their teammates to end things to put them out of their impending misery.  With seconds left on the clock, Sunderland attack and the ball is in the Chelsea area at the feet of one Ki Sung-Yueng.  He beats one defender as he switches the ball onto his right foot and fires a shot low into the corner of the net and the whole place erupts.  This Sunderland side has endured a lot this season, they are still 4pts away from any company at the foot of the table, they are up against a Chelsea side managed by an enigmatic Portuguese who has never experienced defeat in a League Cup tie at Chelsea, yet little old Ki has won it for them.  He goes off on a victory celebration.

Now let’s consider this for a moment.  When we were kids, whatever sport you fancied, we’ve all dreamed of hitting the winning runs, taking the last wicket, kicking the drop-goal in added time, serving the final ace, potting the black, hitting the double 16 to win a game.  We’ve all dreamed of that, and we’ve all seen ourselves celebrate.  None of us really know how we’d react but we’ve all played it through in our own minds.  These are the moments of no return in sport which in team sport happen so rarely.  The point when no one else can trump you.  You can score a goal at any time in a game, but when it comes so late the other team has no chance to come back then you are remembered as a hero for eternity.

If you score a goal in the first half of a cup Final and that is the only goal of the game, then you are known as the man whose ‘only goal of the game won the cup for his club’.  But if your goal is virtually the last kick of the game then you are known as the man who ‘won the cup for his club’.  Ki won the game for Sunderland.

For South Korean, Ki, this was his first goal in English football having been signed by Swansea in August 2012.  At the time he was the club’s most expensive player, but he struggled to live up to his price tag and a year later joined Sunderland on a season-long loan.  This would’ve been his finest moment in football so far, in fact he has admitted so, calling it a “once in a lifetime” goal.  Given all that, you can hardly forgive him from losing control over his celebration and taking his shirt off.

This disrobing has a habit of breaking through the most reserved player’s defences at times when the goal and/or the occasion is beyond comprehension.  I’m willing to bet that when Ki was flying over to England (ok, Wales), he dreamed of such a moment.  He dreamed of the headlines, of the crowd singing and he must’ve dreamed of how he imagined he would celebrate.  But that was all done with a clear head and under no pressure whatsoever.

Rewind to another goal involving a Swansea player.  It is May 2011 and Swansea are in the Championship play-offs at the Semi-Final stage where they’re playing Nottingham Forest.  The 1st leg ended goalless and Swansea were 2 goals up in the first half of the 2nd leg.  Rob Earnshaw came on to score a late goal for Forest, who were then in the position of knowing another goal would send them through on goal difference.  It had been 28 years since Swansea had been in the top flight and in that time had virtually gone bust.  They had clawed their way back from the dead and were on the verge of the big time.  Three minutes into injury time and with Earnshaw having already hit the bar, Forest had a corner for which their keeper went up for.  Swansea defended it and Pratley broke clear picking the ball up just outside his own area, and as he reached the halfway line he launched the ball into the net.  Cue amazing scenes of celebration.  The Championship Play-off Final is reputed to be worth around £90m for the winner in tv revenue and Premier League prize money, and Pratley has just ensured his side has made it.  He then goes on a run back down the touchline, ripping his shirt off as he goes.  It is quite clearly his greatest moment on a football field and he is ecstatic.  He may never get another chance to be the man to score that goal at that stage of as important a match as that.

Both Ki and Pratley were booked for their celebration.  They could’ve done almost anything and not been cautioned but because they removed their shirts, they were booked.  The authorities claim this action could incite opposition fans to riot and they have been very clear in the punishment for this offence.  Referees will tell you that all the League clubs have posters on the walls warning players they will be punished for this misdemeanour, and they will argue the players only have themselves to blame.

My point is that there should be some leeway for this rule, in fact I’d go further and say we should get rid of this ridiculous rule altogether.

