Liverpool 1 West Brom 0: Substance Over Style

Posted by Garstonite on August 29, 2010, 06:37:07 PM

After the resilient display in Europe on Thursday, it was back to the ‘bread and butter’ of the Premier League, as we played host to newly promoted West Bromwich Albion.

Six games into the new regime and substance, so far, has been triumphing over style. No sign yet of the shackles being removed. With the greatest respect to today’s opponents, I doubt I was the only person hoping to see a little more flair and creativity this afternoon.

Unfortunately, the team didn’t inspire much in the way of confidence. Pepe Reina started in goal, across the back four Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel and Agger. In midfield, Kuyt, Poulsen, Lucas and Milan Jovanovic, up front, Gerrard off Fernando Torres. Early impressions were that of confusion - from my part, at least. I mean, why go to the City of Manchester Stadium (which will surely prove to be one of the tougher places to travel this season) and play 4-4-2, but then revert to a cautious 4-2-3-1 at home to perennial relegation fodder West Brom?

For our opponents, ex-Reds ‘keeper Scott Carson in goal, across the back four Olsson, Tamas, Jara, Shorey, in midfield, Morrison, Dorrans, Mulumbu, Brunt, Odemwingie and Fortune up front on his own. On paper, a 4-5-1. On grass a very flexible system that varied throughout.

One obvious omission from the Liverpool team, of course. No Joe Cole as he serves the second of his three match ban. To me, Cole is already an enigma. He’s clearly an exceptional talent, with bags of ability, but with that said, I simply don’t understand the hype and I can’t help but think that accommodating him at the expense of Steven Gerrard (and Aquilani, while I’m at it) could be to Roy’s detriment. (More on that a little later.) With that said, I'd have rather have seen him on the pitch over two of our front four, no question

The game progressed in much the same fashion as our previous two home fixtures. West Brom looked a very confident side on Matchday One at Stamford Bridge. Granted they get absolutely hammered in the end, six goals to nil, but I saw signs in their play that I admired. They have always played the game the “right way” – which some argue has been to their downfall – but I think in this campaign they can feel more confident than ever.

West Brom are not your a-typical newly promoted side. They play with an air of confidence and a quality in possession that is rare for teams outside the top half of the table. Their centre-backs are both assured on the ball and few of their players look as though they need to gather the ball before they move it on. I thought Youssouf Mulumbu in the centre of the park was fantastic. Not only sticking his foot in when it mattered but always looking for a forward ball that often stuck to his intended target’s feet. It’s also easy to see why ex-Baggies boss Tony Mowbray rated forward Marc-Antoine Fortune highly enough to take him along with him to Celtic. He was a handful throughout the entire game, but did look a little toothless when opportunities came his way, in truth.

Which brings me to our performance in the first half. Sigh.

Christian Poulsen and Lucas Leiva in the centre of the park is just downright depressing. After giving him the MOTM award in the last game, I don’t want to come across as some form of curator for the Christian Poulsen fan club, but I don’t think his performance was that bad. He put his foot in and every time he gave the ball away it was in his attempt to actually pass the ball forward. Lucas, similarly, didn’t play badly but playing the two of them together against a side like West Brom (with all due respect) just screams negativity. Dirk Kuyt and Milan Jovanovic don’t exactly look inspiring on the wings, but they always receive the ball five seconds too late anyway. If you want to challenge at a high level, you need to play central midfielders that don’t have to compete in midfield battles against West Brom. You need to field central midfielders that take the game by the scruff of the neck and dominate the game. Poulsen and Lucas never looked like doing so for any sustained period of time.

The first half came and went without any incident of note. Milan Jovanovic was the only man that got the crowd on their feet with two gut-busting runs from midfield that didn’t materialise into anything. My fingers were firmly crossed that Hodgson showed the same authority he did against Trabzonspor and throw on a half-time substitution to change the course of the game. Alas, no such luck.

The second half continued and the frustrations of the first half were still prevalent. Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel had no answer to West Brom’s tight marking across the midfield. Daniel Agger never seemed to venture past the half way line and Christian Poulsen and Lucas Leiva were still masters of tackling the opposition and passing to one another, but provided nothing of any use going forward.

Roy did make one change though – Milan Jovanovic and Dirk Kuyt swapped wings. But without the service into them, we could have had George Best and Billy Liddell out there. It wouldn’t have mattered.

West Brom looked threatening up until the final third where they seemed to come unstuck. A few tame efforts from outside the box, but nothing for Pepe Reina to fret over. Our greatest threat came from set-pieces. One corner was scrambled away from inside the six yard box and another fell to Skrtel who hit a wonderful volleyed effort that flew just wide of the right-hand corner of the net.

From a defensive perspective, Skrtel tussled with Fortune throughout and, to his credit came out on top in most instances. From set-pieces however, Skrtel, to me, looks like an accident waiting to happen. It seems apparent that we’ve switched to a mix of zonal and man-to-man. I don’t know what Roy’s interpretation of man-to-man is, but if it reflects that of Martin Skrtel’s, it needs revising. His aggressive shirt-pulling will be punished by a referee some time soon. It has to. He needs to cut it out before it costs us.

When the game hit the hour mark, Roy was the first to shuffle his pack. Milan Jovanovic was replaced by Maxi Rodriguez on the right-hand side and the Argentine made an immediate impact, ghosting into dangerous positions and hitting the ball into dangerous areas.

On 65 minutes, West Brom sprung a counter-attack. They knocked the ball around the static Liverpool midfield before unleashing a shot at Pepe Reina. The crowd reacted with frustration but from there Pepe Reina threw a magnificent ball out to Dirk Kuyt who was encouraged to run into the acres of empty space that lay ahead of him. Instead, he opted to go inside to Torres who spun a brilliant pass back into Kuyt’s path. On the right-edge of the area, Kuyt for the first time in the game had options in the area. Attackers were occupying defenders, which allowed Torres to make space for himself. Kuyt found him with a fine pass which Torres hit first time, into the ground and into the back of the net, down low into Scott Carson’s right-hand corner. 1-0. Magical goal. Where would we be without Fernando?

From there, we began to look confident. Gerrard was running the show, seeing passes those in the stands hadn’t spotted. Taking up a position on the left, he exchanged passes with Kuyt before crossing the ball into Torres whose shot was blocked very well by Carson. Nearly a second.

We continued to show in short patches what we are truly capable of. Kuyt, this time coming in from the right, found Maxi, who found Gerrard, who found Torres in one sweeping move from right to left. Torres cut back on his favoured right and felt his resulting shot was blocked by a West Brom arm. Nothing given from the referee.

As the game drew to a close, West Brom committed men forward, which allowed Torres space on the break. He took up a position on the left-hand side to exploit the space the right-back Olsson was leaving. Receiving the ball there towards the end of the 90 minutes, he was hacked down recklessly by James Morrison who was shown a straight red card. The biggest sigh of relief in the game was when Torres got back on his feet after initially going down in a heap.

The final result, one-nil. There was a time when I’d look upon a result like this positively and say it was a “sign of Champions”. But in truth, it was hugely unconvincing.

MOTM – Steven Gerrard. You ask Fernando Torres who is favourite partner is and he will say Gerrard every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Even though Gerrard had no part to play in the goal (apart from occupying a West Brom defender inside the box), he made the difference. No way on Earth is this man a central-midfield player and if Joe Cole waltzes back into the team in that position, I’ll scream.

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