Boro and Palace: Two Wins, Steady Progress

Posted by Paul Tomkins on November 17, 2004, 04:41:56 PM

Last week I wrote a piece focusing mainly on Milan Baros and Neil Mellor: how the former was (despite not taking any penalties) starting to have a great season, and how the latter needed to grab any opportunities that come his way, now he's turned 22 (and there are injuries to other strikers). Within a few hours, Mellor bagged a well-taken brace against Boro, and three days later Milan netted his first hat-trick for the club to defeat Palace.

Although, like any commentator on the game, I get plenty wrong, it's nice to say something that turns out to be prophetic (as opposed to pathetic). For example: "Seven goals from Milan - having started a good few games on the bench - is a great return. If Baros had taken (and scored) as many penalties as some other strikers in the Premiership - say three - he would be in double figures by now. Ten goals at this stage would be amazing. Instead, he doesn't quite make the top echelons of the scoring charts."

Okay, so it was only two penalties (weirdly, it should actually have been three). But he scored them, as well as a great poacher's goal, and is now indeed in double figures. It's hard to believe Michael Owen would have had more at this stage (although he continues to prove in Spain that, in a passing side which creates chances with intricate play, he can score a goal almost every game).

It's a shame that inaccurate controversy surrounds the penalty awards and Baros in general (have you noticed how every opposing manager thinks that a penalty for us at Anfield must somehow be a case of refereeing bias or cheating? Sinama-Pongolle never recovered from Steve Bruce's accusations last season, and all subsequent clear penalties for the lad were waved away).

Ian Dowie's thinly-veiled suggestion that Baros goes down too easily was irritating, as were the not-so-thinly-veiled statements attesting to that fact from Popovic and Kolkka. Maybe Dowie's players shouldn't have been (on the evidence of this game) such useless donkeys incapable of making a clean tackle - I've never seen so many incompetent attempts at winning the ball in the box. I'll happily admit if we get penalties we don't deserve, but I've never seen one single player brought down for what should have been three penalties in one match; I asked for more luck with the penalty decisions, and despite getting two we still came out of the game with a negative outcome on the "Penalty Deserve-it-ometer".

Baros, on this form, is - for the defenders facing him - literally unplayable (legally, that is; now I see why he was labeled the Ostravan Maradona: he gets kicked every time he has the ball). Baros runs fast with the ball under tight control, and invites these kind of rash tackles; that's not cheating, it's damn good forward play, as his intention is not to go down but to put the ball in the net himself. Like any striker, he'd rather shoot when at full flow than have to stand around composing himself for a penalty in the face of delaying tactics (thankfully, he had the bottle in the 90th minute).

Other quick players (such as Owen and Cisse) knock the ball well out of their feet, so defenders can either play the ball or decide to pull out of a tackle; by keeping it tight to his feet, Baros is making defenders tackle closer to the man. As soon as he nicks it away they are left flailing. I don't think either of the penalties we won were deliberate fouls, just very poorly mistimed due to Baros' skill. Both times Milan was looking to score as he was less than 10 yards out with just the keeper to beat.

Ironically, the one we didn't get - where the defender pulled his shorts elastic - was the only deliberate foul.

How their man wasn't sent off for the first penalty I'll never know. I'd like to know the difference with Sami Hyypia's challenge at Old Trafford two seasons ago, for which Sami was dismissed after three minutes. If refs think a penalty is punishment enough - fair enough. Some consistency would be nice, though. On the fortunate side, Hyypia's mistimed tackle this weekend could have seen him sent off as the last man. But then the second penalty (the one that wasn't given) was another red card in waiting.

The most pleasing thing was the way we kept calm before we snatched 90th minute winner. The best teams always find late goals when they are needed. In recent seasons we may have found the odd late goal, but too often games were lost or drawn. This season we are scoring a very healthy amount of goals in the last ten minutes, and conceding very few.

Late goals are often the result of possession football. Keeping the ball wears the opposition down, and you maintain your composure; as they tire, late on, you can build pressure and that starts to affect them mentally. Revert to long balls, and you tend to hit too many passes into touch, or astray, and the opposition get the ball, with which they can waste time and negate your momentum. It becomes stop-start, and the crowd's roar dies down to disgruntled groans.
 