Before I go onto explain why, let us just consider another incident from this season.  The Merseyside derby and Liverpool are 2-1 up at Everton, who have lost just once at home in the league all season.  Daniel Sturridge, who has not made the starting line-up, is warming up on the touchline.  He is having to do this in front of the home fans who are giving him fearful stick.  Sturridge takes it all in good faith, smiling as he continues his routines.  Sturridge is sent on just after Everton has equalised and then soon after his introduction, Everton take the lead for the first time.  It is not certain whether the Everton players knew this, but since the War Everton has only once come from behind to win a Merseyside derby, and they are on the threshold of achieving the ‘impossible’.  Then Liverpool has a free-kick with a minute to go.  Gerrard fires the ball in and Sturridge gets up to head it past Tim Howard for a dramatic equaliser.  Sturridge then goes to the Everton fans who had so politely welcomed him to the ground earlier and proceeds to show off his dance moves which are synonymous with his goal celebrations.  He was already on that side of the pitch so it seems natural to move to the side of the pitch to celebrate the goal.  But some of the home fans are incensed by his behaviour resulting in Sturridge having to justify his actions, for which he claimed he was simply ‘cocking a snook’ at them (my words, not his) for their greeting earlier.

Sturridge wasn’t booked for his celebration, despite some of the home fans anger.  Nobody likes having their noses rubbed into things and taunted, especially football fans or people in a crowd.  Had Sturridge taken his shirt off he would’ve been booked, but would the Everton fans have become violent as a result?  Would they have considered in that moment that Sturridge had committed the ultimate sin of standing in front of them showing off his fine torso, resulting in them scaling the fences to administer a suitable punishment themselves?  I think not.  I wouldn’t imagine they would’ve been any more, or less incensed whether his shirt was on his back or not.

Therefore, why is it considered the height of yobbery or the most unpleasant of taunts for a player to remove his shirt whilst celebrating, yet he can perform any other sort of insult (not one fingered, obviously) and mockery and escape punishment.

I can understand if officials wish to deter an epidemic of scantily-cladishness but in certain circumstances surely they can exercise some discretion?

Neither Pratley or Ki ran towards the opposition fans to try and goad them.  Sturridge, it could be argued, did.

Getting back to Ki.  Ki has now received 4 yellow cards, leaving him one short of a ban.  What if Sunderland are about to reach the Final and he is slightly late on a challenge, which is neither malicious or dangerous but warrants another caution?  He would then receive his last one resulting in a ban denying him a contribution to what could be Sunderland’s only high point of the season.  Now I realise referees cannot suddenly decide not to punish a player in case he misses out on one of his finest moments of a brief career, but it is now the case that he has picked up a card for demonstrating he is human and had celebrated in front of his own fans in what was a wonderful moment.  Something many players can go through a whole career never experiencing.  Of course he wouldn’t be the first to miss a Final following a suspension but often they have deserved it.  Dennis Irwin, for contrast, was particularly unlucky.  In 1999 as Manchester United closed in on a treble they were leading at Anfield when the ball was going out for a throw and Irwin attempted to keep it in.  By the time Irwin connected with the ball, the linesman (out of sight behind him) had flagged and so referee David Elleray deemed Irwin had deliberately kicked the ball away at which point he showed Irwin, already on a yellow card, a second yellow resulting in a sending off and an automatic ban meaning he would miss the FA Cup Final.  For the 33 year old Irwin, this was likely to be his last chance of another Wembley final and so it proved.

Referees should understand the circumstances of the game and should officiate the game accordingly.  Running the whole length of the pitch to celebrate in front of your old club’s fans as Adebayor did when he scored against Arsenal, warrants a punishment as it was crass, stupid and only going to inflame already irritated, and frustrated supporters.  But taking your shirt off to celebrate in front of your own fans with almost the last kick of the game would seem to be poor reasoning for admonishment.

