A Right Kick Up The Arse

Posted by Paul Tomkins on November 13, 2006, 08:58:18 AM

I've finally stopped kicking the cat, and only now it occurs to me that I don't actually have one. So now I'm depressed, and my distraught neighbour will have the RSPCA on my case. Great...

I think that just about does it for the title this season. Others may have called it quits long before now, but this defeat makes the situation almost impossible to claw back, especially with the top two in such fine fettle. There's still time for them to hit a poor patch, and along with Arsenal they still have to come to Anfield. But it's an increasingly difficult task for the Reds.

It was a game I never felt we would win, even on the back of five straight victories, but my hopes were raised by the good start, and the home crowd's frustration. That only made the eventual 3-0 scoreline all the harder to take. By the end Arsenal undeniably deserved the points, but as with the 4-1 home defeat to Chelsea last season, the scoreline was not a true reflection. While I wasn't confident of victory, I knew that if the Reds could grab one, even if undeservedly so, it would be such a massive boost for the rest of the season. It felt make-or-break.

The season feels over, and yet there's still so much to play for. It just doesn't seem like that right now. I'd gladly settle for the "consolation" of another European Cup; it may be a longer shot than a Xabi Alonso goal, but it's looking far more realistic than the league at present, with the Reds already qualified for the knock-out phase. And as with two seasons ago, our best away results have been in Europe. So who knows? It's something to cling to, at least.

I think in another season we could quite feasibly have won the league with defeats away at Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton. But normally those games would be spread out over the full ten months, not crammed into the first three; you might lose those games but win the eight in between, an no one really notices them too much. What playing all the games so soon has done is leave absolutely no margin for error in the remaining 26 games, and that's not a workable situation.

The timing of these tricky fixtures has just not allowed any early momentum to be built up. That may be an excuse, but it's also a fact of an unkind fixture list. I felt this could very well be the Reds' year, but it needed things to go well from the start and for belief to build as a result. New players, a dip in the form of key men, and difficult away games have combined to end those ideas.

Of course, the away performances have been hugely erratic, although as with the visit to Chelsea earlier this season, the Reds' performance was better than the result suggested. At least, that is, until the second goal went in, when the heads finally dropped and the display grew ragged and, at times towards the end, embarrassing. Whereas the confidence went at 1-0 at Old Trafford, it lasted until 2-0 this time.

The league season could yet prove impressive, if unlikely to provide no.19, but it needs an away victory as quickly as possible to break the hoodoo. Arsenal were the same in the league last season: terrible away. It didn't mean they weren't still close to becoming a class act; clearly they were.

Although both teams benefited from some poor decisions yesterday, it was the Reds who were hit the hardest. To me, Flamini looked marginally ahead of Carragher, in an almost identical goal to the one Peter Crouch (who was admittedly a full yard offside) had earlier seen ruled out. Bellamy's strike with ten minutes to go would probably have been a mere consolation, but my point is that it was the only onside goal of the three; and as Flamini's was the opening goal it was the most crucial.

Carragher should have seen a second yellow card at 2-0, so that was some recompense, but in these away games getting the first goal is paramount, especially with the Reds' confidence low away from Anfield. The first goal shapes the game. "Liverpool played well but the first goal was very important," said Wenger.

Also, in chalking off Bellamy's late goal the linesman denied the player a much-needed confidence boost after coming back from injury with a nightmare in front of goal at Birmingham, and stopped the Reds scoring an away goal in the league after what now seems like several thousand hours. The damage there will be more psychological than in terms of yesterday's result.

It's hard to pinpoint where it's going wrong, as there are so many little things that aren't quite working rather than the two or three big issues, like Steven Gerrard's position, rotation or zonal marking, that people will automatically focus on. It's easy to lay all the blame on one or two things, but there are so many small factors in a number of areas that are contributing to the away struggles.

There have been little slip-ups here and there, such as Zenden switching off for a fraction of a second for the first goal; yet more individual mistakes costing goals.

