Progress at Boro

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 14, 2005, 01:19:14 PM

Two points dropped, or one won? Away at a Premiership side who qualified for Europe (and want to be taken seriously as Champions League contenders), at a venue where the Reds traditionally suffer 末 and the opposition defend for 90 minutes and muster not a single meaningful shot on goal, despite strikers of the calibre of Yakubu, Hasselbaink, and Viduka.

To me, that shows how far the Reds have come since a dismal showing at the same stadium last November.

In football, you take encouragement when you fail to win even though you've played brilliantly (as Liverpool did after the break; before then it was steady stuff at best, with the aim to not concede an early goal).

But of course, if you keep playing brilliantly and failing to win, then that becomes a problem. It's like winning when you play badly: seen as the sign of a good team. But if you don't start playing well, those wins will quickly turn to draws and defeats. (A pattern we saw in 2001/02, when Liverpool led the table early on. Performances got increasingly scrappy even though the team was scraping wins, and a defeat 末 at Boro, coincidentally 末 soon arrived, at which point a slump set in.)

You can only nick so many games. Similarly, failing to take your chances will cause problems if it becomes a long-term problem (after all the goals so far, one nil-nil stalemate is hardly cause for concern).

The first task away from home this season has to be turning last season's defeats (eleven) into draws and, if possible, a good half of them into wins.

This was always going to be a fixture where turning a 2004 defeat 末 when Boro played an insipid Liverpool off the park 末 into a draw would have been a satisfactory improvement, although the Reds' extra sharpness following Champions League qualifiers added more expectation. To counteract that, there was the fact that the Reds played in Bulgaria only three days earlier, and that's tough before players are 100% match fit.

If we can approach every game this season on the basis that we want a better performance and a better result than in the corresponding fixture of 2004/05, then we have to be happy (if not ecstatic) on both counts.

I spent a lot of last season arguing that 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1, depending how you draw it on a piece of paper) can be an attacking formation, if you get players forward to support the lone striker, and it was no coincidence that Steven Gerrard 末 from midfield 末 came closest to scoring, on no less than six occasions, and there would have been a seventh but for Ehiogu's crude intervention.

Gerrard's running off the ball was exceptional, and I liked the way he arrived very late from both the left and right flanks to head at goal. He must be a nightmare to have to pick up, popping up in such areas. The same formation with Crouch as the spearhead (although of course he more closely resembles the spear stick) would allow even more midfield runs to be made, given he can guarantee more flick-ons than Morientes, and better protection of the ball.

Liverpool did everything but score, and while the ref was right to send off Ehiogu, Ray Parlour should have walked for kicking Sissoko off the ball earlier in the match.

What a player Sissoko looks. With him alongside Alonso and Gerrard the Reds' midfield will be impossible to match. (And nice to have the option of Didi Hamann's experience and canniness as well.) When Rafa was comparing Sissoko to Vieira a lot of people feared a Cheyrou/Zidane kiss of death. But in this case, the comparison looks valid. I can't believe Rafa has unearthed another gem, but then he knows this particular player well. Sissoko seems perfect for English football.

He appears to have everything Vieira had when he too arrived in England at 20: fierce tackle, pace, stamina, good use of the ball, and even the same physique, gait and running style, with elbows held high and tucked into the chest. What Sissoko doesn't possess is Vieira's latter-years authority, but then no 20-year-old can ever be that commanding.

While I was disappointed to see an improving Biscan depart in the summer, you can see why Rafa felt assured enough to release a player he clearly rated.

Sissoko already looks a better player (certainly in the Premiership, where Igor was never as effective as in Europe), and offers the pace and strength in deep areas to help Xabi Alonso while simultaneously allowing Gerrard to get forward at will 末 and as we've seen so far, with seven goals, three assists in midweek, and a glut of near-misses yesterday, Gerrard is our most potent attacking player.

Of course, only time will tell with Sissoko. But better a bright start replete with potential than a sluggish one. I can't think of many better league debuts from overseas imports in the heart of the midfield battle.

Also impressive was Pepe Reina: one poor attempt at dealing with a corner (he'll need to get adjust to being blocked off), but two of the best punched clearances I've ever seen.

A promising start all-round, and some signs of progress, but at this stage they obviously remain signs, and not conclusive proof.

ゥPaul Tomkins 2005

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