Sunday, 30 November 2014

Reds scrape Stoke win to end losing streak

Liverpool returned to winning ways with a narrow and nervy win at home to Stoke City on Saturday.

Glen Johnson’s brave headed effort in front of the Kop with five minutes left proved the difference, as Brendan Rodgers’ side recorded their first victory in all competitions since the end of October. It marked the culmination of a much-improved second half performance following an instantly forgettable first half from both sides.

Mark Hughes’ men, who had more possession and shots on target than their hosts, may have felt that they deserved a share of the spoils, but the Merseysiders ultimately wanted it more than the Potters as the need to arrest an alarming decline in the team’s fortunes proved critical heading into the potentially decisive festive fixtures.

The major team news was that Steven Gerrard was dropped to the bench exactly sixteen years to the day since his Liverpool debut.

Gerrard goads the abusive away fans while warming up
That bold decision by Brendan Rodgers, who late claimed to be unaware of the skipper’s landmark, was accompanied by a few other interesting selections, as Enrique, Toure and Lucas came in from the cold and were handed starting berths. Moreover, the in-form Rickie Lambert retained his place in the team as Balotelli and Sturridge remain injured.

Enrique and Toure were part of a back four that kept a clean sheet for only the third time this season, while Lucas put in a commanding performance in front of the defence that demonstrated his quality, which has gone largely untapped this season. He appears a far more accomplished defensive midfielder then Gerrard and even marauded forward on occasion, squandering one gilt-edged opportunity in the second half when he shot straight at the keeper when well-placed as Liverpool broke with a two-man advantage.

The first 45 minutes were absolutely dreadful. Not a single shot on target was recorded as Mignolet and Begovic barely got their gloves dirty, while both attacks struggled to get going. If anyone was going to produce anything for the Reds, it was either Coutinho or Sterling, who looked the liveliest, but overall it was another disjoined performance from a cagey Liverpool side clearly lacking in confidence.

Stoke, meanwhile, were happy to soak up the minimal pressure, knowing that, with their aerial prowess and Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses, all they needed to do to craft a decent goalscoring opportunity was win a set piece.

Thankfully, the second half was to the first what day is to night. Having almost certainly been on the receiving end of a stern word or two from Rodgers during the interval, Liverpool demonstrated far more determination, desire and urgency during the second period, possessing more of an attacking threat and doing enough to warrant the three points.

Captain for the day Jordan Henderson almost broke the deadlock six minutes after the restart, drilling a volleyed effort that many in the ground thought had breached the net just wide of goal. Stoke responded by going close on two occasions.

First, Mignolet diverted Diouf’s effort away with his feet after initially appearing caught in two minds as to whether or not to come off his line as the Senegalese striker latched on to Bojan’s pass and bore down on goal. Then, on the hour mark the former Barcelona player fired a threatening strike against the woodwork. Raheem Sterling immediately went up the other end and slotted a low left footed shot just wide of the far post as the players finally gave the supporters a spectacle to watch.

Sterling shot just wide
Encouragingly, Liverpool were playing much higher up the pitch and also producing some intricate passing movements that helped to unlock the visitors’ defence, Allen disappointingly shooting over the bar from six yards out following clever play by Coutinho and Sterling.

Their momentum was building and it only seemed a matter of time until the Reds took the lead; thankfully their pressure eventually told, although they had to suffer another fright a couple of minutes before going ahead. Stoke’s left wing corner wasn’t properly dealt with on the first time of asking by Liverpool, allowing Diouf to spin and volley goalwards from close range. Only a magnificent chested goalline clearance form Sterling denied the Potters’ number 18.

It wasn’t a moment of creative genius that prised open Stoke’s defence at the end of the day, but rather some much needed directness and determination. Gerrard swung in a cross to Lambert, whose looping header bounced back off the bar. Spotting the opportunity, Johnson reacted fastest and somehow managed to get his head to the ball, sending it into the net from a few yards out to score his first Premier League goal since December 2012.

It was a brilliant goal born simply of a greater desire to reach the ball than the Stoke defenders, one of whom inadvertently booted Johnson in the head, leaving the much-maligned England international bleeding.

Johnson put his head where it hurts to win the points for the hosts
The scars were a small price to pay for the precious points, though, which were eventually secured following seven minutes of injury time, in which Mignolet made an exceptional save, tipping Bojan’s tremendous volley over the bar to prevent a Stoke sucker-punch.

Scrapping a 1-0 win at home to Stoke City is certainly not where Liverpool want to be, or should be, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m just delighted that the Reds have finally won a match, however they went about doing it. It may have been ugly, but Kopites won’t be complaining if it’s the first step on the long road back to the level where Liverpool should be at.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

European fate remains in Reds' hands despite draw in Bulgaria

A late Ludogorets leveller dampened Liverpool’s spirits but did little to affect their Champions League chances.

Their task remains the same as it would have been had they held on to victory; they must beat Basel in the final group stage match at Anfield on 9 December to progress to the knockout stages. Considering his side’s recent run of poor form, Brendan Rodgers will be pleased that the Reds still control their European destiny, although another unconvincing performance blighted by defensive errors is unlikely to turn Liverpool’s season around.

Having arguably hit rock bottom at Crystal Palace on Sunday, Rodgers made three changes to the team, as Toure, Lucas and Henderson stepped in for Lovren, Coutinho and Lallana, who all dropped to the bench.

