Liverpool 0 West Ham 0 – It’s grim at the top

Posted by Barrettski on December 2, 2008, 01:24:00 PM

Liverpool 0 West Ham 0 – It’s grim at the top

A Baltic night on Merseyside presented Liverpool with the chance to go clear at the top of Premier League.  Zola’s side have offered nothing this season and so the whiff of three points and burgers filled the night air.  But instead, the Reds stuttered to the top of the table with all the style and conviction of a lad buying his first pack of condoms.  Rarely has a game been this painful to watch and never in living memory has a side been booed to the top.

The Stoke game was labelled as one never to be repeated.  But the older heads in the stands can see the patterns here.  Like Birmingham last season, Fulham turned up last Saturday with the same work ethic and dedication to earning that prized nil-nil.  Surely that could never happen again?  Surely a lesser team couldn’t just turn up with two Houllier style banks of four and expect to head down the M6 with a point?  Au contraire mes amis.  This season we are once again haunted by a stifling lack of quality players to break down the brave and industrious.

West Ham United lined up with Green in nets (quality young keeper), Collins and Upson (remember me?) started in the middle with full backs Ilunga and Neill (now playing for a big club) outside them.  The plus fours infront were Faubert, Mullins, Parker and Behrami.  Upfront Cole (all promise no show) joined our old friend Craig Bellamy.

Liverpool lined up with Pepe in nets and Sami and Carra infront of him.  Arbeloa filled the right back slot and with Aurelio injured, Dossena was asked to finish his dustbin round early and play left back.  Stevie and Xabi paired up once more in the middle of the park with Mascherano on the bench following a poor midweek by his standards.  Outside them Riera and Benayoun provided genuine width.  Upfront we had two of the shortest strikers in Kuyt and Keane.  Not for the first time this season our team sheet was greeted with more scratching of heads than a room full of school kids waiting for Nitty Nora.

A “Free Michael Now” Kop mosaic and some wonderful support for Michael Shields started the evening well.  Was Istanbul really over three years ago?  My, how the wheels of justice turn slowly.  The mosaic stood proud for a good few minutes before giving way to a rousing volley of sound.  I allowed a European night tingle to go down my spine before settling in.

The early tempo was high as Liverpool attacked the Annie Road End.  Alonso began orchestrating the game from outside the centre circle as we began the search for magic in the final third of the pitch.  Early joy came down the right as Benayoun found Llunga intent on using his hands to block crosses.  No free kick was given as the Happy Hammer was clearly just protecting his bits.  Buoyed by the space found infront of the Reds Bar seats, Gerrard went skipping into the box before going down.  But again, nothing was given.

West Ham adjusted and closed down the space on the right.  With blue shirts now sprinkled around him, we’d hear nothing more from Benayoun.  Meanwhile on the left Dossena found himself on a pitch of is own and took to thundering past Riera on the overlap like a runaway tank engine.  West Ham must have seen his last performance, left him well alone and watched as his succession of decent crosses went begging.  Peter Crouch would have enjoyed this game.

I counted 53 Liverpool corners in the first half as crosses from both sides were easily blocked by both Ilunga and Neill and some spurious shooting ricocheted past Green.  From those corners Hyypia rose, salmon like, to show a bit of hunger and get his blondie locks to the ball three times.  The first glanced wide, the second powered marginally over and the third, from a Kuyt flick, was cleared off the line.  Tartan rugs rustled in the Main Stand and “it’s not going to happen” could be heard being murmured as thermos flasks popped open.

A collection of familiar clichés completed our first half.  Gerrard found an extra gear to race through and hit the side netting.  Passing sideways became fashionable again for the first time since the Jamie Rednapp Centre Circle Show.  Kuyt miscontrolled most things and Xabi pinged 50 yard cross field balls for fun only to be matched by Dossena of all people. 

