Thursday, 27 March 2014

Liverpool 2-1 Sunderland: Post-Match Analysis

Yesterday, Liverpool extended their win streak to an impressive 7 games with a narrow victory over a plucky Sunderland side. The win, like all of them are at this crucial stage of the season, was extremely important, as it kept us right in the mix for the coveted Premier League title. Though City are still mathematically the favourites, it’s hard to rule us out in the impressive run of form we are in.

Right from the kick-off, it was easy for all to see exactly what Sunderland’s game plan was. They were throwing nearly all of their players behind the ball, and sitting extremely deep. In fairness to them they were doing a good job of it; most teams collapse within minutes if they aren’t positive against Liverpool, especially at Anfield! Still, they couldn’t keep it up forever. It’s a mark of how consistently excellent Liverpool’s form in front of goal has been that, even after close to 40 minutes of being frustrated by the Sunderland defence, I was never once concerned that we wouldn’t get a goal past them. So it proved: after Suarez, seemingly through on goal, was taken out from behind by Vergini, Gerrard stepped up and curled the ball perfectly into the corner. Mannone could perhaps have done better, but it was still an excellent free-kick. As to the initial tackle, it was undoubtedly a red card offence. Kevin Friend, who made poor decisions throughout the match, somehow reached the conclusion that it was only worthy of a yellow card. Minutes later Vergini committed another clear foul worthy of a yellow, but, to the amazement of pretty much everybody, he stayed on the pitch.

Unperturbed by this blatant miscarriage of justice and buoyed by taking the lead, Liverpool moved from strength to strength. After the half-time interval, it looked as if they might totally dismantle Sunderland. Again, I must give credit to the visitors. After conceding a second just three minutes into the half (a lovely strike by Daniel Sturridge), they sorted things out defensively. Liverpool still made some chances, with Suarez and Sturridge both looking dangerous, but the Black Cats kept the SAS at bay. Gus Poyet brought on Ki Sung Yeung and Adam Johnson just after the hour mark- at this point Sunderland started to show some potential going forward, something they had been completely lacking all game. This is where things got a little nervy for Liverpool! With 13 minutes still to play, Ki managed to unlock Liverpool’s defence (sorry) and reduce the deficit to just 1. Liverpool haven’t built a reputation for defensive solidity this season, and there were times when Sunderland looked certain to destroy our lead, and with it our realistic hopes of the title. Somehow, despite a huge chance for Jozy Altidore with two minutes to play, we managed to hold on for the win.

My man of the match was definitely Philippe Coutinho. He had an absolutely terrific game; it’s the first time this season where we’ve seen the sublime form he showed immediately after we’d signed him last season. His vision has never deteriorated, but for a while he did seem to have some trouble picking the passes he envisaged so well. Today he had no such problems- on multiple occasions he set Suarez or Sturridge free with gloriously timed and weighted passes. He also showed his dribbling abilities, on one occasion taking the ball past two or three players then ending the run with a typically superb pass. If he can stay at the top of his game, I feel it will be invaluable to our title challenge. His contributions sometimes get overlooked- on his day, I truly believe he is one of the most influential players in our team.

To sum up, it would have been hugely unlucky if Liverpool had failed to take all three points, seeing as Vergini should have seen red not once but twice, however that didn’t stop Sunderland from giving it a very good go. In the end, we were lucky to hold on to the win, but it doesn’t really matter how we get the points on the board as long as we’re getting them. As we still aren’t the favourites for the title the pressure is much more on City than us, and this win will do nothing to alleviate said pressure. We just need to keep pumping out these results- eventually something’s got to give at City’s end.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Cardiff 3-6 Liverpool: Post-match Analysis

Yesterday, Liverpool extended their hugely impressive win streak to six games, further aiding their push for the Premier League title. They had to come from behind twice against a plucky Cardiff side, but after an excellent second half performance Liverpool came out comfortable 6-3 victors.

It says something about the side that Brendan Rodgers has created that the score-line of 6-3 doesn't come as much of a shock to us anymore. Our defensive shortcomings have been well documented over the course of the season, but they have been largely compensated for by our phenomenally high goal output. The fact that we let in 3 against 19th place Cardiff is, of course, an indicator that we will have to strengthen defensively come the summer, but in the short-term push for 1st place it’s actually essentially inconsequential. Why bother worrying about letting in three when we can guarantee the win by scoring double that?

That said, some of the defending we exhibited was truly woeful. Cardiff’s second goal in particular was painfully easy for them. Agger kept backing off Fraizer Campbell, who then simply stepped inside him and, unchallenged, fired the ball past Mignolet, who could only stand and watch. This theme was one that ran throughout the first half; in truth, Cardiff were the better side. It was Liverpool at close to their worst, and Cardiff punching above their weight. All in all, Liverpool were quite lucky to go into the half time break at 2-2. In fairness the lead-up to our first goal was vintage Liverpool, but other than that we were, at best, uninspiring.