The most famous shirt-removal behaviour was when Ryan Giggs scored one of the best FA Cup goals in extra time of the Semi-Final Replay against Arsenal in 1999.  He had scored a goal many of us have dreamed about, and for a midfield player who picks up the ball just inside his own half, it was the best goal they could’ve scored.  No wonder Giggs ‘lost it’ with his celebration.  It was a heavyweight clash which was nearing a penalty shootout and Giggs had not only scored, but the nature and timing of the goal proceeded to finally burst Arsenal’s competitive balloon.   He removed his shirt as he went on a run back down the pitch, revealing the sort of chest thatch that presumably he would rather only his wife or her sister would ever have seen.

He’s never done it since, but then he’s never scored a goal like it since.  These things can often happen just once in a player’s career and for an official to determine how it should be celebrated is simply pouring unnecessary fuel on a perfectly well-lit firework.  We are often reminded how short a footballer’s career is, so let’s fast forward 30 years and there is young Ki sitting in his rocking chair reflecting on his life.  Do you really think he’s going to regret taking his shirt off during a celebration bringing himself a booking?  Well, he will do if it contributes to him missing an important match, but for a ‘once in a lifetime’ goal surely he love to be able to think back and reminisce that he couldn’t possibly have celebrated that goal any better. 

This further illustrates the futility of the law as it doesn’t deter every player and there are certain circumstances when a player is going to break this law no matter the consequences, as the positive reaction from his teammates and supporters is more than enough to keep him going during any suspension he may incur.  Another example of crassness of the rule is that Ki had a top underneath his shirt so he wasn’t even bare-chested, so it is hardly likely to incite a crowd any more than a player celebrating in front of them keeping his shirt on.

I would suggest we need to give referees the power of discretion.  They can then determine whether a celebration is likely to cause a reaction in the crowd, or better still we could just leave it all to the fabulous ‘wise-after-the-event’ panel which can only bring retrospective action on a player if the referee hasn’t seen him commit an inappropriate challenge.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Five Favourite Wins Against - Manchester City away

Continuing the series where I look back at my five favourite wins the Liverpool’s next opponents.  This Boxing Day Liverpool travel to the Etihad to meet Manchester City and here are my five favourite wins from past encounters.

26th August 1978
MAN CITY   (1)   1   (Kidd 23)
LIVERPOOL   (2)   4   (Souness 15, 48, R.Kennedy 34, Dalglish 56)

MAN CITY: Corrigan; Clements, Booth, Futcher, Donachie; Keegan, Owen, Hartford, Power; Channon, Kidd

LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Neal, Thompson, Hughes, A.Kennedy; Case, McDermott, Souness, R.Kennedy; Dalglish, Heighway

Having retained the European Cup the season before, Liverpool were desperate to regain their League title this time round and had started with wins over QPR and Ipswich.  City’s season had begun with two 1-1 draws against Derby and Arsenal.

This was to prove a magical season as this Liverpool moved up a gear and the purchase of Graeme Souness was proving to be a masterstroke.  The Scot opened the scoring with a move very familiar to Reds fans.  McDermott would get the ball just inside his own half on the right, he’d look up and both strikers either came deep or pushed wide, allowing one of the other midfielders to move into the space created.  This time it was Souness who was able to run onto the ball and fire past Corrigan.  It was a simple move, yet so effective.  Trawl through youtube and you’ll find plenty of examples of this type of move, yet oppositions were just unable to cut it out.  City weren’t undaunted and hit back 8 minutes later as Channon put Power through to beat the offside trap and as Clemence came out, he squared it for Kidd to equalise.

10 minutes later Liverpool restored their lead with another example of the pass-and-move play which tore sides apart.  McDermott was again involved, just inside the City half on the right.  He played a quick pass to Heighway, just outside him and then charged forward unnoticed by the home side.  Heighway held the ball up, waited for McDermott to get into position and then found him with a simple ball forward.  McDermott, on the edge of the area then played it square where Ray Kennedy was now the runner and he finished as calmly as Souness had.  These days it would be said Liverpool were playing without a recognised striker as Dalglish played so deep, and in an age where sides were so rigid in their formation, City just didn’t know how to deal with it.

