Liverpool deserved to lose: Rafa got it wrong but players didn’t respond

Were they Harry Enfield in disguise? Photo by Dullhunk

Were they Harry Enfield in disguise? Photo by Dullhunk

It was always going to be hard for Liverpool to go to the Stadium of Light and beat a very solid Sunderland side without Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres – two players that would be in many people’s world XI. But injuries and international commitments are part of modern soccer and are simply not an excuse for a team with genuine title aspirations. Great teams respond in the face of adversity, and Liverpool did not respond at any level.

With four loses in nine Premier League games, Liverpool can no longer dismiss these early season setbacks as the natural ebb and flow of a 38 game season. The problems evident at Sunderland–bad transfer policy; poor tactical decisions; and a weak supporting cast–raise serious questions about this Liverpool team and its ability to mount a credible league campaign, let alone a title challenge. What a difference a couple of weeks and two consecutive losses make. There is still time to turn this around, but it will take a determination by all members of the Liverpool team, from the manager to the ball boys, that has not yet been on display.

Rafa fought long and hard to get total control of this team, and after five plus seasons in charge and a full year in charge of transfer policy, this is his team. Benitez knew very early in the summer that Xabi Alonso wanted to leave and that his preferred replacement, Gareth Barry, wanted to come to Liverpool. But Benitez tried in vain to hold on to Alonso in the face of persistent advances from big spending Real Madrid and allowed Barry to be snatched up by big spending Man City. Liverpool don’t have the transfer or wage budget of either of those teams, but that is more reason why Benitez has to be extremely sharp in his decisions. He wasn’t. Alonso was eventually sold in August and Roma’s Alberto Aquilani was brought in as his replacement. I think Aquilani could be a fantastic player for Liverpool, and if he adds a more attacking approach to the center of midfield. But he has already missed one quarter of the season to an injury Benitez knew he had when he bought him. This is the year Liverpool needed a replacement for Alonso and they still don’t have one.

The lack of a strong presence in the center of the pitch was just one obvious hole that went unfilled this summer. Torres is probably the best striker in the world right now, but the drop off to Liverpool’s next choice is staggering. It is hard to find a suitable backup for Torres because he’s always going to be first choice if he’s fit and Benitez only plays with one central striker, so games are going to be rare. Benitez had two ways to find a player to fill that role: either pick a striker that can score goals when called upon but doesn’t mind being second choice, or find a player that can adapt to a different position to get more games. As it turns out, Real Madrid had both of those players for sale this summer – Ruud Van Nistlerooy could have been bought for a song, and Klaas Jan Huntelaar could play any one of the four attacking positions in the 4-2-3-1. Benitez opted for neither of these options nor anyone else. 

So an undermanned team goes into a crucial game on the road without its two best players and the manager decides it is a good time to play a completely new formation. I’ve never seen Liverpool play a 3-4-3 before. I called yesterday for the insertion of Daniel Agger in at left back to assist the central duo of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel against the height and power of the Sunderland front line. But its baffling why Benitez would bring him in but suddenly switch to three center halves. With only three across the back, they are more spread out and create more space for strikers Kenwyne Jones and Darrent Bent to exploit. With Agger in at left back, he could pinch in to contest long balls when needed and give extra cover to Carragher and Skrtel.

Injuries and international travel may have depleted his choices, but a team with Lucas and Jay Spearing in central midfield isn’t going to win many games. Lucas gets a lot of stick and I know some still support him, but I have never understood what exactly it is that he does that keeps him in the squad. He doesn’t pass very well, he doesn’t defend very well, he doesn’t score goals, his positional play is puzzling, he is neither high energy nor a calming presence, but he always plays. Spearing was making his Premier League debut and he was at his best when he was anonymous. He failed to stop the ball in the center circle when Sunderland broke for the game’s only goal and he passed it into touch more often than to a teammate. I don’t care if Javier Mascherano was totally gassed after helping haul Argentina into the World Cup, Liverpool needed him on the field for more than 20 minutes.

And the three forward players, Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt, and Yossi Benayoun, were remarkably tame. I can’t recall a real goal threat that originated with either of them. I wanted to see what Babel could do if he got the chance to fill Torres’ shoes, but he was sidelined out on the left and wasn’t much of a factor. Benayoun did more complaining than creating and Kuyt wasn’t even much his normal harassing self. They just didn’t look like scoring.

With all of this going against them though, it was the players on the field that lost this game. Yes, they were at a disadvantage. Yes, they conceded an early goal in very odd circumstances. But Sunderland lost three players to injury and kept wasting gilt edged scoring chances that would have put the game away. How many times have we seen Manchester United or Chelsea get outplayed for 60 or 70 minutes and turn the game around and steal it at the death? Liverpool’s backs were against the wall but what I saw was more resignation rather than resolve. No one could argue that Sunderland were the team that played with more intensity – where was the urgency from Liverpool with their season hanging in the balance? 

The wrong things keep happening at the wrong time to this team – when was the last time a team conceded a goal that deflected past the keeper off a balloon thrown by one of its own supporters? – but it’s about time Liverpool made their own luck. Which team is Liverpool – the side that was scoring goals for fun during a run of four big wins; or the impotent team on display the last couple of weeks? They better figure it out in a hurry because Manchester United comes to Anfield next weekend and Sir Alex Ferguson would like nothing less than to heap further misery onto Merseyside.

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2 Responses

  1. […] seems hard enough to overcome, given the intervention of a beach ball on Liverpool’s title hopes. It’s even more difficult when the system actually is rigged […]

  2. […] highlighted the thin nature of pool’s squad – yes the balloon goal was huge, but pool did not look good at all. While Liverpool have been prone to slow starts in the past, the fragility of Torres and Gerrard […]

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