Sunday, 28 September 2014

Liverpool vs Everton: Jagielka Wonder-Strike Snatches a Point for ‘That Blue Team’

Having both made poor starts to the season, Liverpool and Everton met in the first Merseyside derby of the season with even more desire to win than normal. Liverpool played well, but in the end a late goal from Jagielka ensured that neither side got their wish; the match ended as a draw.

As soon as the match kicked off it became apparent that Liverpool were more up for this fixture than they had been for any other so far this season. The pressing was good, the intensity of the play was excellent, and overall we looked very dangerous. The attacking play was clearly too strong for Barry; he mis-timed a tackle in the very first minute of the game and was subsequently booked. Everton showed some attacking intent of their own- Lukaku’s bursting run into the box was halted by Moreno pulling him back, and the Blues had a big shout for a penalty. However, the referee opted not to give it, and replays showed that the foul started just outside the box anyway.

Minutes later, Martin Atkinson had another big call to make. Barry, who had already been booked, blatantly raised his arms into an unnatural position in order to block Raheem Sterling’s vicious drive. Had this been deemed a foul- as, clearly, it should have been- then Barry would surely have been off the pitch for a second yellow. Moments after that, Barry was in trouble again. He slid in to rob Balotelli of possession, but caught a fair portion of the man before getting anywhere near the ball. This time Atkinson did give a free kick, but again failed to produce the second yellow card. Had he done so, the game may well have gone very differently.

As it was, Liverpool were forced to try and win the match against Everton’s full compliment of players. The signs were much more encouraging than in previous games; with the exception of Markovic, who is still adapting to the English game, everyone looked dangerous going forward. Lallana was particularly impressive- he played some nice passes and showed good close control at times. Despite this, the teams went in for half time at 0-0. Nobody had predicted this before the game, but two of the worst defences in the league so far had performed admirably. In the end, it took a piece of magic from under-fire skipper Steven Gerrard to break the deadlock. Balotelli won a free kick in a promising position, and, though the Italian looked interested in taking it, Gerrard stepped up. He hit it gloriously, curling round the wall and in, just close enough to the corner that Howard’s touch on the ball was not telling enough to keep it out.

It looked for a while like the impossible was going to happen- Liverpool were going to keep a clean sheet. Admittedly Everton had offered barely anything going forward, but when they had launched an attack the defence had remained solid. It wasn’t until stoppage time at the end of the game that they finally conceded. Mignolet should have come to claim a cross but didn’t, then Lovren’s clearing header fell to Jagielka, around 25 yards from goal. It wasn’t awful defending, but we probably should have done better with it. What happened next, however, everyone was powerless to prevent. Jagielka, hardly renowned for the goals he scores from centre-back, rocketed the ball with unerring precision into the top corner of the net, just grazing the underside of the bar on the way in.

Obviously it was frustrating not to take all three points from a game where we were on top throughout, but things like a wonder goal from a defender simply cannot be accounted for. Of course it would be great to be getting more points on the board, but at least now we’re looking recognisable as the team who did so well last year. Hopefully this performance can be a springboard for us; our next three games are all winnable, so hopefully the confidence from the way we played yesterday combined with the return of Daniel Sturridge will be enough to enable us to take maximum points.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 21 September 2014

West Ham United 3-1 Liverpool: Hammered

Yesterday, Liverpool travelled to the Boleyn Ground to face West Ham United. It was never going to be an easy trip; whilst many fans were wantonly predicting a comfortable victory prior to kick-off, it seemed quite clear to me that it would be a tough game for us. Even discounting the fact that we’ve been playing some pretty lousy football of late, West Ham have put together a very strong side over the summer. It proved to be every bit as tough as I thought- Liverpool failed to raise their game at all from the standard shown against Ludogorets and Aston Villa, and consequently got comfortably outplayed.

Things started to go horribly wrong within minutes. It took just 75 seconds for Winston Reid to open the scoring for West Ham, tapping the ball in after receiving a knock-down from James Tomkins. Five minutes later they were on the scoresheet again, this time courtesy of a clever lobbed effort from Diafra Sakho. The two goals were undoubtedly deserved- the Hammers were all over us in the early stages, and our defence, as it has done so many times already this season, looked shockingly inadequate.

After 20 minutes of total domination from the hosts, Rodgers realised he needed to switch things up. Manquillo was withdrawn and Sakho came on in his place, and the team re-shuffled into a 3-5-2 formation. This had a positive effect. Although we still looked a terribly long way from our dazzling best of last season, our performance was markedly improved by the change in shape. We managed to push out a little and start making some attacks of our own, and the first genuine opportunity that we carved out was taken excellently by Raheem Sterling. Henderson put a cross in to Balotelli, who brought it under control beautifully. His shot was blocked and came out to Sterling, who rifled it emphatically home from the edge of the box. The technique was exemplary; to strike it with that much power whilst retaining the pinpoint accuracy is quite a feat.

