Liverpool 1 Southampton 2 – The watershed defeat (by Barrettski)

Posted by Barrettski on December 16, 2003, 10:07:56 AM

This was the game I hoped I would never see.  This was the game where I finally concluded that that the team I love is heading in the wrong direction.  It’s not a knee jerk reaction based on our inability to sign some Championship Manager™ favourite either.  It’s a considered opinion based on years of going to the game.  In that time, I’ve rarely seen things like players refuse to pass to each other, players take it upon themselves to chose the tactics mid game and players simply not play for the shirt they’re wearing.  All these things happened on Saturday.  Add a few more ingredients like an incomprehensible starting line up and another incomprehensible substitution and you have a heady mix of problems at Anfield.  As fans we live and breath by what happens in front of us on the pitch and on Saturday I was choking. 

To be honest I was happy with the result at Newcastle.  The game itself was dour and highlighted profound weaknesses in the squad, but the result set the Southampton game up nicely.  As a fully paid up member of the sunshine brigade, I foresaw three points, a Leeds win, fourth place and happy headlines on Monday morning.  But Monday morning is here and the smiles are all Mancunian.  I don’t know why, they need us to be competitive to push them harder and we’re not doing that anymore.  It’s a cockney world we live in these days.

Liverpool lined up like this:  Kirkland in nets and a finer keeper we’re not likely to see.  Sami led the back line with Biscan alongside him and Otsemebor and Riise at full back.  My confidence in Biscan is growing, but a team needs an established framework for newcomers to grow into.  The fact is, as a unit our back four hasn’t been established or inspired confidence for 18 months now.  Our midfield was led by the nation’s finest, Stevie G.  Behind him sat Didi Hamann, the consummate professional and world class holding player.  Remaining positions alongside Gerrard in this 4-1-3-2 looking formation were Murphy, the archetypal squad player fresh from his kick up the backside and Diouf, the disappointment who has fallen from the acclaimed heights that described his start to the season.  Heskey started upfront, more on his contribution later.  Alongside him, a player to strike fear into the very hearts of every Premiership defence…. Vladimir Smicer.  I like Vladi, he’s an international and can turn on the class, albeit in an inconsistent manner.  He can play wide or in the hole behind a front two.  But what he isn’t is an effective striker and no amount of Weetabix or Duane Chambers piss is going to make him one.  People say Pongolle was recovering from flu.  I don’t buy that.  He zipped around the second half like the spring chicken he is.  He should have started. 

If the starting line up had confused the fans, the press and (I’ll bet) the players, then the bench had everyone worried.  We had a young French midfield talent yet to be fully blooded, a young French midfielder who’s apparently talented but has only shown it in a pre-season friendly, an untested young French keeper, a Senegalese international who’s looked everything but and Pongolle.  Where Welsh and our other academy hopefuls were, I can only guess.

Southampton turned up with an entire cosmos of stars.  Well OK, a collection of assorted talents that were as hard working as they were organised.  They were always going to be hard to break down… quel surprise huh?  Niemi is a fine keeper and Beattie, although not good enough for England is a talent.  Parhars was back but not match fit, Delap can impress on his day but the remainder look like professional journeymen at the peak of their careers.  Dodd (captain), Higginbotham, Lundekvam, Telfer, Svensson, Prutton and Ormerod.  How many of us could have named all of them before the game?  The bench might have been easier to recognise with Jones (Wales), Marsden (runs like a chicken), and Phillips (used to score for fun) keeping warm in the bright afternoon.

By now you’ll know how we started (still confused).  We went forward, won a corner, lost it and saw a long ball isolating Hamann one on one with a striker.  This is a school boy error I don’t remember making.  Using a slow midfielder to cover while the likes of Riise (obvious choice to cover) goes forward?  It’s beyond me.  Anyway, Omygod roasted Didi and put an early shot low to Kirkland’s right.  0-1 and silence at the Kop end. 

