The Mid-Season Slump

Posted by Paul Tomkins on February 2, 2006, 11:14:13 AM

Every team has a dodgy patch at some point in the season. All teams, no matter how successful, seem to have these months when nothing goes right, although after the exceptional form from October onwards, this dip –– which still only contains one defeat –– is still hard to take. The momentum has evaporated somewhat, and the form has grown stodgy.

The result against Birmingham felt like a defeat because it was against ten man, and came after another last-ditch goal. The football has rarely been inspired since the turn of the year; legs and minds look noticeably tired, while Rafa's substitutions have backfired a couple of times, as any manager's can (we can only judge them in hindsight, after all).

It's now over 40 games this season for the Reds, including a lot of European travel and a week in Japan. Liverpool faced six extra European games at the start of the season, the European Super Cup, and then the two games in the World Club Championships. And the rest of February promises to be nothing but gruelling, as the Reds face massive games in both the Champions League and FA Cup.

And yet it's not just Liverpool hitting a mini-slump. Chelsea have drawn three in a row, while Man United continue to win one week, lose the next. Arsenal, yet to finish outside the top two under Arsene Wenger, seem to have totally imploded.

While it's frustrating that the Reds aren't capitalising on the other teams' failures, this is the perfect time to decide if your glass is half full or half empty, as they're also not capitalising on our slip-ups. In fact, this week's results saw us finish a point better off than Man United, Spurs and Arsenal, and the result against Birmingham, as disappointing as it was, was yet another improvement on last season's corresponding fixture.

I'm not sure I believe in bogey teams, but if they exist, Birmingham are certainly Benítez's. In four league games, it's two defeats and two draws. This was a very disappointing result, although the game did contain possibly the most exciting and frantic period of injury time ever seen at Anfield. Had Robbie Fowler's fabulous overhead kick stood, it would have been the perfect comeback, as penned by the scriptwriters. But the intensity of those final few minutes wasn't present for the rest of the match.

So are we creating chances? And what constitutes a chance? For example, when Fowler did brilliantly down the right edge of the area and pulled the ball back for Morientes, was that a chance? Had the Spaniard been a fraction quicker he couldn't miss, or a fraction more accuracy or a little less pace on the cross and his task was simple. As it was, it sped past Morientes.

In the first half of the season, the chances were flowing thick and fast –– the problem was strikers missing opportunities. Now they've dried up a little, although the stats from every game show Liverpool having plenty of attempts at goal, but not all are clear-cut 'chances'.

Fernando Morientes continues to frustrate. He's such a good player, it's almost painful waiting for his full talent to burst into life. Every time the ball falls lose in the area he seems a fraction late in reacting. For such a brilliant header of the ball he's not getting on the end of as many crosses as hoped for, and when he does head it the ball seems aimed straight at the keeper more often than not. He works hard, and has a quality you can't lose faith in (seen in how he set up Gerrard's goal), but like Djibril Cissé it's just not happening for him at present.

Not enough individuals are on top form. Momo Sissoko is clearly a great midfield enforcer, but his form has dipped and he needed a rest. It's easy to forget he's just turned 21, and is in a new country, a new league. He's a good player, technically speaking, but rushes his passes at times and can look sloppy. He has a lot to learn, but he's a great acquisition.

Xabi Alonso's form of late has been more impressive for his reading of the game and canny tackling (in the Hamann mould) than his creative play.  There are still plenty of Reds playing well, but the team is misfiring a little.

Steve Finnan's crossing has been one of the plusses of the season. He seems to put in the perfect deliveries for Peter Crouch, although the big man's headers are currently drifting narrowly wide, rather than nestling in the net. Crouch is looking a little weary, and was frustrated at being substituted again; having said that, he is starting most games, and will surely start again at Chelsea.

Steven Gerrard continues to score goals like a centre-forward. I understand why Rafa wanted to rest him ahead of the Chelsea game, and at 1-0 up against ten-man Birmingham, the Reds should have held on regardless. But he's the closest thing we have to a force of nature, who drives the team on regardless, and it can go a little flat when he's not around. It's a tricky one for the manager, as you can't play Gerrard every minute of every game.

The Birmingham game saw no Carragher, Alonso introduced late on, Sissoko not even in the squad, and Gerrard removed with twenty minutes to go. Cissé was not even on the bench, so it was clearly a 'weakened' team, although if Rafa can't utilise his squad during such a heavy schedule, there's no point in having good players in reserve. Luis Garcia and Didi Hamann were returning after spells out injured, and both came close to sealing the points.

The biggest bonus at the moment is the form of Harry Kewell. It's his best spell in a red shirt, and proves how different a player can be when he is fully fit. It's also worth noting that his season is a lot younger than everyone else's; the same applies to Fowler, and if he can get fully match-fit in a month's time, there won't be any fatigue there. Last season's Champions League success can be put partly down to Alonso, Gerrard, Smicer, Cissé and one or two others missing chunks of the season, and peaking at the right time.

The rearranged defence did pretty well, and as with Gerrard, Carragher needed a rest at some stage, while Daniel Agger wasn't bought to spend his entire time on the sidelines. He looks a very composed young defender, although I've yet to see a young central defender who doesn't make howlers.

The only blot on Agger's promising debut was when he played himself into trouble by clearing with his favoured left foot when the ball was falling perfectly for his right foot. On his debut, it's perhaps understandable to do what feels most comfortable and not take what he probably felt was a risk (using his wrong foot), but nothing bugs me more in football than a player almost contorting himself to use his preferred foot (Riise is a prime example of this). If, as a defender, you can't clear your lines with your weaker foot, you're going to have trouble.   

So gripes aside, it's still been a huge improvement on last season as a whole, but the Reds need to rediscover a bit of momentum soon. The big games coming up could help do just that.

The aim for this season had to be to qualify for the Champions League with ease (and not, for once, desperation), and to improve considerably on last season's showing. That's all looking the case.

With 16 games left, we're only 13 points behind last season's tally. The cup competitions are going well, while no less than 16 players (all internationals of one kind or another) have been added to the set-up this season, seven of them to the first team; so this was always going to be a transitional season of sorts, as Benítez broke up Houllier's side and set up completing his own.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

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