Liverpool 2 Man City 1 - The Signs Are Good

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 22, 2004, 03:13:49 PM

For the second week running there was evidence that the club is in transition from one playing style to another, and therefore evidence of the bad old ways was still visible at times. The good news is that on both occasions there has been ample evidence of the benefits of Benitez's style. To expect 90 minutes of cohesive, intuitive football is asking for too much at this stage of a new manager's tenure. The side has to be allowed to evolve. Frankly, at this early stage, the signs are hugely encouraging, even if it is a case of them being just that - signs, rather than conclusive proof. Conclusive proof takes time.

We started nervously, and were a little cagey, but the home form - and the lingering fears in the players' minds - of the last two years is not something you can wipe out in an instant. City - normally so attack-minded - came to get numbers behind the ball, looking to counter-attack with the pace of Anelka and Wright-Phillips, and while we were never under serious threat (except when Dudek, revisiting past horrors, was busy spilling the ball), it took us a little while to get into our attacking stride.

Sometimes conceding a goal at home guarantees a good performance, if not necessarily a good result. Once you are behind, you have no option but to revert to all-out attack. It's hard to imagine - even in the dire performances the home crowds saw in recent seasons - that Houllier's Liverpool would not have reacted in a similarly positive manner. The big difference was in the nature of our play in that response.

Yesterday, we played football. We passed, we moved. We switched flanks. Full-backs overlapped. We carved opportunities with Gerrard's passing on the deck, not lofted balls into the box from him, or the central defenders. Under Houllier, I felt we created lots of half-chances (good for the statisticians) by hoisting the ball into the area; when it falls, it's a lottery and you may get a shot at goal. But there will always be a cluster of defenders there too, and chances are often snatched at in those circumstances. Yesterday, we created chances as Arsenal do: clear-cut ones, where the striker has time and space to act.

The evidence of Benitez's Liverpool is that the team will keep the ball with patience, but go direct to the quick and willing front-runners if the chance is there. My favourite football quote remains Bob Paisley's "It's not about the long ball, or the short ball, but the right ball."

Even at home, against the City massed ranks defending deep at times, we played Baros and Cisse clean through on David James' goal almost half a dozen occasions. Twice it resulted in a goal, and on another occasion it saw City deservedly reduced to ten men. We dragged them this way and that, until the killer pass presented itself. Under Houllier, the killer pass was always the first thought in players' minds, and that made us predictable; defenders knew what to expect, and reacted accordingly. Everything went through the centre of the opposition defence, so they huddled up to close us out. Under Benitez, we pushed the ball out to either wing, stretching the play, until gaps arrived at the heart of the City defence.

When it didn't go to either flank, or forward with a cunning pass, the midfielders let rip with shots from the perfect distance: never too far out so that it was merely "hopeful" (the 40-yard punt at goal was another Houllier-related failing) and, with the opposition defence unable to cluster around the edge of their own area, there was also space to shoot without clattering the ball into an opponent. Gerrard had a couple of superb efforts well-saved, as did Kewell. When Gerrard shaped-up to strike another just after half time, he opened his body to strike the ball and then laid a delightful pass to Baros to cooly lift the ball over David James.

The hardest thing about putting that kind of disguise on your intentions is that your body is set up to do something contrary. Often it results in neither a shot nor a pass but some bizarre bastard-hybrid; with Gerrard, it was inch-perfect: Milan never had to break his stride, nor did he have to stretch for the ball, and within a second Anfield was reverberating to the sound of "Meeee-lan, Meeee-lan". Gerrard sprinted to congratulate our number five, and later Baros sprinted to congratulate his captain for the winner. Both goals were down to Gerrard-Baros combinations - where once it was Gerrard-Owen. In the absence of our old talisman, Baros no longer has anyone else casting a shadow over him. He knows his worth to the team now, and that doesn't include spending more time on the bench than in the team. And in Cisse he has a partner to worry - and tire out - defenders. Something the Owen-Heskey strikeforce lacked, with only one goal-threat in that particular partnership.

