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.

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