Then there's the inconsistent form of nearly all of the new boys, and that includes the impressive Kuyt, whose inconsistency so far is down to the fact that he's been sublime at home but has yet to have too many meaningful efforts on goal away. But that will come. He doesn't need much of a sniff at goal, and came close at Chelsea and United, but he'll need better service.

I'd be surprised if Bolo Zenden plays too many games in the centre in place of Gerrard during Sissoko's lay-off, but away at Arsenal, where Thierry Henry drifts to the left wing and Clichy and van Persie can be dangerous, there was some logic there.

Going away with two strikers limits the options for midfield balance, too – also play with two wingers and an attacking central midfielder who bombs forward a lot and you can be easily exposed. Although of course there'd be different kinds of criticisms if Gerrard was playing centrally behind only one striker, even if it allowed Benítez to play two wingers in the way he did in Spain, in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But is it the formation, or the form of individuals that's the problem?

Gerrard on the right is such a huge issue again, but most of the time he's allowed to drift from there, in the way the three best players of recent years – Ronaldinho, Zidane and Figo – all lined up on the flank merely as a starting point. Why is it good enough for them, but not Gerrard? With Sissoko in the middle it made perfect sense, although how things change from now on remains to be seen.

Gerrard was anonymous yesterday, but he's good enough to do a great job there, as he did last season. This year his own form has been far less impressive, wherever he's played. Is his position the problem, or simply his form? And if being stationed at the former led to the latter, why didn't it affect him last season, when he was shifted all over the place and still scored and created plenty of goals wherever he played?

It does have to be said at this point that the potential for this young Arsenal side is immense. They have so much pace in their line-up it's frightening. And that was without Theo Walcott, the fastest man at the club. It's an interesting comparison to make with Liverpool.

Pace isn't everything, but it's such a handy weapon to have. They must have the quickest back line I've ever seen. Eboue, Toure, Gallas and Clichy are all lightning-quick. Indeed, in losing Ashley Cole, with a ready-made replacement in Clichy waiting in the wings, they managed to procure Gallas, to add yet more pace alongside the mercurial Toure. Crucially, both are good natural defenders, and not merely quick ones.

Benítez brought three quick players of his own this summer: Bellamy, Gonzalez and Pennant. The problem has been getting them into the line-up together. Gonzalez still needs time to settle and adjust, and with his confidence in pieces has looked a mere shadow of the player who lit up La Liga, while Pennant has shown his ability in fits and starts.

All three also have to cope with not being one of the first names on the teamsheet, as they were at their previous clubs. I have no problem with any of the new signings in principle, and still think the majority of them will come good, but at present too many of them lack confidence.

The blend and balance is not right at present. With the new players struggling in one form or another, and key men off colour, it's hard to get eleven fit and confident players out there in a suitable formation.

Then there's the loss of Momo Sissoko, a one-man Malian running machine, and one of the quickest players at the club. The timing was terrible, ahead of such a crucial match. The loss of Didi Hamann now looks a big blow, but the German wasn't prepared to sit around at his age in case Sissoko got injured. There's not a lot else the club could have done in the situation.

It now needs something positive to happen away from home, and preferably next weekend at Boro – a distinctly winnable game. Indeed, the next eleven league games are all distinctly winnable; but it needs a break in the pattern away from Anfield to engender the necessary confidence, otherwise there could be yet more dropped points.

A great performance is unlikely, with confidence so low, but a dogged win could be the thing to change all that. Having played well in patches away and lost, it's now about winning ugly. And if the Reds do use next week as a springboard to go on and win all eleven games, in the kind of run they put together this time last year, it could yet make things interesting, with Chelsea visiting Anfield in the 12th game. But there really is no margin for error anymore.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

The release date of An Anfield Anthology has been brought forward to December 8th, in time for Christmas. It is available to pre-order from www.paultomkins.com – the only place it will be available.

The Red Review, Red Revival and Golden Past, Red Future are all still available, including as part of various Christmas package deals



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