Much of Liverpool’s success was their ability to manoeuvre opponents around the pitch and soon after the break, Liverpool were at it again.  Neal found Heighway wide on the right and as he knocked it back to Case, McDermott simply ran into the space created ahead of Heighway and he was able to cross into the area where Dalglish helped it on for Souness who fired in his second goal of the game.  Clemence then pulled off a brilliant save after a Paul Futcher shot from 35 yards took a deflection and the England goalkeeper was at full stretch to push it onto the bar.

Soon after Liverpool had a 4th, as Alan Kennedy’s mishit pass found Dalglish in far too much space on the right of the area.  He rounded Corrigan to slide the ball home for a 4-1 lead.  At the time you could be forgiven that Liverpool could go on and rattle up a cricket score, but they actually took their foot off the gas and City came back into it.  Channon went close on a couple of occasions but in the end Liverpool were easy winners.

Liverpool won the League, 8pts clear of Nottingham Forest.  Manchester City ended down in 15th

27th October 1979
MAN CITY   (0)   0
LIVERPOOL   (2)   4   (Johnson 12, Dalglish 31, 67, R.Kennedy 86)

MAN CITY: Corrigan; Ranson, Futcher, Caton, Power; MacKenzie, Reid, Viljoen, Deyna; Bennett, Robinson

LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Neal, Thompson, Hansen, A.Kennedy; Case, Souness, R.Kennedy; Johnson, Dalglish, Heighway

Liverpool, defending champions, had only won once in 5 matches away from home by the time they had their trip to Maine Road.  Man City had recovered from a really poor start of 3pts from their first 6 matches.  They were now unbeaten in 6.

David Johnson opened the scoring after 12 minutes.  This was his best season for goals as he hit 27 in all competitions.  Just after the half hour, Kenny Dalglish put the visitors 2-goals up.  Liverpool were dominant all over the park against a young Manchester City side managed by Malcolm Allison.

Allison had splashed the cash on several players yet they were given a real lesson here.  It was barely a month after he broke the British transfer record on Steve Daley from Wolves, someone few had heard of.  Daley wasn’t in the starting line-up for this game although he’d yet to influence them in a game.  Two goals up at the break, Dalglish then scored his 2nd of the game midway through the second half.  The scoring was rounded off by Ray Kennedy to give Liverpool a comprehensive 4-0 victory.

Liverpool moved up to 3rd in the table as City fell to 13th.  Liverpool ended up winning the title for a second successive year.

10th April 1982
MAN CITY   (0)   0  
LIVERPOOL   (2)   5   (Lee 8, Neal pen 42, Johnston 58, Kennedy 59, Rush 73)

MAN CITY: Corrigan; Ranson, Caton, Bond, McDonald; Ryan, Reid, Hartford, Wilson; Reeves, Kinsey

LIVERPOOL: Grobbelaar; Neal, Thompson, Hansen, Kennedy; Johnston, Lee, Lawrenson, Whelan; Rush, Dalglish

When Liverpool turned up at Maine Road in the 1981-82 season they were in a rich vein of form and City were certainly not alone in being taken apart, as they were in the middle of an 11-game winning streak.  This was a great week for Liverpool fans as they’d just been to Old Trafford and won by a Craig Johnston goal.  At Maine Road three days later, they were soon into their stride as Sammy Lee gave them the lead inside the opening ten minutes with a brilliant free-kick.  Liverpool could’ve been 3 or 4 up by half-time but it took a penalty from Phil Neal just before the break, to add to Lee’s opener.

