Depressing, but light beyond every dark cloud.

Posted by Paul Tomkins on January 16, 2005, 04:53:33 PM

It's difficult to pick yourself up after losing at home to United; all the more annoying as this narrow defeat came on the back of definite improvements in recent weeks and great performances in the big games at Anfield this season 末 somehow it was set up for us to win, and we flunked it.

Many have said it was a great chance to beat United, given their absentees; of course, I'd have preferred to be playing them with Alonso, Kewell, Finnan, Kirkland, Smicer and Cisse in our 16; and with a fully match-fit Pellegrino and Morientes. Ultimately it came down to superior experience and depth in the United squad, and on their part, a huge slice of luck.

Of course, from our point of view it's not bad luck when your keeper fails to save an easy shot 末 although as a manager you cannot legislate for such sloppiness. (And with just an untested rookie in reserve, you cannot easily make changes. You grin, through gritted teeth, and bear it). While you expect your keeper to make such a basic save, Dudek is not the first to miss a tame shot; even the great Ray Clemence let Kenny Dalglish's mishit shot slip through his grasp, when England played Scotland in 1978.

Having said that, when Manchester United's keeper did that that very thing 末 failing to catch an easy shot 末 in their previous league game, they were rescued by the officals completely missing the clear goal. So they came to Anfield unbeaten and having not conceded in six games; when they should have lost to that late Spurs 'goal'. 'Thems the breaks'; somehow United seem to get them. I'm looking forward to seeing a few go out way.

It was the same with Phillip Neville's handball for yet another 'non' penalty for us in a big match (all of the big three have now got away with a blatant penalty offence at Anfield). Much was made of the ball striking Carra's hand against Norwich, but Carra's hands never moved and were by his side. Although Neville didn't intentionally handle the ball, he did jump to block a cross with his hands positioned high up in the air like a goalkeeper. Surely this is not a natural way to defend, and raising hands like that is obviously going to help stop the cross?

Anyway, in light of the ones we've not being given this season, this seems like a tame call, however legitimate. We didn't deserve to win, after all; however, I didn't feel we deserved to lose either. If ever a game had 0-0 written all over it, it was this; until Jerzy's intervention (or rather, failure to intervene when a slow shot crawled his way). Whatever happens with Dudek in the future, this fixture haunts him, and must give him the most terrifying nightmares; it does me . . .

Losing against both Everton and Manchester United (care of an ex-Blue) in recent weeks, both to tame shots, is not easy to take. Having already outplayed Arsenal and Chelsea at Anfield, it was disappointing to be so lacking in cutting edge in this game. But the type of football Rafa wants us to play ensures this won't remain a problem. I wasn't our day; extremely annoying, but it doesn't mean we're on the wrong tracks.

Perhaps Rafa will regret changing from the formation that had done so well against the two big London teams: 4-5-1 being replaced with 4-4-2. On this occasion, it meant Gerrard and Hamann were outnumbered in midfield, losing out to Keane, Scholes and Fletcher; United doing to us what Houllier often did to them at Old Trafford: men behind the ball, five in midfield, and scoring with their only meaningful attempt on goal. (And even that shouldn't have been meaningful, but an embarrassment to the moronic Rooney; instead Dudek was blushing as he writhed around on the floor like an old whore).

Benitez was right to not publicly castigate Jerzy Dudek in the aftermath, but inside he would have been fuming at the Pole missing such an easy shot in such a big game. As a manager you can pick a system, and be happily watching your team have the better of the opening exchanges; but one monumental error and even the best laid plans are shredded.

It's not just the fact of losing a goal and going behind in the kind of game where the first goal is invariably the most crucial, but the soul-destroying manner in which a goal like that is conceded. The goalkeeper's confidence disappears, and with it his teams'. It is the kind of goal that takes the stuffing out of a team.

4-4-2 is the formation almost everyone wants to see, and yet in this case it didn't help us. But the temptation to play Morientes was always going to be great; and to pair him with Baros made a lot of sense, as the two will be a great combination.

The need to put out the eleven best players was always going to be Rafa's primary concern, with Alonso, Kewell, Cisse and Finnan, amongst others, all missing. Tactics are one thing, but sometimes you just need to put out your best players, and hope quality counts. United missed key players too, but Ferguson has a larger squad to choose from, considering he has spent the last decade assembling it. He had more options to shuffle his pack.