I remember the days when a team would go 1-0 up against the mighty reds and it was seen as nothing less than a red rag to a bull.  The insolence of any team daring to compete at Anfield was met with a crushing and demoralising reposte.  Souness would take it personally, his shoulders would broaden and his opposite number would be in bits within the half hour.  It was like he was saying “You could have settled for a respectable 2-0 defeat, but no, you had to go and annoy us didn’t you?”  Yes we were spoilt.  Yes we were unbeatable.  But no, we haven’t forgotten what it looks like on a pitch.  To see players working for each other and to see the Hitachi, Crown Paints or Candy blur with movement was as magnificent then as it is dumbfounding now.  To see players know what it meant to those on the terraces instilled pride and passion.  We’d then repeat it in the park the next day.  It isn’t rocket science.  It’s just pass and move and we seem to have (temporarily) forgotten it. 

I heard Aldo thinks the players need to sit down in front of a three hour video and learn what it means to play for Liverpool Football Club.  I couldn’t agree more.  That said, there were exceptions in this, another dour first half.  Unsurprisingly, Stevie G motored round like a legend in the making, covering two or three positions at times.  But even this led to a seminal moment in my eyes.  There he was, attacking the Kop having taken the game to the opposition having beaten two players.  There he is on the edge of the box with Diouf outside him teeing up to cross.  Given the choice, Stevie opted to win half a yard and cross it himself.  Given the choice, I’d have done the same.  Diouf didn’t go to crossing school this week.  In fact I think he’s been playing truant recently.

In another exhibition of what it means to play for Liverpool, Otsemobor made repeated forays down the right and put in crosses that even Andy Townsend had to applaud later in the evening.  Some say this was a man of the match performance from the young lad.  I think that accolade belongs to Stevie again.  But what Semmy’s performance showed me was that he’s been ready for this for some time now and only an injury has forced Houllier and Thommo to give him a chance.  On these three performances, it looks like we could have saved the money spent on Finnan (class though he is) and spent it on someone like Viduka (try arguing we couldn’t use him now after his performance vs. Fulham).  Worse, to me this says nobody is listening to Sammy Lee as he recommends academy players coming through the reserves for first team experience.  Don’t forget Welsh is generally rated as a better player than Semmy.

In contrast Heskey showed me everything I didn’t want to see.  As we broke from a Southampton corner we headed towards the Kop on the break via Murphy and Smicer.  There, several yards behind play was the forlorn sight of Heskey plodding forward at less than three quarter pace.  First Murphy and then Smicer looked up to search out that pass to split the defence.  But Heskey wasn’t there.  As he caught up with play, we’d lost momentum and lost possession.  The ball was heading back towards Kirkland.  Did Emile chase back?  Absolutely, like a woolly mammoth stuck in tar.

Two goal mouth chances also seemed to sum up the afternoon.  Smicer was bundled over in the box, sandwiched between two of the aforementioned hard working journeymen.  I’ve seen them given.  In fact I saw an identical foul in our half that provided them with a free kick.  One rule for one Durkin?  In truth, neither were fouls, but I hope the man in the stands roasts you for that one Paul.

In the second incident Gerrard fashioned a chance of his own on the right.  Once again he’d beaten a couple of players for sheer pace and power and lashed a drive into the six yard area.  Now, as a confirmed goal hanger, that’s the first place I head for when I want to get on the end of a cross.  Sadly, the six yard area was red-free and our best chance was for it to come off a defender’s arse.  It didn’t and we stayed at 0-0.

What followed next was a high volume round of booing.  Granted, I was in the Moan Stand, but these were season ticket holders around me.  People who knew their football who’ve served their time in the Kop and now prefer to talk the game through, spotting the overlaps, the shirt tugging and here, the sheer lack of running off the ball.  I didn’t boo, but I didn’t have the heart to stop anyone either. 

