A rather dull game by all accounts.
Not that anyone should have expected much; Birmingham were without their exciting new signings Aleksandr Hleb and Jean Beausejour and their success is based on organisation, while Liverpool are adapting to a new manager with a big focus on shape.
Birmingham did little of interest tactically, aside from playing Lee Bowyer on the left of midfield. They stuck to their 4-4-1-1 formation and pressed Liverpool intently, sometimes being a touch overzealous.
Bowyer was presumably deployed on the left to shackle Glen Johnson and was praised by Sky’s commentators for doing so, although he didn’t really do a large amount to stop Johnson. The Liverpool right-back was happy to attack for the first period of the game, until the issue of James McFadden drifting into the area he vacated stopped him from moving forward – not that this helped much as, despite some development under Rafa Benitez, Johnson’s (defensive) form is still abysmal.
On the left, Paul Konchesky was, exactly as expected, solid yet unspectacular. There was nothing wrong with Konchesky’s debut, until he picked up a knock, but compared to Emiliano Insua, who had, at times, been an auxiliary winger with his crossing and dribbling, he wasn’t a threat.
With Milan Jovanovic and Maxi Rodriguez not providing width either, Liverpool struggled to create any direct attacks and, with them sitting so deep, their build-up play took too long.
The brilliance of pressing is that it allows you to regain possession closer to the opposition goal, making it easier to create chances. By sitting back, Liverpool were only winning the ball back deep in their own half and have neither the players to provide a direct outlet or the players to provide them with a direct pass, making them patiently pass the ball around and allowing Birmingham to get back into their shape.
Jamie Redknapp slammed Fernando Torres for being “diabolical”, and to an extent he is right: Torres was poor. As was Steven Gerrard. However, it’s hard to blame them considering they had no support or supply. Gerrard has been playing more as a second striker than an attacking midfielder – this could have been a response to Michael Essien’s complete nullification of him in Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions League defeat to Chelsea in 2009, much like how Mesut Ozil and Wesley Sneijder have pushed up, making them harder to track for midfielders without dropping too deep – but he appears ill-suited to the position. This isn’t to say that he should be played in the centre of midfield as some have been clamouring for – he has neither the positional sense or decision-making abilities for the role – but he did perform much better here when he was moved back, although much of this was just providing some width by popping up on the right. Raul Meireles replaced him between the midfield and attack and played deeper than Gerrard had, which allowed him to be much more involved than the captain had been.
Whether the deeper line is down to Hodgson’s preference or Jamie Carragher’s lack of pace (it’s more likely to be the former), it ignores Pepe Reina’s sweeping abilities. What’s more Skrtel has looked notably more nervous in the opening few games, perhaps wary of the lack of space behind him to rectify any mistakes he makes. The chalkboard below shows how Birmingham targeted Skrtel, hitting the left side of the defence more.
Cameron Jerome was picked over Nikola Zigic for the lone striker role. This was mainly a good choice: Jerome is more mobile than the Serbian, making him better for the Birmingham’s pressing, and is still big enough at 6ft 1 to offer physical presence. It did seem odd to introduce Zigic so late, not just because it means paying a completely unnecessary appearance fee, but because he could have offered a fearsome aerial threat against Liverpool’s deep defence and provided an easy out-ball when Liverpool began to press Birmingham more.
Birmingham are notoriously difficult to beat at home, undefeated since Arsenal’s October 2009 win, so a 0-0 draw shouldn’t be of too much concern for Liverpool. What should be of concern is that Birmingham looked the more dangerous team and, but for some incredible saves from Reina, should have won. Liverpool are the bigger team and to get anywhere they will need to be more proactive; teams are going to be a lot happier to defend against Liverpool than they were against Fulham so Hodgson will need to change his approach, especially if Liverpool continue to get outplayed by smaller teams.