The John Arne Riise Problem

Posted by Yorkykopite on August 21, 2007, 07:26:21 PM

I disagree with those Liverpool supporters who say John Arne Riise has deteriorated in the last couple of years. He hasnít. If anything heís slightly improved. His running off the ball is more sensible than it used to be, he stays on his feet more, tackles better and his heading is no longer distinguished by that classic giveaway sign of a player who fears he might get hurt in an aerial challenge Ė the old bonce disappearing into the shoulders.

But something else has happened in the last two years that has rendered Riiseís marginal improvement into a sort of setback. Quite simply the team under Benitez has completely changed: not just in personnel, but in style and philosophy. Many more creative demands are now being made of the wide players (whether theyíre orthodox full backs, wing backs or wide midfield). Riise cannot meet these demands on anything like a consistent basis. From being one of the better players under Houllier he has becomes the worst (regular) performer in the Benitez squad.

I find it almost unbearable to watch him now. A hard and accurate pass swung out to Riiseís side of the pitch makes me groan even before itís reached its destination. The chances of the ball being pulled down in any way that leaves him able to exploit a bit of space are practically nil. Itís the shin, or a heavy foot, that makes the contact and instead of the ball being folded into Riiseís possession, the bloody thing too often goes spinning off to an opponent. Within two minutes of the Chelsea game heíd squandered a superb chance to put us one-nil up by a simple inability to control a hard, accurate pass Ė the type of hard-hit pass that players even of average technique love to receive.

And then thereís the problem of Riiseís right foot Ė the one that he uses to keep his sock warm. It crossed my mind on Sunday that even if John had been able to control Pennantís cross he might still have been left with a difficult angle to shoot, simply through an inability to use his right foot. Very few players are genuinely two-footed. But most successful ones can offer something with their unfavoured foot. Some canít shoot, but can dribble with it. Some can shoot but canít cross. Some can cross from a deep position but Ė the true test of genuine two-footedness Ė canít cross if it means swinging the leg across the body at a ninety-degree angle. Very few can do nothing with it at all.

Riise is one of them. When you have no ability to use the unfavoured foot a whole dimension of play shuts down. In Riiseís case he can never go inside an opponent Ė and they know it. When heís shepherded inside, the right foot simply refuses to touch the ball leaving John with nowhere else to go but backwards. We see this time and again. All momentum to Liverpoolís forward play stopped. The only variation happens when he tries his famous nutmeg. Itís the only time youíll see him run on the inside of an opponent Ė which he does in the (always thwarted) hope that heíll collect with his left foot on the other side. Nutmegs are a risky business, especially if a defender is stationary and well-balanced. But it doesn't stop JAR from trying them. He tried on Sunday of course. And, because he was up against a professional footballer, he lost the ball and stranded himself in the process Ė leaving the team in a vulnerable position. It looked amateurish for the simple reason that it was.

Ah, but heís got a shot like a sledge-hammer with his left, hasnít he? Yes he has. But one where the ball-bearings have worn away. Very occasionally he gets it right and the result will feature in anybodyís top five goals of the season. More often it hits a Kopite. Iíve heard it said Ė by an esteemed member of RAWK no less Ė that itís better that Riise shoots and hits the crowd so that the game stops, than tries to find a colleague with a pass and loses possession with everyone out of place. This was meant as a defence of a fellow Norweigan (Hi Kaizer!) but in reality it was the most eloquent statement Iíve yet seen about Riiseís lack of skill. Even his most ardent supporters canít trust him to pass the ball.

Clearly heís not the right man to play left midfield. But what about left back? Johnís always said thatís the position he prefers, and most of us would agree that heís better there than in midfield. Better maybe, but still not good enough Ė not in the type of team that Benitez is building. Full backs, especially, have more time on the ball than any other outfield player and no team thatís serious about aggressive attacking football can afford to have players in that position who canít think creatively or who donít have the technique to exploit this advantage. Riise, I believe, has neither the vision nor the technique. Defensively heís decent. The tackle he put in on Drogba in last yearís semi at Anfield was as good a challenge as any in the season. But Liverpool Ė Benitezís Liverpool Ė need a left back with progressive skills as well as a solid tackle. And the limitations that make him a poor midfielder are the exactly the same ones that make him only a half-decent full back.

We have a problem at left back. Left back is a hard position to fill in any team. Like every other schoolboy footballer I noticed this before the age of 11. Left back was the fella who wasnít good enough to play anywhere else and too small to stick in goal. Well itís a bit like that at professional level when you think about it. Iíve followed Liverpool since the early Ď70s and Ė unlike at right back - have never seen a truly world class number 3. Lindsay, Jones, Staunton and Alan Kennedy were all fine players (and certainly two of them will forever make red hearts burst with pride) but all were the weakest members of the great teams they played in. Whenever I compile my best-ever Liverpool XI  I stick Stevie Nicol at left back (which at least makes Chris Lawler happy).   

Currently we have Arbeloa. I like him, but heís mainly right footed and his time on the left is probationary only. If he continues to progress then surely heíll do what his fellow right-footed left backs at Liverpool all did (Nicol, Neal, Hughes) Ė and move to the centre or the right. I like Fabio Aurelio too but he seems destined to spend more time with the medical men than the football men. As from today it appears weíre not going to be able to land Heinze. Thatís a pity, but certainly not a disaster. Itís another thread, I know, but the lad I canít wait to see step up is Insua. Itíll be a risk to play him. It will also be a risk to drop Riise permanently. I hope Rafa takes both.

© yorkykopite 2007

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