For their part, West Ham looked to score on the break.  Faubert managed a long range daisy cutter but the “slower ball” didn’t deceive Reina.  Bellamy’s astounding 30 yard screamer did though and some people spilt their Bovril as the ball cannoned back off the inside of the post. 

Nil-nil at half time and the questions began to flow.  Why are we playing two wide men without a target Toshack in the middle?  Why did we play without wide men when we had Crouch?  Was Robbie Keane playing?  Would Babel get more than twenty minutes to prove himself?  Would anyone take the responsibility to beat a player instead of opting for the safe pass back?  And… could we swap Lucas for the lad who juggled the ball at half time?  Please?

Predictably there were no changes at half time.  There would be no changes until the sixty minute mark after which Robbie Keane would be removed as a punishment for not scoring.  That is the law.  Personally I had more admiration for Jose Mourinho’s liking for changing things when the writing is on the wall. 

For me we either needed the wide players to get adventurous, beat players (and lose possession sometimes) to put balls into a target man, i.e. Ngog.  Or we needed to commit to playing tighter with Kuyt and Keane playing closer together and relying on Riera, Benayoun and Gerrard to pass and move with one touch football.  Neither happened and the final third magic remained elusive, so much so Gerrard took to hitting forty yard Hollywood efforts.  You could blame him… or you could ask him to pass to Yossi and see the ball end up at Carragher’s feet behind him.

The second half did see the game stretched a little more.  Cole in particular provided an outlet for West Ham, which in turn provided more space once Liverpool regained possession.  One such opening saw Kuyt take the ball from half way to the final third.  A yawning gap opened for Gerrard to be played in.  Mesmerised by the chance of glory Kuyt ignored the pass, not once but twice, before hitting a lame shot at Green.  Stevie’s look of disgust was more than matched by those on 12,500 faces behind the goal.

Green went on to perform more impressive feats as the half chances kept coming.  First Benayoun hit a volley just above his head.  Green opted to put that one over the bar for the cameras and in the final few minutes a one handed save from close quarters kept Kuyt at bay.  Boa Morte and Cole had chances at the other end but despite the hyper tempo of the closing minutes this game was being drawn unerringly towards its goalless destiny.

There were moments to enjoy here.  The sight of Sami Hyypia is such majestic form was a joy.  He won everything, mostly through anticipation and without the need for a challenge and he was one of few players capable of putting a calm first time pass to feet.  We also saw Dossena’s potential, who without any real defensive responsibilities was able to exploit the left side, spookily like a John Arne Riise could.

For the more imaginative fans, you could pretend you’ve just landed back on the planet to find your team top of the table, in the last sixteen of the Champions League and all this without playing well and without much input from Torres.

However, for those who cannot afford mushrooms, the reality is far far grimmer.  We have 42 named senior professionals of whom only a handful have the quality or sheer desire to truly contribute to a championship winning side.  Of the remainder some have potential, but the vast majority cannot be called upon to break a side like West Ham. 

Our competition have world class craftsmen to destroy an organised defence, malodorous cartoon characters they might be, but still they’re still world class… Meanwhile, we have a lightweight winger unable to go past anyone, some Spanish potential who started the season well but simply cannot get into a game, a very likeable heart-on-his-sleeve Dutchman to whom both one touch control and first touch football is alien and we have a boyhood fan who has learnt the art of going missing from Lucas Leiva himself and has neither the pace or aerial power to do what Rafa is asking of him.

So we might be top of the league for now, but like that lad buying his first pack of condoms, there’s a hell of a long way to go and a lot to learn before we can even contemplate enjoying ourselves.

Redmen performances:

Reina:  Mostly untroubled (again).  Got close to Bellamy’s screamer but was glad to see it come back off the post and avoid him too.  Excellent punch out when under pressure from a late corner.  Marvellous.

Arbeloa:  There’s quality there but all too often it appears to be punctuated with unconvincing episodes.  Often seemed to think he had more time than he did.  Offered Benayoun enough support to go forward but could have done more.