The pattern so far under Benitez seems to be the occasional backwards step followed by two progressive ones. There is still a lot of work to be done, but Steven Gerrard returning this weekend will be a colossal boost to the entire club.

But there is yet another mid-week break for international football - the third this season. So yet another tough job for Rafa to prepare for a game with so many of his players away (and I'm guessing we'll have far more international players away than Boro - many of whose aging players, such as Parlour, Southgate and Hasselbaink, no longer represent their country).

It was interesting to see Sam Allardyce claiming that Bolton's success against the big teams is often down to catching them after they've been in European action midweek - the stats state that post-Champions League, teams have a trouble following an intense game with another three days later. It's even harder for Liverpool this season, as we have a thinner squad that last season's top three, and more injury problems. It's why Gerrard being fit again is such a massive factor in how we will progress.

It's hard to say if the win over Boro last week will have any bearing on Saturday's game - if it does, it will be minimal. It will be two different sides, at a different venue.

I still need convincing that the players who are doing so well in the League Cup are the 'future' of the club, but I grow ever-more convinced that Benitez can fashion a team out of any set of players.

They are, mostly, no longer 'kids'. Warnock (the one who has thus far pushed his claims the most, to the point where he's deservedly in the 16 every week) is 22, Mellor 22, and Partridge 24. Compare these to players like Robben and Reyes, at 20, and suddenly they don't appear so special; or even to Milan Baros and Xabi Alonso, and what they could do - and had achieved - by the age of 22. But some players develop later than others, and the slightly younger players like Potter, Raven, Welsh and Whitbread have plenty of time on their side.

But unlike Arsenal, we didn't really field our entire youth team; also included in our line-up were Dudek, Henchoz, Diao, Traore and Biscan. Arsenal's impressive side, which convincingly beat Everton, had an astonishing average age of 19. Arsene Wenger talks of 19-22 being the toughest time for player development, as they are invariably not got good enough for the first team, but need games to get experience - in some ways a catch-22. It's why clubs send players out on loan, and John Welsh and others could certainly benefit from that, as Otsemobor is no doubt doing at Crewe, and Le Tallec at St Etienne.

Also, a player's development can stall or stagnate, and then - all of a sudden - click into gear, and they improve rapidly once more; loan moves can offer new impetus. (A clever, 'thinking' player like Le Tallec may initially struggle with the pace or intensity of the game at the top level, but that kind of player tends to show his class before too long). The step up is always tough, as these players are used to being the best in their age group; suddenly, they are facing the players who were the best in their age group five or ten years ago and are now experienced, canny men, and possibly full internationals (I'm guessing over 50% of all players who start Premiership matches each week are full internationals).

Sinama-Pongolle remains an interesting example. He's clearly got a good touch, and great pace - but has yet to transfer his phenomenal youth-team goalscoring record to Liverpool. His lack of goals when he plays for the reserves baffles me slightly, although in the first team I've felt he's struggled against better keepers, and I can relate to that.

When I stepped up from Sunday League to semi-pro, I still got plenty of chances due to my pace, but I found that instead of slotting the ball past the keeper they were pulling off comfortable saves. It took me a while to get used to the smaller margins of error, and to have to precisely find the corners - to do something special to beat them. I felt that with Pongolle last season, whenever I saw him play. I remember against Southampton, Anti Niemi making saves where Pongolle hit the target - the kind that keepers in youth teams wouldn't have got to. It may take a while for him to get used to that, but to me he is a player who stands a very good chance of maturing nicely over the next couple of years.

I think there exists a plethora of very decent players in the reserves (and out on loan), but very few outstanding ones (the two French boys, to my mind, remain our greatest immediate hopes). It means Rafa, with his great tactical/stylistic approach, can get good results from these reserves, but it may transpire that none may go on to have outstanding careers at Liverpool. But if - at the very least - they can do a job when called upon in short-term bursts, then that's a massive bonus. What they do know is that should they develop into outstanding players, Benitez will reward their progress.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

Publication of this article was delayed by 24 hours as a mark of respect for the passing of Cherith Watson, friend to many key people on this site; and so that precedence would go to the tribute posted by her close friend, Bob K.

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