Liverpool 3 Norwich 0: When Is A Win Ever Worth Less Than 3 Points?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on September 26, 2004, 02:38:38 PM

Another quality home win, full of verve, imagination and defensive parsimony - although to read some press reports, you'd think we didn't get the same amount of points from beating Norwich as we would have if we'd beaten Man U. In case people hadn't noticed, there are just 18 points to take from the three title favourites. There are 96 points available against the other 16 clubs (our traditional stumbling blocks).

I want a Liverpool team that has a great season (or at least sets the foundations for one next year), not one which loses and draws to the average and poor clubs and occasionally wins against the biggest teams. So reports suggesting that the Man U (away, so therefore harder) defeat was indicative of how good we can currently consider ourselves to be, and the Norwich win irrelevant to our standing, is plain barmy.

Man U beat us frequently during our halcyon years - and yet we won the title, not them. It's not how you do in head-to-heads that marks you out as the better team, it's the final league position and the total points you accumulate. Last season we won at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. Did that make us a great side? Of course not. It's the cumulation of a season's work that decides that - and you can only beat what is put in front of you. Norwich had been unlucky to lose at Old Trafford after coming close to a late equaliser - something they did manage to achieve away at Newcastle. Despite these examples of pluckiness, they are the kind of team that we should be beating - but when that's the case, it still needs praise.

I said after the Man U game that to me, at this stage of our development, beating United doesn't concern me very much at all. I honestly wasn't too bothered about losing that game this time around - I know I will again once I feel Rafa has had time to make us the team he wants and expects us to be. In the meantime, it's how we do in the other games that matters, and how we improve as a footballing side. I noted on the RAWK forum that the more open, expansive game Rafa is trying to employ was never going to stand us in good stead at Old Trafford.

In the past, we knew we could go there and 'shut up shop' and maybe nick a goal. Trouble was, at home, with the same players and the same tactical straightjacket, we shut up our own shop. On Monday didn't get the chance to get our attacking game going, but it doesn't mean we went there to defend and hope. Our more open approach cost us the chance to get a grip on the game, but it's that very approach that will reap rewards long-term. Rafa isn't gung-ho in his attitude, or forgiving of sloppy defending. But he wants to win games, not merely avoid losing them. Since the opening day we've either been winning or losing, but that's better than simply drawing. Once the consistency arrives, we'll be mostly winning - it's almost a given under Benitez.

For the time being, let's revel in the joy of being utterly convincing in three consecutive games at Anfield. I'd forgotten what that felt like. We scored eight in those three games and conceded none - but it could have been 48-0. The beauty was that it was the same story against the Champions League runners-up as it was against the promoted sides.

Under Benitez, we are taking the game to teams at home. Let's not forget that for those six "famous" points procured at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge last season we also lost to Chelsea, Arsenal and Man U at Anfield. I'd honestly expect us to beat two of those three at home this time around - and beat nearly every other team that visits as well.

What I liked about Rafa's team selection yesterday was how he dealt with the loss of our two most-potent goalscoring midfielders (Gerrard being our top scorer, and Kewell a proven goal threat over the years, as evinced with eleven from open play last season). The manager's decision was to shift Garcia from his role as the second striker to the right wing, to accommodate our two first-choice and-out-and strikers. Maybe it helped that the opposition were always going to sit back, but the previous system got the same scoreline against West Brom - a team of equal standing and ambition to Norwich. The stats ended up reading 20 shots on goal (12 on target) to a measly one from Norwich. We also had the lion's share of the possession, after the anomaly in the previous game, where West Brom had a fraction more than us. It shows that if we have the ball a lot, or not so much, we can still create chances and score goals, and be convincing winners.

Thanks to a great act of generosity from a RAWKite, I unexpectedly got to go to the game and sit in the Kop; having sat for many years as a season ticket holder in a high-ish spec in the Lower Centenary it was hard adjusting to the perspective from a viewpoint from low-down by the corner flag. Even so, it was great to see the ball caressed around on the floor. The only time I had to look into the air was when someone let go of a series of balloons, which fizzed and flapped and farted into the sky as the air eked out. And it was the only evidence of deflation in the Kop all afternoon.

The one regret I had due to being seated so low was that it made it slightly harder to appreciate the full time and space Alonso was finding. Even so, you could see him shine like a beacon - the ball found him, and he found others with the ball. The Norwich manager, Nigel Worthington, remarked: “If I was a fan, I’d pay money to see him wherever he played. He and especially his passing were a different class.” The BBC's Stuart Hall, interviewing Benitez after the match, suggested that Alonso was the best midfielder in Europe, possibly the world. Benitez emphasised the other midfielders - it's a team game, not a game for individuals, being the clear message. But secretly, Benitez must have been purring - better that your signings are lauded like this, than you are being held up for ridicule for spending several million pounds on them. Benitez would later go on to say that Alonso “ is a very clever player. That makes everything easier for him.” Too right.

Yes, Alonso was afforded time and space on the ball - although when players did get tight to him, he turned them with ease. He has this great ability to shift the ball to evade a tackle, but do it in such a way he then has time to pick the pass he wanted all along. When teams defend deep at Anfield, their midfield can't afford to push onto Alonso. So Alonso becomes another weapon in overcoming the packed defence - by spraying passes out to either flank, opposing full-backs are drawn out away from their centre-backs, and then gaps start to appear through the heart of a defence. If they do come out to close him down, it leaves space in behind them.