The Reds (or, in this game, yellows) didn’t succeed in using this goal as a springboard. The rest of the first half passed without any real event, and neither side looked likely to get a goal. We came out strongly in the second half, inspired by the introduction of Lallana, but the period of intense pressure didn’t last long. West Ham were soon creating chances of their own again, although the central defenders, in particular Lovren, looked marginally more comfortable and capable of dealing with threats in a three than they do in a straight back four. A couple of good chances fell Liverpool’s way; Borini had an opportunity to square it to Moreno- admittedly the pass would have been tough, as the angle was tight-  but opted to shoot, and saw his effort comfortably saved. The other notable incident was when Adrian raised his foot to bring down the oncoming Borini; at first glance it looked innocuous, but the replay suggested that it could well have been a penalty.

That said, the referee can be no real excuse for us. He was consistently poor- he gave a lot of decisions against West Ham as well. The real problems were our defensive incompetence and lack of flair and creativity going forward. Defensive frailties were exposed again late on; Sakho headed the ball into no-man’s land, allowing Downing to take possession. He played a lovely pass to Amalfitano, who slotted it coolly past Mignolet. The game ended 3-1, and Liverpool can have no real complaints.

So what’s the matter with us at the moment? Why are we so badly underperforming? The main reason is clearly the absence of Daniel Sturridge. His pace, finishing and link-up play with Raheem Sterling is being sorely missed. Without the excellent attack that we have become renowned for, our defensive weaknesses cannot be excused. It does not bode well for the season that our results are extremely reliant on our most injury-prone player- we need to address the real problem, and sort out the defence as soon as possible. Maybe the way to do this is hiring a new defensive coach; all I know is that the defending we’ve witnessed this season would be laughable at League 2 level, so to see it at the Premier League runners-up of last season is alarming indeed.

In the short-term, things are looking brighter. Although our defence is still awful, Sturridge is set to return from injury in time for the Merseyside derby. His return could be enough to inspire us to what might well be a turning point victory.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Liverpool vs Villa: Rodgers Rests Raheem and Pays Painful Price

Yesterday, Liverpool took on Aston Villa at Anfield. There was a definite sense of nervousness in the days leading up to the game; our key man Daniel Sturridge was out, and Villa are a team we’ve struggled against in recent times. Rodgers, however, was apparently not concerned. The day before the game, rumours started circulating that Sterling, who has been without a doubt our best, most influential player so far this season, was going to be rested. I dismissed it as rubbish, but, sure enough, when the team sheets were released an hour before kick-off, Sterling was notable only by his absence in the starting eleven. We went on to perform extremely poorly, and ended up losing 1-0.

Of course, blaming the defeat entirely on Sterling’s absence is unreasonable, but it did play a very large part. Right from the outset, we missed his pace and urgency. A lot of our players seemed to be strolling around the pitch, barely exerting any effort at all. When we did get the ball in a decent area, there always seemed to be a whole crowd of Villa players barring further progress. Even a 9th minute goal for the visitors (surprise surprise, it came from a badly defended set piece) didn’t seem to jolt the Liverpool players into action. Rodgers eventually seemed to realise that we needed Sterling’s creative impetus and spark on the pitch, and brought him on midway through the second half. The difference was immediately apparent; he made space not only for himself, but for others. Sadly, it was too little too late, and the closest we came to an equaliser was a curling Coutinho effort which struck the post.

Another reason we put in such a lacklustre performance is the formation we used. The 4-2-3-1 simply doesn’t suit us, and it showed. Neither Henderson nor Gerrard (particularly the latter) work particularly well in a defensive ‘2’, and whenever we use the formation our lone striker looks woefully isolated. Some would point to the injury of Sturridge and say that playing one up front was forced on us, but again I have to come back to Sterling. Although arguably better in the hole, he has proved already this season that he can do a good job up top. Playing our usual 4-4-2 diamond with Balotelli and Sterling as the attacking partnership would surely have improved our performance immeasurably. Even when Sterling did come on (for Lallana) the formation wasn’t changed- Coutinho played where Lallana had been before, and Sterling operated down the middle. The change may well have been more likely to lead to an equaliser if Sterling had been moved up top with Balotelli.

With twenty minutes to play, yet another bizarre decision was made from the usually extremely tactically astute Rodgers. Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert came on in place of Mario Balotelli and Lazar Markovic- admittedly neither Markovic nor Balotelli had been particularly effective, but the change, if anything, made us look worse. Lambert was clumsy and often wasteful whenever he got on the ball, and Borini barely had a touch! I genuinely forgot that he’d come on; he made no notable contribution whatsoever in the time that he was on the pitch. To be fair, seeing as both Joe Allen and Daniel Sturridge were injured, our options off the bench were limited. That said, it seems clear, at least in hindsight, that no change would have been better than introducing Borini and Lambert.

To sum up, what we witnessed yesterday was a rare tactical misnomer from Rodgers. He doesn’t make them often, and it certainly doesn’t change the fact that he is an excellent manager who is extremely well suited to LFC, but there’s no denying that he messed up. Obviously some of the blame has to fall on the players- up until Sterling came on, none of our attackers were working anywhere near hard enough- but I maintain that if we’d started Sterling up front with Balotelli then we would have won the game.  Hopefully we’re able to move on from this defeat and bounce back with a win in our return to the Champions League (yay!!) against Ludogorets on Tuesday.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013