We came out rejuvenated in the second half. Our new-found ability to do this is very valuable- in the first half of the season, where we continually failed to perform to our best in the second half of games, this is a match where we might have failed to take all three points. The contrast between our first and second half performances was amazing- we went from playing at close to our worst to close to our best. Admittedly the goal that put us in front for the first time was scored in slightly lucky circumstances, as Cardiff had only 9 men on the pitch to defend the corner that Skrtel scored his second goal from, but after this we never looked back. Sturridge finally seemed to click into gear, and consequently the SAS partnership returned to its usual, lethal self. As such, the fourth goal was hardly surprising- Sturridge produced a great piece of improvisation with a sumptuous back-heel across the box, which Suarez then latched on to and hit home.
At this point we were pretty much home and dry, but the Liverpool which Rodgers has put together never just sit back. They just love scoring goals, and that’s exactly what they continued to do. Our fifth came on 75 minutes, Suarez turning provider for Sturridge who was left with the simplest of finishes. In the 88th minute however, Cardiff, rather against the run of play, pulled one back. That looked to be it, but something didn’t seem right. Surely Liverpool couldn’t fail to win by a margin of three or more goals? That just wouldn’t be right! Suarez didn’t fail us- he got clean through on goal after a long ball up the pitch from Skrtel, and, much to the consternation of Raheem Sterling, fired it home himself after a series of fake shots rather than squaring it to Sterling for an easy goal.

This passion and determination of Suarez, and the temporary annoyance of Sterling at not being able to score himself, characterises the attitude of the entire Liverpool team. They are just extremely driven and yearning to succeed, and it is this quality that means that, despite the odds being seemingly stacked against us in the not-so-distant past, we now surely have to be classed as one of the front runners in this thrilling race for the top spot.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 17 March 2014

Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool: United Pay the Penalty

Before the game even started, this was one of the best derbies for Liverpool in a very long time. Unlike so many Old Trafford clashes of old, Liverpool went into this game not only ahead of their rivals, but also as genuine title contenders. To add to the pre-game joy, Chelsea had lost their game the day before, meaning the title race had blown open even wider. The chance was there for Liverpool to close the gap down to just four points (with a game in hand over leaders Chelsea, and City and Chelsea still to come to Anfield), and they took it in style.

Right from the start, Liverpool looked by far the superior team. Rodgers had dropped Coutinho from the starting 11 in place of Sterling, who played alongside Henderson and, crucially, Allen. The effects were easy to see. We had a phenomenal level of midfield control, passing the ball around excellently. It wasn’t just in possession when we were excellent either- we pressed United into mistakes when they were on the ball, never letting them breathe. Suarez and Sturridge combined well (as usual), with Sturridge getting a few decent chances early on. He wasn’t able to take them though- it took a penalty to eventually get the goal we so clearly deserved. It was won by Suarez: he controlled the ball excellently, then took a great touch past Rafael, who’s wild, flailing arm clearly collided with the ball. Having been booked just minutes before he should clearly have been off for this, but in the grand scheme of things Liverpool didn’t have too much to complain about. Gerrard took the penalty excellently, putting it right into the corner.

United reacted very poorly to going behind, failing to muster any sort of threatening response. They lacked creativity going forward, and were generally just sloppy. This was a theme that continued throughout the game- to be frank, they looked very much worthy of the mid-table label that Liverpool fans are gleefully applying to them. They managed to get into the break with the lead still at just 1, but it didn’t last long into the second half. It was another penalty and, like the first one, United could have no argument. Phil Jones clumsily knocked Joe Allen to the ground, leaving referee Mark Clattenburg with an easy decision. Gerrard converted the subsequent penalty with typical coolness, going to the right again and slotting it into the very bottom corner.

In fairness to United, they rallied a little at this point. It was still far from inspiring, but they did at least attempt to launch a couple of attacks on the Liverpool goal. Van Persie had the biggest chance to reduce the deficit to one, but he headed tamely wide from six yards out. Things then went rapidly downhill for them- Sturridge outpaced Vidic, who then rashly lunged in, getting nowhere near the ball. There was little contact, but you simply can’t go in like that, especially not in the box when on a yellow card. He was sent off, and Gerrard had the chance to complete a hat-trick of penalties. He tried to go to his left this time- it sent De Gea the wrong way but it was also slightly inaccurate, and it struck the post.

