Something at Liverpool clearly isn’t right. The various thrashings they have handed out this season, and the controlled manner in which they did it, show there’s definitely some quality there, but that they are still yet to beat anyone in the top half of the table hints at some pretty obvious issues plaguing them. Attempting to identify the problem, Rodgers has suggested some of the younger players in his squad don’t have the mental strength to compete as things stand, yet it is perhaps some of his older players he should be taking a longer look at.
Apart from when he was playing a different role under the defensive Gerard Houllier, Steven Gerrard has never been able to play in the centre of midfield. Although he has all the technical attributes required, he simply doesn’t have the positional or decision-making ability to be anything other than a liability. Nevertheless, in the last 15 years, the only managers to clock onto this were Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello – Benitez moved him to the right, then into a central attacking midfield position, while Capello shifted him to the left. In these roles, Gerrard was able to make the most of his attacking abilities while putting in the odd tackle, whereas deeper and central, he is required to do everything.
If you fancy betting your life, play the Steven Gerrard drinking game. Every time the opposition get the ball between the lines, check where Liverpool’s captain is. If he is at least five metres from where he should be positioned, have a shot. You will have alcohol poisoning by full-time.
His ability to pick out the right pass has improved, meaning he doesn’t just pump it forward every time he gets it, but his complete lack of any defensive awareness creates a massive hole in front of the defence so his partner has to do the legwork of two men – something which a lot of the time isn’t physically possible. Joe Allen started well but his form has dipped recently, which just happened to coincide with Gerrard being moved back into the double pivot. Likewise Lucas Leiva hasn’t looked as comfortable since his return from injury – almost as if racing around trying to cover up others’ mistakes isn’t the best thing for someone trying to recover their fitness. Liverpool’s main weakness is that soft area in front of the defence and has been all season, so why hasn’t Rodgers picked up on the big glaring reason why?
Gerrard isn’t the only problem of course. The other really evident problem is that the backline is sitting noticeably deeper than it should be. Presumably this is to widen the field of play, creating more space for passing, but it fails when Liverpool don’t have the ball. Despite looking hard, Martin Skrtel isn’t particularly good physically – he’s “cultured”, excelling when the ball is played along the ground both defensively and offensively. As does Daniel Agger. And Glen Johnson. And so on.
When the defence sits deeper, their need to impose themselves physically become much greater, so it isn’t really a surprise that Liverpool have had problems with stronger teams bullying them when all of them are better suited to a high line. Sitting deep also widens the space between the lines for opposition players to create havoc around the centre of Liverpool’s defence, made even bigger by Gerrard’s inability to position himself correctly, while making it much harder to press higher up the pitch without leaving gaps – coincidently something Rodgers has complained the team haven’t been doing well enough. This deeper backline was a problem under Kenny Dalglish too, and Rodgers appeared to change this when he first took charge, so the regression makes little sense.
More relevant than he should ever have been, Stewart Downing appears to have been brought back from the brink, but it isn’t exactly clear why. His return to Liverpool’s first team plans makes a nice little story about how he came back from a torrid time to beat the odds, although not one that fits in with reality. Downing is the same player he always was, somehow managing to be both anonymous and noticeably rubbish simultaneously. It seems peculiar that Downing – a player who has only ever been mediocre at best – gets another chance when Nuri Sahin is shipped out and Suso Fernandez was progressing nicely. It was this kind of undeserving selection that cost Dalglish his job.
So far this season Liverpool have benefited from the fact that a large chunk of the Premier League’s teams are absolutely terrible. Gerrard looks pretty good picking out 50 yard balls against the likes of Sunderland and Norwich, but, at best, these teams take a passive approach to defending and, at worst, are a disgrace to the term professional. When Liverpool come up against a team who are actually competent or put some effort into closing them down, they inevitably collapse – Manchester United managed to control the midfield in their recent match despite having one less player in that area, and Stoke showed how easy it was to bully Liverpool with a bit of pressure.
Brendan Rodgers has had an alright start to his Liverpool tenure and the lack of decent financial support from Liverpool’s owners should garner him some sympathy, but the team’s failings are mostly very basic mistakes stemming near entirely from choices he has made. If he just gave up some of the ideas that have consistently failed, Liverpool would be a much more balanced and solid team, yet he doesn’t even appear to realise where things are going wrong. While he has some good ideas, he doesn’t appear to know how to implement them properly, like the kid who memorises the textbooks at school but could never apply it to anything practical.
Although the general philosophy is reassuring for Liverpool fans, the failings in the finer details of his tactics are exactly what worried supporters when FSG made their interest in both him and Roberto Martinez clear. These errors are fine at smaller clubs, but at higher levels opposition teams will pick them apart. There’s only so many times Rodgers can point out Liverpool’s problems before people wonder why he hasn’t fixed them yet.
This post first appeared on Betting Expert.