In a "footballing" side, Baros looked like the Czech version of the player we so admired this summer. He ran with the ball with the same determination as always - nuzzling and burrowing at defenders, with his low centre of gravity, until they fouled him or he left them trailing - but instead of heading down blind alleys, there were players on hand to lay it off to if he wasn't making headway. He was kicked to pieces in the first half, and came out for the second to put in his best 45 minutes in a red shirt. He was sensational. As in Euro 2004, suddenly he looked aware, and chose wisely the moments to run with the ball, and those to lay it simple. His Liverpool career effectively begins here. The sky is the limit for the lad.

Gerrard remains outstanding under Benitez, but he has other players weighing in and, with Alonso and Garcia able to make their debuts next week, support continues to arrive. In the first half, I sensed Gerrard was playing too sensibly; in the second, he attacked with total freedom, and scored his third goal in three games under the new manager, while still finding time to chase back and harry.

Talking of harrying, Harry Kewell impressed me. Unfortunately, the crowd around me seemed less aware of the value of his contribution: baying that he take men on at every opportunity, and missing the point that a pass can beat three men quicker than any skill can. As at Spurs, Harry drew men to cover against him quicker than flies around the Mancs. On several occasions he jinked inside to lay on a shooting opportunity; on others, he passed first-time and suddenly we were outnumbering City in another area of the pitch. He played with intelligence and worked hard, but some people will never be happy unless he is doing all the party tricks; and yet on the occasions he tried to beat a couple of men and lost the ball, the same fans were berating him. If he occupies two or three defenders, he is doing his job.

His understanding with Riise is blossoming very nicely indeed. There were four or five delightful chipped passes to Riise overlapping, and each one took some desperate defending or goalkeeping to deal with. Warnock impressed once more as a sub on that side of the pitch, and he looks tough, quick and good on the ball. For all the hysteria about Spaniards arriving like the Armada, we ended the match with three home-grown scousers in the side, and that never happened much (if at all?) under Shankly, Paisley or Dalglish. Even when Alonso and Garcia are eligible and Finnan and Hamann drop out of the starting eleven, Warnock stands a good chance of retaining his place on the bench due to his commitment and versatility.

In the same vein as Riise and Kewell, Josemi and Garcia could get a nice Spanish link going on the right. With Garcia likely to provide far more cut and thrust on the right than the willing but limited Finnan - the Spaniard offering goals, crosses and silky skills - that will give teams an extra headache when facing us, and allow players like Gerrard and Kewell more time and space; if Kewell has players doubling-up against him, a quick switch of the ball to the opposite wing will mean Garcia will have to be in space, and vice versa. There are only so many defenders an opposition can utilise, so the more threats we pose across our attacking line-up, the easier each will find it to do maximum damage. Even Alonso, who will be the "defensive" midfielder, has a range of attacking instincts to his game. I felt Didi played very well yet again yesterday, and got the ball moving quickly forward when he won it, but Alonso is someone with greater awareness and vision. As well as Didi does, if Alonso can improve the team's all-round play by a further 10%, that will make a massive difference.

Elsewhere I was very impressed by Carra, I think he is maturing into an outstanding centre half. In that position, he's not required to play "special" passes or whip in crosses, but gives it sensibly to others; none of the hoofing of yore.

All eyes were on Cisse on his home debut, and I felt he struggled with the pace of the game at times - he also had to play second fiddle to the enormously pro-active Baros for much of the match - but as I predicted, the turbo-charge acceleration has started to appear in the Frenchman's game now he's getting fitter and sharper. Three times in the game he terrified defenders with his direct running. I loved his intelligence in his movement for the run which got Dunne sent off. As Cisse tried to run around Dunne (no mean feat - it's like circumnavigating a mountain), Dunne blocked him off. What I liked was that Cisse, realising his path to goal would be obstructed, then checked and jinked the other side of Dunne. Dunne had no option but to haul him down. I'm not sure why it wasn't a straight red card, as it was a professional foul in every sense of the ruling.

I still think it will be Christmas before this side is settled and functioning to the best of its combined abilities, but that's not a bad present to remain patient to receive.

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