Liverpool started the second half with some semblance of energy but it was soon wiped out.  A break and neat work on the left by Beattie had left Semmy exposed.  The players arriving in the box were of course the players in yellow and there was Parhars tee-ing up an easy tap in to make it 0-2.  How he managed to balloon his effort so woefully wide is beyond me.  Maybe there was something in the air.

Moments later another Saints move down the right resulted in another decent cross.  For the benefit of Diouf, that’s not a sand wedge onto the penalty spot, it’s a cross with pace and accuracy that’s actually quite difficult to defend.  As it happens, Beattie’s nearest marker was yards away and he should have done better.  His header went back across Kirkland, text book style, but Chris was more than equal to it, shifting his weight and saving to his right.  The shameful thing is that 0-3 wouldn’t have flattered Southampton.

The reaction from Ged was quick, but puzzling.  Off came Hamann, our consummate professional in need of match fitness and on came Pongolle.  Off came Diouf for Le Tallec.  Smicer dropped to left midfield, where he looked far more effective, Le Tallec replaced Diouf on the right and Pongolle joined Emile upfront.  You could argue that the starting line up had started late.  Meanwhile, Cheyrou and Diao looked forlorn figures on the bench.  All that “talent” and investment, but you still can’t get on the pitch and the gaffer thinks a couple of French teenagers are more likely to turn a game than you.  Where does a player go from there?

Liverpool looked more balanced and more threatening with Pongolle making runs at twice Heskey-speed (a scientific term that) but there was still something missing.  Within minutes of Niemi saving brilliantly from an untidy Heskey effort, Southampton had a corner.  Svensson rose above all to crash a header into the roof and the day looked lost.  A Kopite behind the goal (probably on his way to the exit) clutched his badge and screamed at the players.  Smicer dared to reply.  This said it all.

What happened next might have been my imagination, but I wasn’t the only one to notice it.  It seemed to me that a number of players removed their shackles and started to play football by instinct.  Otsemobor continued to rampage forward and almost scored the goal of the game.  He sliced through a number of players, heading directly for goal before releasing a stinging shot that only a form keeper would have saved.  He did.

But Semmy isn’t well drilled in first team tactics and you might have expected him to try something different.  Less expected was the sight of Danny Murphy taking players on.  Gone was the stop and sideways pass, gone was the loss of momentum and lost possession.  This was real feeling.  Yes he lost the ball, but he also opened up the two banks of four that Strachan had placed infront of the reds.  Stevie G was still everywhere, but in taking up his positions it seemed he was playing on instinct and to no game plan at all.  Even Riise looked more dangerous as he went forward and tried the early cross rather than the safe possession pass. 

Tell me I’m reading too much into the final minutes here, but it’s happened too much this season.  2-0 down to United and then we start playing.  1-0 down to Birmingham and after an equaliser we start playing.  It’s no coincidence.  I think the players are reverting to instinct in these periods.  I don’t think they have confidence in the game plan and that tells me Thommo and Ged have lost the dressing room.

We could have retrieved the game in these final minutes.  Heskey bundled Gerrards shot home for 1-2.  Pongolle had an effort cleared off the line after beating the keeper.  There was also a nice Sunday League style scramble in their area and shots from Murphy and Smicer that only troubled those in the Annie Road End.  We didn’t deserve it though.  We lost this game in the first half, when the tactics, the energy, the style and the body language was all wrong.  For all Thommo’s ranting from the line, nothing was working.  It was painful.

I could be optimistic and say we’re only three points off fourth place with Kewell returning soon with Carra and Baros back in training.  But this game showed too much of a glimpse behind the scenes for me.  We’re in trouble and I’ve no idea what the answer is. 

Playing for the shirt

Kirkland:  Class keeper who made class saves including the phenomenal change of weight to keep Beattie’s header out.  Wouldn’t fault him for either goal.

Gerrard:  Lost count of the number of “on your own Stevie” shouts from behind me and at times it did seem like this was Gerrard vs. Southampton.  His recent comments scare the crap out of me, but I don’t blame him.