 It was basically the only foot he put wrong all game; he was excellent. I was very much critical of him after his first couple of games in a deeper role and questioned whether he’d ever be able to adapt, but he has certainly proved me wrong over the second half of the season. He has been immense- his tackling and positioning have improved no end, and he doesn’t always resort to long passes. Though we still need to get a proper defensive midfielder in the summer, it has to be said that the need is a lot less urgent than it seemed to be before Gerrard adapted to the role.
Gerrard should have had the chance to redeem himself for his missed spot kick just minutes later. Apparently conceding three penalties isn’t enough to get United players to catch on to the idea of not fouling players in box; Sturridge had his legs blatantly taken out by Michael Carrick. Clattenburg strangely decided not to give it- maybe he just felt bad for United at this point! Liverpool, on the other hand, were showing no mercy. Suarez flicked the ball excellently over Phil Jones on 82 minutes and then volleyed the ball powerfully at goal, forcing an exquisite save from David De Gea. The respite was only very temporary though- Suarez got clean through on De Gea again after excellently controlling a mis-hit shot from Sturridge and this time managed to beat the Spanish keeper, curling it perfectly over his outstretched leg and into the corner.

Basically all of the team played well, but I think that the midfield three of Allen, Henderson and Sterling deserve special praise. They dominated United all day, passing it amongst themselves and then effortlessly speeding up the play by making incisive runs and passes. All three of them were very willing to press, leading to Liverpool winning the ball back high up the pitch on multiple occasions. The only player who was not quite at his best was Daniel Sturridge- he missed a few good chances, and seemed to have reverted to his old, more selfish style. Hopefully it’s just a blip, and he’s back to his supreme best for the Cardiff game.

To sum up, this victory over our huge rivals was very sweet, made all the more so by the respective positions of us and them. With Chelsea slipping up against Villa and with our form showing no sign of slipping, a real feeling of belief that we can do this is building. Now we just need to keep pumping out victories, and hope that City slip up somewhere along the line!
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Southampton 0-3 Liverpool: Persecution of the Saints

Yesterday (Saturday 1st March), Liverpool travelled to St Mary’s to face Southampton, a team who they have had huge trouble beating in recent times. Fortunately, despite playing nowhere near their best, they were able to overcome their problems, eventually emerging 3-0 victors.

This game saw one notable change to the starting 11- Rodgers opted to play Joe Allen in place of Raheem Sterling. On the one hand this was harsh on the 19-year-old, who has been in excellent form. However, Liverpool have lacked control of the game away from home this season, so an extra man central was a good idea. It proved effective- Liverpool dominated the early exchanges, creating a couple of pretty good chances. Nothing came of this pressure until the 16th minute, when Luis Suarez got back in amongst the goals after capitalising on a defensive error from the usually solid Southampton back line.

The Saints responded well, with Adam Lallana proving instrumental in their attacks. Sometimes he plays wide, but yesterday he operated in the number 10 role and was extremely effective. He combined exceptionally well with Jay Rodriguez and Ricky Lambert on multiple occasions, and nearly equalised for Southampton after a lovely little move- his effort struck the post. They kept up a relatively strong amount of pressure on the Liverpool goal all the way through to half time, but couldn’t get anything to show for it.

The second half showed signs of continuing where the first left off- Liverpool had to absorb a fair bit of pressure from the home side. However, 57 minutes in, Rodgers made a substitution that culminated in the killing off of the match. He brought on Raheem Sterling for the uncharacteristically ineffectual Philippe Coutinho; a change many fans had been clamouring for at half time. Just over a minute after coming on, and with his very first touch of the ball, he put Liverpool two up, firing home from a nice pass from Suarez. From here on in Liverpool cruised. Southampton looked demoralised, and Liverpool could have scored three or four in the second half. In the dying moments they did manage to add a third- Suarez embarrassed Jose Fonte with a series of silky skills, and was eventually clattered by him, resulting in a stonewall penalty. Gerrard stepped up to take it, and, as per usual, finished it emphatically. This was arguably his best penalty of the season- it flew right into the top corner, leaving Boruc (who had dived the right way) completely helpless.

After the game, Rodgers said that this game was, in its own way, just as impressive as the 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal. I am inclined to agree with him. It’s an age-old saying that to win when not at your best is the mark of champions. Liverpool didn’t just win; they produced a score-line of 3-0! With only 10 games remaining and Liverpool sitting in 2nd, just 4 points off the top, people are finally being forced to take our title challenge seriously. We are the form side- since the halfway point in the season, no team has a better record than ours. Our main title contenders, Man City and Chelsea, are still to come to Anfield: this is the best shot we’ve had at the title in years. If Suarez and Sturridge can keep up their scintillating form (if they were a team in their own right, they would be 6th top scorers in the Premier League), there is no way you could justify counting us out of the race.

To conclude, these are exciting times for Liverpool, both fans and club alike. At the start of the season it is almost inconceivable that, with so few games to play in the season, there would be talk of winning the division championship. Even if we don’t manage to secure the title this year, we can be thrilled with the huge progress we’ve made and content ourselves with the all-but-confirmed consolation of a Champions League spot. That is not to say that we shouldn’t dare to believe- we have a great team with a great manager, and with a bit of luck we could yet go all the way. Do it for Stevie!
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013