Dossena:  A less agricultural display than we’ve seen previously, due mostly to the lack of defensive responsibilities thrust on him by West Ham.  Still waiting to see why we put our hands so deep in our pockets to bring him here.  Suspect I might be waiting some time.  Great running and great crosses though.

Hyypia:  Rolled back the years with a commanding display in the air and on the floor.  Won everything, read everything and was calm and measured in his distribution.  Delightful to watch.

Carragher:  Played second fiddle to Sami but did it well.  His new found touches now take him out of trouble when needed.  The pace of Bellamy and Cole was simply not the concern it might have been.  My only query is the communication with the full backs.  Que?

Xabi Alonso:  Majestic at times and solid for the remainder.  Tried a couple of defence opening passes only to see them zip through beyond Benayoun and Keane.  If only the running had been better he could have played a true quarterback role.

Gerrard:  Captain fantastic cannot win the game on his own all the time.  With the wide men permanently hugging the touchlines there weren’t the players for Stevie to play off going forward.  The alternative would have been endless driving forward with the ball.  I’m a fan of the tactic against these sides, Rafa isn’t.  40 yard shots on goal against a form keeper are also not the answer… but without class players providing options what do you do?

Benayoun:  Lightweight, incapable of picking out a player that wasn’t behind him, left his marker twice (Xabi didn’t find him though), unable to go past a player, unable to hold the ball up without being shrugged off it.  Need I go on?  With any luck he got on the West Ham bus.

Riera:  Showed more touch and drive than Benayoun but not a lot more.  Stayed wide (under orders?) and didn’t make himself available often enough to get into the game.  Prone to too may touches and if you’re going to do three step overs make sure you get the ball into the box.  Anything else looks daft. 

Kuyt:  This game called for guile, touch, class and quality.  Like a partygoer going to the wrong fancy dress party Kuyt brought effort, industry, bluster and bravery.  We love him for it, not least because his style creates its own chances, but it’s not enough in these games. 

Keane:  In his defence he never received a likeable ball in to feet when he asked for it, but was he ever really free to receive one?  The high balls pumped towards him were frustrating but when we needed him to either lead the line or move quickly for the ball he seemed to do neither.  In fact he was on his heels for much of the game and therefore never likely to make up for his lack of pace.  We’d have forgiven him if his second half drag to the right and shot had gone in, but Robbie – it wasn’t even on target.

Babel:  Was given a mighty 12 minutes to show his worth.  And didn’t.  Like Riera he seemed to struggle to get into the game, didn’t sense the need for quick movement, first touch football with a pass and move groove.  Instead he wanted the touches, to beat three players and steal the headline grabbing finish.  So much to learn and so much time taken already.  I can see where Rafa’s frustration comes from, but really 20 minutes here and 12 there are not going to prove anything and the player is now consigned to uncertainty and tabloid speculation.  Not good management imho.

Ngog:  Replaced Keane after 66 minutes and did more with his time.  Showed enough hunger to come for the ball and enough athleticism to cause a threat.  But by the closing stages the West Ham box was a crowded place to be and there’s little chance to shine there unless the ball falls for you.  It didn’t.

Kop:  Nice mosaic, good run of traditional favourites in the first half but then if there ever was proof that the fans need something back from the players to up the tempo this was it.  The noise was there in the first twenty and last ten… but not a lot more.  And the booing?  That must be the loudest chorus of boos to greet a table topping team in history.  I’d rather save it for outside the ground, players like Cara, Sami and Gerrard ran themselves hard for the club and didn’t deserve that.

Them:  Low in numbers, respectful of the Michael Shields speeches (nicely done), had a few bubbles but also sneaked in a couple of “Feed the Scousers” and comedy job related jibes.  Comedy – some of us have been to your neck of the woods you know.

Referee:  Unable to give a hand ball until late in the game but otherwise quite solid I thought, even keen to play advantages - not that we had the quality to take advantage of flowing play.

© Barrettski 2008

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