Why we’re not clicking and why we soon might

Posted by Yorkykopite on October 2, 2006, 04:42:28 PM

We were a defensive team. Now we are an attacking team. The transition has not happened suddenly, it has been fermenting since the day Rafa Benitez took over, but this summer there was a “tipping point”, to use the jargon. Rafa went out and bought pace. Pennant, Bellamy, Gonzalez. All three excited us because they possessed the commodity that Liverpool had been lacking for several years – electrifying pace up front and, especially, on the wings. In a 100-metres race Pennant would probably get bronze. That’s how quick the other two are.

Like a lot of us, I guess, I expected this pace to be simply grafted on to what we had already got – particularly our famous defensive solidity – and for the Reds to barnstorm to the top of the league by the end of September. But I forgot a simple truth. Alter one part of the organism and every other part is subtly changed as well. The welcome injection of pace has put different demands on individual players and right now some are struggling to adjust. That adjustment will come, I think, but it won't necessarily come straight away.

The ‘big pitch’

In the late 1960s the coaches at Ajax FC developed the idea that the duty of a team is to make the pitch big when you have the ball, and to make it small when you don’t. Most attractive teams have more or less played to this maxim ever since. 

At the moment we are doing the first bit reasonably well, but not the second. Liverpool’s pitch has been getting ‘bigger’ since 2004. Almost as soon as Rafa took over he deepened it when we had the ball. The defence started dropping off 10 yards and staggering itself which meant we were recycling play much more efficiently than under Houllier, when the back four maintained a straight defensive line even when we had possession. This season things have been stretched in other directions. We’ve already seen how Pennant and Gonzalez have effectively been able to widen the pitch, while Bellamy, despite his tendency to wander offside, is simultaneously lengthening it. In short there’s much more room to play attractive football. And periodically we’ve done it. Against Gala in the first half hour, against Chelsea at the Bridge, at home against Spurs in the second half, at the Reebok for 20 minutes after going two down. Not enough, and in one case too little too late. But even so there have been authentic signs of a formidable attacking team starting to emerge. 

Yet two things are holding us back. The first is that the extra space that’s been opened up in the middle of the pitch hasn’t been properly exploited yet. The second is that when we’ve lost the ball we’ve been less successful in making the pitch small again.

It’s surprising perhaps that we haven’t been able to exploit the extra space in the middle of the park when we’ve been going forward. It was always likely to take some time before our midfielders start pouring into the gaps like Valencia used to do, but I expected a touch more ingenuity than we’ve had so far. RAWKites will have their own preferred reasons why this isn’t happening – the failure to play Luis Garcia ‘in the hole’, the failure to play Fowler in alliance with a quick forward, the use of Gerrard on the right rather than in the centre, the tendency for Pennant to cross too early, the slow start to the season by Alonso, the profligacy of Sissoko when we have possession. All these theories have something to commend them I think. But so does the sheer fact of unfamiliarity. For what it’s worth I would play Garcia behind the centre forward(s) while maintaining our width, but I suspect (and hope) that the solution when it comes will be collective rather than individual. We have some superb attacking talent now, and it is up to all our players to familiarize themselves with the new demands and exploit the new opportunities that will result. In a sense I don’t care who plays so long as we develop an ability, as a team, to play as a unit further up the field and to retain the ball better around the opponent’s penalty box.

As for ‘making the pitch small again’ when we lose possession, well that’s going to be harder if we are committed to playing two strikers and two genuine wide men. Benitez admitted that after the first game and clearly he’s prepared to take a risk. It’s a risk that obviously can’t be mitigated this season by sending on Didi Hamann to set up his toll-booth in front of the back four. His disappearance, together with the use of genuine wingers whose very width makes it harder for them to tuck in and help the full-backs, mean that there’s a hell of a lot more pressure on Xabi and the defence this season. Ultimately, the best way to relieve that pressure is to keep the ball more – to be less open to the big capsize because a player has lost possession with all our forwards committed. At the moment it’s happening too often. Towards the end against Gala it was happening nearly all the time, and we lucky to get away with it.

That first touch

When a coach puts a premium on pace, like Rafa has done, it can spoil everything if individual players can’t match the speed of their colleagues. I don’t mean foot-speed. Not all great footballers have that. I mean the ability to instantly control the ball and the ability to think ahead before you receive the ball. The two are closely related. Indeed, in the sense that there’s no such thing as a good first touch if the player hasn’t already thought about what he wants to do with the second one, they are identical.

Some of our men have got a wonderful first touch. Alonso, Crouch, and Kuyt are naturals. Garcia's and Gerrard's are more erratic, but mainly because they are more ambitious. Others struggle. Especially in defence do they struggle. “So what?” some might say. “What does it matter if Riise takes two attempts to really get the ball where he wants it? He’s a defender and he’s got more time to deal with the situation than a forward like Crouch or Kuyt who has to control the ball and move it along quickly with Terry or Toure snapping at his heels”. Well, yes, perhaps that would be good enough for most English teams. Bolton, for example, can afford to have guys at the back who need that extra bit of time to control the ball. But only because Allardyce makes so few offensive demands of his back four. At Liverpool – this season even more than last – it’s certainly not good enough. That extra second needed to control the ball takes an extra second off what Gonzalez can offer you when he gets it.

John Arne Riise seems to me the biggest offender here. All too often he doesn’t seem to know what his options are until he’s got the ball sufficiently under control to look up. By then, of course, his options have narrowed. But Carra could do better as well. His distribution has improved no end under Rafa, but he still seems at a loss when offered a bit of space to run into. That strange hop he sometimes does when he’s carrying the ball forward is symptomatic of this I think. It’s almost a physical distillation of his indecision. With each hop he slows down, and once Carra has slowed down enough to stop he finds it impossible to start again. All momentum is lost. It’s more noticeable now because of Daniel Agger’s contribution to the team. Here is a player who usually knows what his options are before he gets the ball, and whose technique is so sound that his first touch is often good enough to completely change the picture in front of him. (Pepe Reina is another defensive player who has the ability to think aggressively ahead and buy his forwards that extra second, regardless of the fact that he was so abysmally punished on Saturday for this very skill). Carra may never acquire this level of instinctive understanding but with his proven ability to learn and develop he has the capacity, surely, to contribute more to the pace of Liverpool’s play than he has done so far this season. 

The good news for Liverpool is that we are still not too far off the top despite our stuttering start. The better news is that we have acquired players over the summer who are adventurous and technically excellent  (I include Aurelio in that too). The expected news, I hope, is that things will soon click. When they do we should be quite a proposition.

© yorkykopite 2006

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