El Moro showed some very fine touches, but it was a gamble by Rafa that didn't pay off. Milan Baros buzzed around 'Nando, with the Czech drifting wide, but the two cannot be expected to gel 24 hours after first meeting; it just doesn't happen. Morientes played some lovely flicks into Baros' path, but getting the return pass is never straightforward with Milan. Both players worked hard, and they are the kind of players where just one decent chance each and you're two goals to the good.

Although 4-4-2 allowed United to outnumber us in midfield on this occasion, 4-4-2 will ensure we can pick up lots of wins in the remaining games. Few midfields 末 even with three in the centre 末 will outdo Gerrard and whoever partners him (if Didi, hopefully not the pale shadow we saw yesterday 末 with Igor looking far better in his brief cameo); although, of course, if it was Alonso alongside Stevie G, we'd fare far better. Xabi is our metronome, our pace-setter, our key passer. You cannot afford to lose players of his calibre at the best of times; less so when you have a thin squad.

One thing I felt Rafa might differently 末 with hindsight 末 would be to have played Nunez. This was arguably a game crying out less for Luis Garcia's trickery (which is proving less effective by the week), and more for the bigger, stronger and quicker Nunez's more basic playing style of trying to beat his man as directly as possible in order to whip crosses in. (Nunez also put in the second-best block tackle when he came on; the best being Carra's on Heinze, who screamed like a girl).

Morientes would have appreciated the kind of service Nunez put in against Watford, and yet again 末 as a late sub 末 Nunez produced the cross of the match; by then Morientes was off (looking understandably exhausted). The chance fell to Luis Garcia, who sliced the shot wide. I feel Nunez and Morientes 末 who know each other from Real Madrid 末 will prove a key element to the Benitez era; as an individual many will still refuse to see Nunez's merits (and he was poor in his first few games), but what he can offer the team will become ever-more apparent. (At least I believe so; I am not expecting others to see it just yet). Whipped-in early crosses are what Morientes feeds on.

Two plusses were that Pellegrino and Morientes both made promising debuts 末 especially as neither had started a La Liga game all season, and taking into account how recently they'd arrived in England. (Admittedly Morientes did start in Real Madrid's 'seven minute match', when a game abandoned with seven minutes to go was later concluded; seven minutes being an amount similar to his substitute appearances, none of which were going to leave him match fit). Fortunately, his general condition on arriving was good, so it might be just two or three more games before we see him at his sharpest.

Pellegrino had a couple of shaky moments, but he and the outstanding Hyypia weren't given too many scares. Although Carra isn't the best at attacking from right back, I sense we could see this defence become the regular four (with perhaps Traore and Riise rotating), as yet again Carra showed his brilliance anywhere across the back four 末 and now uses the ball better than in seasons gone by. It is a gigantic back four (and will be even bigger as a 'five' when Kirkland returns).

One of Rafa's first concerns has to be to start keeping regular clean sheets; but for Dudek erring, this would have been a rare one. I feel this is a back four that won't be remarkable going forward, but one which can do the basics of 'shutting up shop'. Now we have more attacking quality in the side 末 and with the midfield given licence to get forward instead of protecting the back four the entire time 末 the need for attacking full-backs is reduced. (Ideally they'd both defend and attack brilliantly, but there aren't many of those around).

Rooney and Saha tried to use their pace to get around our super-large (super-slow) centre backs, but in order to do so they had to knock the ball into space to run onto it (knowing that in tight one-on-ones both Sami and Pellegrino are great tacklers); but once they did this, the other read it well, and mopped up. Pace at the heart of a defence is essential unless you have two brilliant readers of the game, and we do; so long as it doesn't lead to us dropping too deep, as we did when Henchoz played, we'll be okay; I sense Pellegrino has far more leadership qualities than Henchoz, and that Benitez wants the Argentinian in the side to make this defence think the way the Valencia one did (and after all, they never defended deep, did they?).

The more I think about it, the more I believe Pellegrino hasn't been purchased as mere cover, but in order to use his vast experience and wonderful organizational skills almost week-in, week-out. Time will tell . . .

No-one has scored more than two goals against us all season; and only rarely have we conceded more than one. No-one has beaten us out of sight. Tighten up at the back that fraction more, and we'll have the firepower to win games. Especially from set-pieces: if we can get the delivery right, we've got some fantastic headers of the ball now in the team. We'll continue to have set-backs, and we won't be the finished article by May; but the foundations for this side to become a great one are definitely being laid.

As ever, to register a (purely provisional) interest in purchasing my book on LFC when it is published this summer, please email

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

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