Midway through the second half and Craig Johnston made it 3-0.  At the start of the day, Liverpool were 2pts clear of Ipswich Town but the Suffolk club were losing 0-1 at Tottenham and with Liverpool now rampant at City, things were going as well as they could be.  Within 60 seconds of Johnston’s goal, Alan Kennedy had made it 4-0.  Kennedy had won the European Cup the previous season with his late goal against Real Madrid and he was very pleased to join in on the action.  As the game moved into the final quarter of an hour, Ian Rush then completed the scoring with his 27th of the season.

This win gave Liverpool a 5pt lead at the top of the table and they maintained this lead all the way to May, winning the title by 4pts from Ipswich.  They retained their League Cup title too.  Manchester City finished 10th in the table.

2nd December 1989
MAN CITY   (0)   1   (Allen pen, 59)
LIVERPOOL   (1)   4   (Rush 9, 88, Beardsley 48, McMahon 58)

MAN CITY: Dibble; Seagraves, Hendry, Redmond, Taggart (Oldfield); Bishop, Brightwell, Lake; White, Allen, Morley
LIVERPOOL: Grobbelaar; Hysen, Gillespie (Tanner), Staunton (Marsh), Ablett; Houghton, McMahon, Molby, Whelan; Rush, Beardsley

Liverpool were top of the table when they travelled to Maine Road in December 1989.  Determined to avenge their narrow failure to win the title in the previous season, they’d begun with an 8-game unbeaten run.  Since then they’d stuttered slightly, losing 4 out of their next 7 games, but this one would see a return to form.  In contrast, Manchester City had won just 4 matches all season, losing 8 including an opening day defeat at Anfield.  Mel Machin had recently been relieved of his managerial post and the team was under the joint care of Tony Book (yet again) and John Deehan.

Despite the absence of Barnes, Nicol and Hansen, Liverpool were first out of the blocks and soon in front.  Beardsley started the move, then Rush put Molby through but Dibble blocked his shot just outside the area.  The ball fell to Rush and he calmly put it in to open the scoring.  City should’ve been level after 25 minutes when Lake dragged his shot wide when he really should’ve hit the target.  The game was alive by now as both sides went at each other, but it was City who looked the more vulnerable.  Staunton and Beardsley went close for the visitors and then just before half-time, Beardsley hit the post.

Early in the second half, Beardsley was to be denied no more as he ran at City from the inside-left position, beating Redmond and then finishing with a shot which flew past Dibble.  Then as the hour arrived, Whelan pierced the home defence as he played a pinpoint pass to put McMahon through and he finished well to put the visitors 3-0 up.  Virtually immediately, City went up the other end and forced the issue when Grobbelaar pulled down Morley and Clive Allen stepped up to beat him from the spot.  Mike Marsh came on as Liverpool re-organised at the back and he almost scored as Lake managed to clear off the line.  Rush then had a shot saved by Dibble, but was soon on the scoresheet again as McMahon, clean through, unselfishly gave him the ball and Rush wasn’t going to miss.

It was a long season for City who finally ended up in 14th just 5pts above the drop.  Liverpool won the title by 9pts from Aston Villa.

5th October 2008
MAN CITY   (2)   2   (Ireland 18, Garrido 41)
LIVERPOOL   (0)   3   (Torres 55, 72, Kuyt 90)

MAN CITY: Hart; Richards, Dunne, Kompany, Zabaleta; Elano (Petrov), Ireland, Garrido, Wright-Phillips; Jo (Gelson), Robinho (Evans)
LIVERPOOL: Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio (Dossena); Gerrard, Mascherano (Keane), Alonso, Riera (Benayoun); Kuyt, Torres

Liverpool began 2008-09 season in great form and by the time they turned up at The Etihad, they were unbeaten in their 6 matches thus far.  They’d only conceded in just 2 games, including a home win against the champions, Man Utd.  Manchester City, managed by Mark Hughes, had just come off their 3rd defeat of the season already when they were beaten at Wigan.  However, their three wins had yielded 12 goals.  This was the best attack against the best defence.