Otsemobor:  Has improved in each of the three first team games I’ve seen him in and I think he’s ready.  So where’s he been?  The staff have known about him for years now.  Exactly how does a Scouse rookie get man of the match from the papers without us playing him earlier?

Hyypia:  I might surprise some of you there but I think he’s done a great job of putting his game back together.  He’s accepted the loss of captaincy with humility and is getting back to form with his characteristic reading of the game and timely challenges.

Hamann:  Have I said consummate professional already?  Does he go unappreciated?  Does he bollocks, he’s class.

Squad Players

Pongolle:  Changed the tempo of the game when he came on, much as he did at Newcastle.  Exciting, but far from the finished and Diao is having a shocking influence over that haircut.

Le Tallec:  Looked a little lost today.  I believe a scouse teenager would have had more impact.  But the lad is talented and he is learning.  I hope he’s not learning how to stroll around and pick up a nice wage packet though.

Murphy:  Yes, he’s better since the kick up the arse he received.  But he’s still a squad player.  My hopes of him forming a central midfield understanding never came to fruition and he continues to lose possession with alarming regularity.  Still like him though.

Smicer: Ineffectual upfront and not a huge amount better on the wing.  He’s the kind of player who would be class when surrounded by class players.  He’s not, so he isn’t.

Not Good Enough

Heskey:  This was appalling.  People say we need big Emile for his hold up play, except his lack of touch was enough to take the pace out of at least two of our counter attacks.  People say his work rate and what he does for a team is phenomenal.  Sorry, I saw a grown man in a red shirt strolling about today, it didn’t make me happy.  I used to watch Ian Rush scamper from defender to defender hounding the likes of Ratcliffe into hoofing the ball and this doesn’t compare.  People say one goal in three games isn’t too bad for a reserve striker.  Yes it is, when you consider the sheer lack of footballing nouse here.  There was no following up to the keeper (Gerrard’s shot came to him).  There were no front post runs, the likes of which would have given Diouf a break as he deliberated his options.  There were no towering headers or even a threat at corners.  There wasn’t even any poaching round the keeper.  Niemi spilled one that ached for a tap in.  Like the team, I’ve no idea what’s going to happen here though.

Biscan:  He’s solid, he wins balls with ease and reads the game well, until he switches off or tries something he shouldn’t.  That’s something I wrote ages ago, it applies for this game and it could apply for a long time yet.  I’ve have him in the squad, if that price tag didn’t weigh so heavy around his neck.

Riise:  Needs to have his game taken apart and put back together again.  Somewhere along the line he didn’t pick up the positioning gene that defenders have.  He also needs some control that says he doesn’t need to put his foot through the ball at every opportunity.  Or maybe that’s what he’s being told to do.  Either way, I don’t like seeing him at left back at the moment.

Diouf:  Where did it all go wrong?  He’s put four or five shocking performances together now and has been at best “absent” when we’ve needed the African player of the year to be just that.  He can beat players, but where’s the use in that if you can’t cross the ball, pull the ball back accurately or simply find a player.  Woeful here, so woeful that I wonder if le stroppy enfant at Maine Road would have been a better buy.

Diao:  I know he was on the bench.  I know his confidence is probably shot from being played in so many positions.  But he wasn’t good enough to come on a change the game here.  He’s not good enough full stop.

Cheyrou:  Ditto Diao and I think he’s had his chance. 

The Crowd

Kop:  Quiet, and needing something from the pitch to rise to.  Sadly this only seems to happen when Stevie G. starts to play like he’s playing on his own.

Them:  Party time.  Yes we’ve heard “Champions League, You’re having a laugh” before, thanks.  “2-0 and it should be four” was fair enough.  “Phillips on the bench” was also amusing, if you’re into black humour.  Deserved their fun and three points.  Safe journey home.

© Barrettski 2003

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