Desperately Seeking Momentum

Posted by Paul Tomkins on February 9, 2006, 01:55:39 PM

Two weeks ago I called the dip in form a mini-slump; now the slump is starting to look genuine. It would be wrong to judge the team on its current form, just as it was wrong to think the Reds were going to win the league during the good spell. Momentum is so important in football, and Liverpool have lost theirs.

The worry now is that suddenly the league table has a totally different complexion. From looking safe and secure in third, with Arsenal and Spurs well behind and games in hand in order to take second place, we've been dragged back into the race for the Champions League places.

I felt the big games in February would lift us, but also that the games where adrenaline would be less easily called upon – such as Birmingham at home and Charlton away – were the bigger worries (as is Wigan away). These are the occasions that tend to be more 'flat', and where results invariably suffer.

A big game did lift us, albeit too momentarily. The performance against Chelsea was excellent for 30 minutes. Until the killer blow of the first goal, stupidly conceded against the run of play, the Reds looked the better team.

But as soon as that goal went in, the life was sucked out of the team. They battled on, but lacked that necessary extra bit of vim, and the current inability to score when dominating games puts pressure on the whole team. When it's going well, as it was in the first 40 minutes at Charlton, tiredness is not noticeable, but when up against it there's less raw energy to call upon, as confidence drops away.

The players are tired. Not exhausted, but enough key men are clearly heavy-legged. A little flat, a little jaded. The FA Cup isn't helping. Last season a half-strength Liverpool crashed out to Burnley and that was it, all over and neatly out of the way. This season, two tough and testing away games have come at a difficult time, and a massive game awaits in the next round; last season Rafa was ravaged for not taking the competition seriously enough, but this season we can see why taking it seriously can damage a league campaign.

It's a trophy that the club want to win, and presents the best (although not only) chance of silverware this season. But at what price? Mistakes are creeping into the play, and mistakes can be the result of tiredness. Goals are being conceded at the end of halves, which suggests problems with concentration; a further hint at tiredness.

The collision of so many games in such a short space of time, dating back to the start of December, allied to the early start to this season and the late finish to last season, has taken its toll. It had to at some point. Too many of the pitches have been far from admirable (unusual in the modern age), and while perhaps not a mitigating factor, it's hardly been a help. The pitches at Chelsea and Portsmouth were diabolical.

Between the penultimate day of November and the second day of January, the Reds played a staggering ten games. Four of those were Premiership away games, while two were on the other side of the world. This follows a fairly heavy schedule all season, and leads straight into another intensely busy period: eight games between the 1st and the 26th of February.

Perhaps Manchester United were right to drop out of the FA Cup in 2000, when also expected to compete in the inaugural World Club Championships. Now we face them straight before the Champions League tie with Benfica.

Of course, everyone at Old Trafford would prefer to be in the Champions League; but being in both the FA Cup and the Champions League is a massive undertaking, if both are taken seriously.

While everyone will have their own thoughts about the players Rafa should be picking, it's clearly not going to be easy choosing who plays in what game; keeping an unchanged team presents its own drawbacks, too – certainly over a whole season.

Many of the current first team have played more games already this season than they did last. Xabi Alonso had an enforced mid-season rest last time around, and played a total of 32 games, 27 of which were starts. This season he's already played 36, starting 32. Alonso's general fitness has looked better this season, and he's been repeating matches in a short space of time, but his game has suffered in recent weeks. Of course, he's also more closely marked these days.

Peter Crouch only played half a season at Southampton last time out. Momo Sissoko, while fit, wasn't used to regular football at Valencia. Meanwhile at the other extreme, Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher have been playing football incessantly since the start of last season; Daniel Agger, as a young up-and-coming Danish centre back arriving after an injury, clearly needs easing in, and it will be next season before he's settled and reliable cover for the main men.

Of course, it's converting chances that's been the main concern since the turn of the year. Since hitting five at Luton the goals have dried to a trickle. There are plenty of goalscorers in the squad, but it's just not happening in front of goal, and the obvious conclusion is that someone super-reliable is needed, provided they don't upset the balance of the team.

The forward line can be so one-paced at times, it's hard to know when fatigue is setting in. Although each is great on the ball, Crouch, Morientes and Fowler offer no threat in behind defences, and that's a worry. Without a threat running in behind, teams can afford to defend higher up, and keep our strikers further from goal.

I'm a fan of Peter Crouch, but he's not playing very well at the moment. Unlike Cissé and Morientes, Crouch is still new to the club, and is only halfway through his first season; every player deserves to be judged only in his second season (I've always said as much, even before Steve Finnan proved the point).

Crouch has proved how good he can be in many different ways, including a run of goals in December, but needs to find a little more consistency. That said, only Steven Gerrard has been directly involved in more Liverpool goals than Crouch this season.

Crouch is clearly a great player for another striker to play off, but Morientes plays behind him; only Cissé would run beyond. Gerrard is doing this from deep, but in a four-man midfield; therefore it would be helpful if one of the two strikers could pose a similar threat. If Crouch was up front alone, you could look to Gerrrad, Kewell and Luis Garcia (who, when on top form is a key man) making those penetrating runs from midfield. Sinama-Pongolle wasn't quite ready to be a regular starter, and his loan to Blackburn, to gain experience, makes sense to a degree; but it's more striking pace removed from the equation.

