Bleak November Yet Again? Boro 2 LFC 0

Posted by Paul Tomkins on November 21, 2004, 01:47:46 PM

What is it with November, and poor form at Liverpool Football Club? A home reverse to Birmingham (the first of the season in the league) and now a rather disappointing away defeat at ever-improving Boro.

A check of the fixture list confirms it is the worst four weeks possible for Milan Baros to join Djibril Cisse on the sidelines. An away trip to high-flying Boro (a fruitless hunting ground), and away trips to over-achieving Everton and Aston Villa. In between, hosting two perennial rivals, Arsenal and Newcastle, at Anfield. All the while concluding the tightly-run Champions League group phase; where the lack of a world-class striker could end up costing us millions (and therefore leaving less money to buy another).

The only solace we can take from losing Gerrard and Baros to enforced early-to-mid-season breaks is that they were both very busy over the summer, and Cisse's injury (and Owen's departure) meant Baros had to start every subsequent game. This way, both players have a natural chance to recharge their batteries. They are possibly the only two players (ignoring defenders, who don't get rotated) who would never have been rested by Rafa in his rotation policy, given Baros' current form (and our lack of strikers) and Gerrard's status as club captain and inspiration.

The second half of the season should, in theory, see us flourish while Everton (with their paper-thin squad) and others run out of steam. The trouble could be that there's too much ground to make up. Rafa's luck - in being without three strikers (including losing Owen when he'd planned to have him), Gerrard to injury and a litany of poor decisions from officials - surely has to turn soon. There have been five or six penalties we've not been awarded this season, and when we finally get two in one match, it should actually have been three.

I had a little sympathy for Gerard Houllier last season, and the injuries to key personnel. But I also felt that after five years in charge (and over £100m spent), he should have assembled some serious depth to his squad - clearly he hadn't; Benitez had barely five weeks this summer in which to buy players - and when Owen left, he had no time to secure a replacement. After five weeks, he couldn't even have fully known who needed replacing. If in two or three years' time Benitez hasn't brought in better reserves, then he can be criticized. But he is still working with 95% of Houllier's masterplan.

Maybe we need to start making our own luck, but the officials aren't helping. Zenden had a reversal of fortune from the cup game; but this was the game that we needed to win - as evinced by the sides both teams put out at Anfield. He was possibly onside yesterday, but it was tight - less clearly onside than Luis Garcia was at the Reebok, when his great effort was chalked off. The overriding fact is that had Luis Garcia's goal made it 1-1, the game would have taken a different course, and due to cause-and-effect, Zenden's chance would not have arisen.

Yet again Luis Garcia was let down by the officials - that's now two legitimate league goals wrongly chalked off, not to mention the goal-bound shot Muzzy Izzet stopped with his hand. In this instance the linesman couldn't clearly see who the final touch came off - and so missed that it was Downing of Boro who laid the Spaniard in on goal. But that doesn't make it any more easy to stomach. Luis Garcia's finish was superb, but he also keeps missing chances; as I keep repeating, though, he makes things happen. Had the linesman's decisions not been so incorrect this season, he'd have five league goals in ten games: a great return from a mix of wide midfield or behind the main striker.

Kewell's confidence in front of goal, meanwhile, is obviously going to be low until he gets any kind of goal, but at least he was also getting on the end of chances. The header which Mark Schwarzer somehow saved was hard to fault; a player banging in goals would perhaps aim a little more for the corners, but when low on form you tend to look to hit the target with as much power in an effort on goal as possible. Kewell's header was hard and low, and on another day would have gone in.

I commented before the match that I felt we'd create chances with that side (we did - ten shots on target to Boro's six), but may struggle to put them away. That's where we miss someone like Baros, who has that killer instinct. Luis Garcia and Harry Kewell are the kind of players who will score goals throughout their career, but can never be relied upon, in the way you can with the best strikers around.

With Gerrard returning, and so many creative midfielders in the side, it is surely time to throw Neil Mellor in. The jury is rightly still out on him, to my mind, as he's yet to prove much in first-team football. But he's a finisher, pure and simple, and if you can supply him with chances he has the right instincts to convert them - providing he can handle the pressure that comes with first-team football. By pulling Luis Garcia or Kewell back, that's one more player to supply the ammunition.

With Gerrard's return came a startling revelation, published in the Independent this Saturday:

"Liverpool coped without their captain because Liverpool always do. In one of the great statistical wonders of the age, they win more matches without him than with him and this season the pattern has been repeated. Seven points from five [now six, although Gerrard only entered play when we were 1-0 down] games with Gerrard, 13 from seven without him. There seems to be no footballing explanation for it."

On top of this, consider Man City last season. Anelka was scoring all their goals, but they were losing. Anelka's injury resulted in City finally winning some games.

Then there was Wayne Rooney and Everton. As soon as he left, they have reverted to a 'team' of equally-average parts (rather than one superstar overshadowing the whole place), and suddenly they are winning 1-0 every week. The power of the 'team' over the 'star' ? (It'll be interesting to see how they fare once they start spending the Rooney transfer fee, and if their unity is unsettled - especially if they make one or two big signings on higher wages).

So my point is this - do teams 'pull together' more in the absence of their best player, when that player is the clear 'superstar' in the squad? Do we leave too much up to Steven Gerrard when he plays for us? It was certainly the case last season, when players seemed to abdicate responsibility and stand around waiting for him to do something.

I'm sure there's something in it; but I'm also sure I'd want Gerrard in my team (and Anelka, for that matter, too - as goalscorers, more often than not, win games). It's a question of gelling more talented players into a team pattern. I doubt very much that Arsenal would be the same team without Thierry Henry, just as they're struggling without their rock at the back, Sol Campbell (who, surprise surprise, is back in training ahead of next week's game - their best defender returning at a time when, with our best strikers out, we could use Pascal Cygan's generosity).

It's also worth noting that although Rooney may have been Everton's best player, he never scored many goals for them. So they never had to cope with replacing a 20-30 goals-a-season man.

To challenge at the top, over the course of a season, pure quality tells in the end - but only when mixed with effort and unity. What Henry has at Arsenal is a team of players (and manager) who believe in him, and who work equally as hard as he does. Players like Henry, just as with John Barnes at Liverpool, flourish only in settings where they are both valued and relied upon: loved, but also demanded and expected to make the difference; given the responsibility to be the main man, but also the backing. In other settings, you feel these players have been merely demanded to produce, without the backing and support.

Similarly, Chelsea's season only really clicked into gear once Damien Duff and Arjen Robben entered the side. You can be a very good side with eleven hard-working journeymen, but never a great side over a long-season; you may win a cup from five or six games (as Greece did), but you will never secure a trophy that requires a larger amount of games to win.

Rafa is certainly someone who believes in the team ethic over individuality, but of course individuals are the players who make the clever passes, and score the goals. A team may create a goal, but a sole individual scores it - and that's why Baros had been so handy as, in the final third, he makes it his duty to score the goals.

Valencia may not have been a team of superstars, but that doesn't mean they weren't a team of super players.

We have some great players, too. It's just getting them all on the pitch at the same time. (And finding some super officials).

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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