City, the newest members of the Millionaires club, raced to a 2-0 lead in the first half.  Stephen Ireland volleyed them into the lead after 18 minutes.  With Elano running the game, they doubled their lead just before the break when Javier Garrido curled a free-kick past Reina.  At the break City fans could be forgiven they had sent a message to the top four that they’d arrived.  Within 10 minutes of the second half it all changed.

Steven Gerrard played in Arbeloa and his cross was turned in by Torres.  At 2-1 City started to implode.  Zabaleta was sent-off for a poor challenge on Xabi Alonso, for which even his manager agreed with.  The effect it would have on the home side was clear almost immediately as Gerrard’s 72nd minute corner was headed in at the near post by Torres and the game was level.

With the home fans becoming increasingly edgy, substitute Benayoun, put Torres through and his shot hit Dunne, where Kuyt pounced to score the winner.  It was a classic comeback during a season where Liverpool were able to turn draws into defeats with a mixture of persistence and luck.  For City it was further evidence of the heights they still had to reach to be considered real contenders for Champions League football.

This was the 2nd in a run of 5 straight wins for Liverpool as their unbeaten run stretched to 11 matches from the start of the season.  They would lose just once more as they pushed Manchester United all the way to the title, only to miss out by 4pts.  City were consistent in their inconsistency and finished 10th.

HEAD TO HEAD at Maine Road/ Etihad

Matches: 77
Liverpool win: 29
Man City win: 26
Draws: 22

Liverpool goals: 114
Man City goals: 109

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Life In The Fast Lane

Liverpool has just produced one of their best performances in recent years when they tore a Tottenham Hotspur side apart on Sunday.  5-0 is a real pummelling.

Tottenham, a team with aspirations on Champions League football and with one eye most definitely on filling a potential void now opened up at the top of the Premier League by Manchester United’s supposed fall from dominance.  Tottenham, who spent £100m in the summer fully expecting this to be necessary, not only to compete with Manchester City and Chelsea, but to give them the edge over many of Europe’s top clubs.

Tottenham had been thumped before.  Manchester City gave them a good going over, beating them 6-0 just three weeks previously, and that should’ve been a warning sign but they seemed to have learned little.  Interestingly, Spurs have conceded more than 1 goal in a league game this season on just 4 occasions out of their 16 matches.  City (0-6), Liverpool (0-5), West Ham (0-3), Man Utd (2-2).  This would suggest stout defence, yet on Sunday they appeared completely at sea.  Credit for this much rest not only with the manager, who subsequently picked up his P45 rather than any plaudits, but also with Liverpool’s pressing and counter attack game.  For Liverpool, it provided a welcome distraction from losing at Hull City two weeks ago.  In fact, their reaction to that defeat has been little short of devastating, Norwich (5-1), West Ham (4-1) and now Spurs (5-0). 

Brendan Rodgers has been in charge of Liverpool for 54 Premier League matches and this is the 11th time his team has scored 4 or more goals in a game. Under Rafa Benitez it took 142 matches before Liverpool achieved 11 wins of 4 goals or more.  That stat in itself illustrates the difference between the two managers.  One could easily argue Benitez was a more conservative coach, happier to pick up 3pts with a 1-0 win than grind opponents into the dirt.  However, with that comparison one would expect Benitez to have earned more points in his first 54 matches in charge.  Rodgers beats him again 94pts to 92pts.

Now this is not a Rodgers-Benitez comparison as Premier League teams are different, even now, plus I believe Liverpool were in a much better shape when Rodgers took over than when Benitez rolled into town.  Benitez struggled to come to terms with the English game in his first season, but he did deliver the 5th European Cup to the club, and reached two Cup Finals, whereas Rodgers is yet to get anywhere near a Final.