Alonso's passing is even better than Gerrard's - it's certainly far more consistent. He gave the ball away once all match. Gerrard is a very different type of player - all hustle and bustle and high energy. They are without question the best central midfield pairing in world football, and they can compliment each other perfectly. But in Gerrard's absence, Didi Hamann can continue his excellent early season form, and luckily he won't be serving a three game suspension for his poor tackle on Damien Francis. We'll need Didi helping out Alonso in the coming games, especially at Stamford Bridge.

As per usual, Alonso wasn't the only starring Spaniard. For a player who loves to get central, the way Garcia approached the right-hand role was a lesson to Gerard Houllier in how the position should be treated; when a team is defending, wide midfielders need to 'tuck in' to make a more compact unit, but under GH our wide players, such as Murphy, looked to move inside whether we were in possession or not. The touchline was a 'no go' area. We ended up - on the small Anfield pitch - cluttered and clueless in recent seasons.

The majority of time when we were in possession in deep positions, Garcia hugged the touchline - a sight you would not have seen under the previous regime. (Not to continually slate GH, as we know the good he did - my point is to illustrate the improvements being made). Garcia is not a winger - he won't stay out wide when he has the ball at his feet and look to beat men heading towards the corner flag to try and get a cross in. But what he did by staying wide was find himself space for Alonso to whip jaw-dropping passes to his feet.

Once he had the ball, he was then looking to work inside towards goal - give and go for a quick one-two, and within a heartbeat he was in a central position on the edge of the area, with time and space. First, he jinked past defenders like Beardsley before hitting the angle of crossbar and post, and then soon after, saw a goal-bound shot redirected by a deflection to give him another league goal. He may be an erratic finisher - we've seen great goals and glaring misses - but if he works himself three opportunities every game and takes one of them, we'll be delighted.

It's also good to see the names Baros and Cisse on the same scoresheet - as with Monaco. This time they were on the pitch at the same time. I was especially pleased for Cisse, even if he caught the eye less than Baros. But both men are edging into form.

Cisse scored with a great shot from another well-worked free-kick, and he also played a lovely penetrative pass for Garcia's goal. It was still a difficult afternoon for the Frenchman in other respects, but a goal and an assist is nevertheless a good afternoon's work. With Norwich defending deep and denying space in behind, it was encouraging to see that these two major contributions were done 'in front' of the opposing defence. He didn't score from a one-on-one - but through a packed back line. And his pass was from deep, into space for Garcia: the kind of pass that, if the roles had been reversed, would have been hailed as the mark of a creative force.
 
Baros got his third of the season. Tthree goals in nine games is also steady stuff for Cisse - which is pretty decent considering he hasn't started all nine games, and has mostly been withdrawn after 70 minutes, when defenders are tiring and therefore when he'd probably be at his most potent (but a fresh striker, such as Baros, can be even more potent - a point proved against Monaco). It's frustrating Cisse a little, but with just two established strikers, Rafa needs to keep both from burning out, and over the course of a long season, it should reap dividends. Rafa wants them as fresh and hungry in April as they are now.

Cisse's record makes even better reading when compared to Thierry Henry's at this stage: after arriving, it took the Arsenal man eighteen games to get to three goals. Cisse has done it in half that time. Cisse has already done something Ruud Van Nistelrooy has yet to do in over three seasons - score from outside the box (as did Baros yesterday). Unlike the two lauded strikers of Arsenal and Man U (and indeed, other top scorers like Shearer), Cisse may not be taking many penalties this season (being awarded one would be nice, to start with, after three or four very good shouts have been waved away so far). So Cisse's record needs to take that into account.

Thing with penalties is this: if the striker doesn't take them, someone else always can - even the goalkeeper (doesn't mean the goalkeeper would be any good up front). A full-back isn't going to poach goals in the open play of a game very often (so therefore your strikers need to be capable of doing that, as it's their domain - and where they should be judged). Ashley Cole scored yesterday, but if he took Arsenal's penalties and scored the same amount, Henry's record would be considerably less impressive - and yet Arsenal would still achieve the same results and scorelines. So Cisse getting 15 goals from open play is as good to Liverpool as him getting 25 if ten are penalties, if someone else (such as Alonso - or even Dudek, to make the point) scores those ten penalties. It's also nice to note that Cisse has thus far scored a poacher's goal due to quick reactions (Spurs), a one-on-one (Monaco) and now a drive from distance. A header next would go down well, DC...

Having started by talking about a game against one of our rivals for the top spots, I'll end by saying that I'm less fearful of facing Chelsea. Having finally beaten the hoodoo last season will help a little - although these are two different sides now, at least we don't have all the hype about us never winning there. They now play in a similar way to Houllier's Liverpool (mostly very narrow), and I don't feel they will stretch us in the way United did with their pace all over the pitch (and especially on both flanks). Although Chelsea aren't conceding goals, I fancy us to score against anyone at the moment with our passing and movement.

We may still lose there - but again, so long as it's only a narrow defeat like our other reverses so far (and we don't get humiliated), so what? I won't enjoy it if we lose (who could?), but there are going to be small setbacks along the way. It's early days, and the bigger picture is what counts most - how we do overall, not just against the big clubs. After Chelsea we have a run of six 'winnable' fixtures, and those are the kind of games which, should we win them, will define our season - not the one-off games with all the hype but just three points.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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