Before the turn of the year, Crouch was in the ascendancy even when he wasn't scoring; the team was behind him, the crowd was willing him to score, and a tide of good will was carrying him forward. He finally scored, having been looking dangerous and playing well for a couple of months, and the floodgates opened, as they so often do when a duck is broken. But now, after 40-odd games, his all-round game looks less sharp, and he looks low on confidence.

In fact, a lot of individuals are out of form, or playing having been out of favour. Djimi Traore (in place of the struggling Stephen Warnock) and Jerzy Dudek returned to the team after being largely overlooked for many months. They might be fresh and hungry to prove themselves, but they are also rusty and low on recent success.

Apart from Steven Gerrard, it's hard to pick too many players in form since the start of January. Harry Kewell has had his best spell in a red shirt, but he's one player who is both rated and trusted by Benítez (i.e. he plays most games), and who is only a couple of months into his season. He's found a rhythm to his game, and is fresh.

The new boys who arrived in January have the problem all winter signing seem to – they are simply not match fit, from not having been playing games (if they had been playing every week, especially Kromkamp and Fowler, they wouldn't have been surplus to requirements at their former clubs).

Rotation

Djibril Cissé played on the right wing at Charlton, and has been in and out of the side, and in different positions; his inconsistency has matched his inconsistent selection. From the outside, Rafa seems to have little faith in Cissé, and Cissé seems to have even less faith in himself at the moment. He's clearly someone who needs a run of games up front to feel secure and relaxed. That's the only way I see him doing well. But has he earned the right for such a run in the side?

I've feared for several months now that he stands no chance of succeeding under Benítez because of the way the manager does things; Rafa's methods have worked in the past, but they simply do not suit a player as temperamental and emotional as Cissé. (Leading to the conclusion a new striker will arrive in the summer). It's Rafa's right to use Cissé how he wants, I just don't see it ever leading to sufficient rewards from the player.

The way the Frenchman battled back from his leg-break will always afford him deserved admiration and affection, but he doesn't have ice in his blood like, for example, Michael Owen. Despite this, I'd be tempted to give Cissé a consistent run in the side, up front, and accept his shortcomings in return for the pace and power he offers. 

Of course, whichever way a manager decides to do things, he has to stick to his principles. Without exception, everything in football has pros and cons; all players and systems have good days and bad. It's about finding the ways that have more benefits than drawbacks. The drawbacks will be magnified during a bad spell, and while all faults should at least be sought to be eradicated, it's how something works over the full course of a season that counts. You have to ride out the rough patches.

If you operate a rotation system you create competition, and keep legs fresher; but you also might disturb harmony, and 'rest' a player whose confidence is sky-high (I'm sure Cissé has suffered from being dropped after some of his better games).

Rotation isn't perfect; keeping the same players every week, in the modern game when fighting on three fronts, isn't perfect either.

What is better? Some weeks one option looks the best; then the next week, the alternative. But you cannot keep chopping and changing your beliefs; you only change them after a long period of failure. Rotation normally reaps its greatest rewards in the final months of the season.

Maybe the current problem is that key players like Carragher, Hyypia and Gerrard have been rested less than might have been ideal; but maybe the results in the autumn wouldn't have been as good had those players been rested back then. Who knows?

Meanwhile, the team's confidence has drained. It's bizarre, but sometimes when you have too good a spell, when nothing goes wrong, it hits doubly hard when the impregnability suddenly vanishes. Every goal against, every point dropped, suddenly feels like a hammer blow.

Despite the current malaise, Liverpool have been a consistent side this season. After an average start, it was mostly great until the turn of the year, and now it's the time for a run of poor form. In a way it's less frustrating (and more consistent) than losing one week, winning the next. But hitting this poor patch after looking so good makes it hugely irritating.

We need to find something to kick-start things again before the whole season unravels, as could realistically happen (unlikely, but not unthinkable). Downward spirals in football usually require something remarkable to arrest the decline.

In this case, it was arguably something uncharacteristically bad that set the rot: Alonso's chested own-goal in the last minute against Birmingham was such a cheap way to lose two valuable points against a poor ten-man side. Had Fowler's overhead kick in injury time stood, then the momentum would have miraculously reappeared – especially as it was Fowler on his comeback; it was spectacular; and it was last-gasp. It didn't stand, and Alonso's own goal became a kind of turning point, compounding Gormless Ferdinand's undeserved last-minute winner at Old Trafford.

So something special is needed, in the way Steven Gerrard's spectacular late goal against Olympiakos brought both belief and momentum to last season (in Europe, at least). It could be that we are absolutely appalling at home to Manchester United in the FA Cup but, with the score at 0-0 in the last minute, Jamie Carragher pops up with a 30-yard volley into the top corner.

I think that would do the trick, don't you?
 
© Paul Tomkins 2006

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