But back to Tottenham.  Liverpool began the game as they often do, getting at their opponents from the start.  It is a pattern of play familiar during Dalglish’s 2nd coming, then often a double-edged sword, especially at home, as the crowd would often get anxious if a goal didn’t go in early enough.  This translated to the players resulting in a tense home performance where too many games ended in stalemate.  The expectation under Rodgers is nowhere near as high and this has resulted in a more confident and less pressured performance.  I have said before that the way Rodgers sets his teams up requires the whole team to perform and click together, which is wonderful to watch when it happens, but dire when it doesn’t.  At Hull and home to Southampton it certainly didn’t click, although the Southampton game had more to do with the performance of the opponents than the Hull match.  Everyone was on their mettle at White Hart Lane and this transpired to wreak havoc on the home side who crumbled under the assault.

AVB main two defensive errors, in my opinion.  Firstly he adopted a high defensive line, which against a pacey, quick thinking attack, proved a disaster.  Secondly he handed Etienne Capoue, one of his summer signings, the task of dealing with Luis Suarez.  Suarez is a driven man at the moment, having come off the back of an unbelievable 4 goals against Norwich, and after they exchanged a handshake before kick-off, the Frenchman never saw him again.  This left Michael Dawson and goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, with far too much to do and they paid the price.

One other aspect which put Spurs on the back foot was the way the different midfields lined up.  Rodgers had Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling rampaging forward, providing Suarez with support.  You see, Suarez is no ordinary striker, he doesn’t sit on the shoulder of the last defender like a Rush or a Fowler, but he is a cross between those two and a Dalglish or a Beardsley.  He will think nothing of going deep or out wide to find the ball or provide an outlet, but where Suarez gives more is his unerring energy which allows him to join any attack no matter his starting position.  In Rodgers’ early days this proved to be a problem as we would often be poorly represented in the middle if Luis had gone on one of his forays down the wing to torment a fullback who had escaped embarrassment thus far.  But since Sturridge has arrived this has enabled the team to accommodate more mobile strikers and encourage midfield players to exploit the space created.  This is synonymous with Dalglish’s 87-90 sides, where Houghton, McMahon and Whelan would often find themselves as the furthest attacker as Beardsley and Barnes created the space by drawing away defenders.

This tactic is not new, in fact read up about the legendary Hungarian side of the 1950’s to find how a deep-lying player (Puskas) created havoc and indecision in the opposition defence who never knew whether to push a defender out to pick him up or drop a midfield player back.  AVB did neither and he, and Spurs, paid heavily for it.  Behind the attacking three for Liverpool was Coutinho, who just sees a game differently to other players.  His touch is sublime.  Just watch the second goal as his pass to Henderson from Sterling’s crossfield ball was the stuff of pure magic.

But let’s not get too carried away.  This is no Liverpool circa 1970’s & 1980’s.  This is no Benitez team of 2008-09 which lost just 2 League matches.  There is still a soft underbelly about this team which some have been able to take advantage of, but strangely Tottenham didn’t.  At 1-0 Liverpool kept pressing and soon were 2 goals up.  But still there was a concern a goal back for the home side could easily bring a 2nd for them.  Liverpool kept up the pressure right to half-time and the home side went in visibly shaken.  But they took their eye off the game rather than take a step back and remember how they intended to set up to begin with.  AVB seemed concerned his midfield couldn’t get a grip on the game, a tactic he’d put most of his faith in at the beginning.  So he sought to change the personnel, but the result was the same.  They were still horribly exposed at the back and when you’re chasing the game and your opponents know they can exploit any errors, this can result in timid and nervous performance from the home side.

Tottenham had a good period (by their standards of the game) around the hour mark.  Benitez was famed with using this period in the game to make changes.  He identified it as a crucial point when you had worked out what your opposing manager had tried to do since half-time, and also gave any substitutes time to make a difference on the outcome of the match.  At this point Spurs forced a couple of corners.  But they would be the only corners they had in the game.  Liverpool are susceptible when defending set-pieces, as the Everton game illustrated and Southampton, Stoke and Aston Villa before.  It has been a factor throughout the season yet Tottenham didn’t test it.  They didn’t test Liverpool’s resolve around the box.  When 2 goals up away from home any side will defend deep, yet Spurs seemed unable to be able to deal with this or devoid of ideas of how to get round it and continually left space in the middle of the pitch for Liverpool’s marauding youngsters to take full advantage.

Just after the hour Liverpool then had a man advantage as Paulinho somehow decided to use his foot to deal with a ball at chest height, and when he made contact with Suarez, he gave the referee no option but to rescue him from this nightmare.  Paulinho could argue his stock rose higher as his teammates conceded 3 further goals without him.  But Spurs were a well-beaten side by then.  As a Liverpool fan I felt the next goal would be crucial.  If the home side got it then the crowd might be able to forget feeling sorry for themselves, and get behind their team.  The soft underbelly of the visitors may yet be exposed.  It wasn’t.  Sakho is still getting used to the pace and aggression of the English game, Flanagan is a young man with much to prove, playing on his less favoured flank, and Joe Allen is more of a defensive midfield creator than an enforcer.  Spurs seemed to lose sight of this and paid the price for being given the run around in the first half as they lost confidence and energy.

Many Liverpool fans of my age were educated in teams fully able to see out matches by denying their opponents any space or just continuing to batter them with further goals.  But anyone watching the past 15 years will have noticed a vulnerability and that’s why it was crucial the 3rd goal of the game was scored by the visitors.  This is a far more open season than we have witnessed in recent years and I still believe there are at least 5 clubs chasing 3rd and 4th place as I still expect Manchester City and Chelsea to pull away.  But Liverpool now has something which can guard against a vulnerability, and that is confidence.  Confidence is the key which has enabled teams to put together title-winning sequences, as it can drag results from games where performances haven’t been there.  Playing a team full of confidence can also result in engendering a nervousness in your own performance, as you are never fully certain of killing them off.

So am I confident for the rest of the season?  Well, I believe we pushed our ceiling a little higher with the performance against Spurs.  Going back to the previous 10 instances of scoring 4 goals or more in Premier League matches, if you take a look at who we scored against you will realise we have the confidence and knowledge we can take apart clubs from the lower part of the table. 
Norwich (5-2), Fulham (4-0), Norwich (5-0), Swansea (5-0), Wigan (4-0), Newcastle (6-0), West Brom (4-1), Fulham (4-0), Norwich (5-1), West Ham (4-1). 

But the Spurs game was the first time we have taken apart a side we are competing against for the top 4 or a top 6 finish.  There were occasions during games last season when we took apart the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea yet failed to convert chances into goals and subsequently this doesn’t show up in the table at the end of the season.  There’s still a long way to go and still a lot to improve on with this Liverpool team, but other clubs will look at that performance and consider the fact this was achieved without Steven Gerrard or Daniel Sturridge.  In fact, Liverpool’s captain was in the Sky Sports studio for the game and afterwards he said he believed this was “Brendan Rodgers best game for Liverpool”, which is a sign the players have fully bought into their manager’s vision, but have taken this long to fully implement it.  My feeling is that it still takes the whole side to be on their game for the system to work.  We don’t possess enough big game players to rely on one of them pulling a win out of the bag as United has done in recent years, but the desire certainly seems to be there.

Liverpool has a crucial Christmas period, with trips to Manchester City on Boxing Day and Chelsea three days later.  City are on another level at home, with no one leaving the Etihad with as much as a point so far this season.  But Chelsea has the capacity to contain a simmering self-doubt that finally rose to the surface for Tottenham at the weekend, and when you are playing a team full of confidence it is very difficult to keep that doubt under wraps.  Liverpool will be hoping things have finally clicked into place and the system works itself as the players are more familiar with it.  Their opponents, on the other hand, may well be hoping it was one of those moments when things suddenly clicked without the players really knowing how or why, and continually struggle to find that groove again.