Unfortunately, the alterations appeared to make little immediate difference, as Liverpool conceded after only three minutes, damaging their already battered confidence. Simon Mignolet, the Belgian keeper who was called ‘worse than Dracula’ by Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar this week, was to blame, although Kolo Toure must receive his fair share of criticism too.

The Ivorian centre back’s poor clearance went straight to Marcelinho when he had the time to clear his lines properly. The number 84’s shot was then embarrassingly fumbled into the path of Dani Abalo by Mignolet, and he easily turned the ball home from close range.

It was a shocking way to the start the game and certainly didn’t bode well for the remainder of the match, but thankfully Liverpool levelled five minutes later with the assistance of some arguably equally atrocious defending from the hosts.

A meek headed clearance of Henderson’s pass was pounced upon by Rickie Lambert, who jumped and headed home from a few yards out to net his second goal in two matches for his boyhood team. It was great to see Lambert get on the scoresheet once again, and if he can continue his goalscoring run against Stoke and Leicester then Balotelli might have a job on his hands forcing his way back into the starting line-up.

Mignolet must improve rapidly

Lambert has taken the opportunity afforded him by Balotelli's injury
Following a frantic opening, the pace of the game began to slow, with Ludogorets looking the most likely to regain the lead, perhaps primarily due to the delicate and fragile nature of Liverpool’s defence.

Yordan Minev exploited a gap in the Reds’ back four to curl over the bar after a quarter of an hour, before Toure was fortunate to see his stabbed clearance from a cross go inches wide of his own goal. Mignolet was also vulnerable, briefly fumbling Fabio Espinho’s 30-yard free kick just after the half hour mark to the amusement of the home crowd.

However, Liverpool somehow entered the interval in front thanks to a goal against the run of play eight minutes before the break. Raheem Sterling, who performed better than he has done recently and whose pace and skill posed the main threat to the Bulgarians’ defence, laid on an inch perfect cross for Henderson, who converted at the back post to give Liverpool an unlikely and arguably undeserved lead.

Henderson gave Liverpool an unlikely lead at the break
More good news emerged from Switzerland at roughly the same time as well, as Cristiano Ronaldo scored to give Real Madrid the lead against Basel, Liverpool’s main rivals for the runners-up spot in Group B.

Needing a win to keep their hopes of clinching second place alive, Ludogorets came out of the blocks quickly, Dani Abalo sending a dipping shot wide of goal soon after the restart before Espinho curled a free kick just over the bar on the hour mark following a foul by Johnson, which the home side protested had actually taken place just inside the penalty area.

Liverpool, meanwhile, after creating but failing to convert a couple of chances to add to their lead, retreated deeper and deeper.

On 65 minutes Lambert’s header was blocked in front of goal and Henderson blazed the rebound over the bar from six yards out after some initial good build up play by Sterling. The 19-year old England international then combined with Gerrard to set up Henderson on another occasion, but this time his shot drifted wide of target.

Liverpool’s final goal-scoring chance came with eight minutes remaining when Gerrard’s pass sent Sterling through, but, struggling with injury by that point, Sterling could only shoot straight at the keeper. He was swiftly replaced by Moreno for the final few minutes.  

Stuck inside their own half, Liverpool came under significant pressure during the closing stages, Cosmin Moti and Junior Quixada missing the target for a Ludogorets side revitalised by a couple of substitutions.

With a depressing sense of inevitably, the Merseysiders eventually caved under the pressure, conceding from a poorly defended corner with two minutes left. Ludogorets won two headers in the box, Dyakov flicking the ball on to Terziev, who beat the sleeping Glen Johnson to power home from close range at the back post.

Why Johnson continues to be picked is beyond me
Ludogorets’ late leveller was deflating, as it deprives Liverpool of the morale boost that would have come with their first win in five. Thankfully, though, it does little to change the Reds’ Champions League chances. Win at home to Basel and they are through; it’s as simple as that. I, for one, cannot wait for what promises to be another European night to remember at Anfield.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Why Rodgers deserves time to turn things around

Those calling for Brendan Rodgers to be sacked need to gain some perspective. 

Liverpool’s season- hopefully- hit rock bottom at Selhurst Park on Sunday afternoon. Things surely can only get better after another confidence crushing defeat, this time to fellow strugglers Crystal Palace, who last won at the end of September against promoted side Leicester City.

Liverpool were at their lowest at Selhurst Park on Sunday
It’s a long way from the dizzying heights experienced last season, when Liverpool not only competed for the title, but also produced football that was out of this world on a weekly basis, delighting Kopites and instilling dread in opponents in equal measure.

Nowadays, teams look forward to facing Liverpool, as they know that, as long as they show a bit of desire, they are capable of beating Brendan Rodgers’ troubled team. Liverpool fans, meanwhile, are struggling to lift themselves from the depths of despair because their hopes of the Reds going one step further and clinching their 19th League title have been extinguished at such an early stage of the current campaign.

In the understandable inquisition into how the Reds’ stark decline has come about, boss Brendan Rodgers has been singled out for blame by many commentators and supporters.

He has spent a lot of money on players whose ability many are beginning to doubt as they continue to produce underwhelming displays; he has failed to sort out a back four that everybody knows needs dramatically improving; he has been too patient with consistent underperformers like Balotelli, Lovren and arguably Steven Gerrard; and his tactical ingenuity and flexibility appear to have deserted him as he persists with a formation and style of play that most opponents have sussed out.

Of course, Rodgers is by no means wholly to blame for the situation Liverpool find themselves in. It’s inevitably going to be difficult and take time to integrate that quantity of new arrivals, which were needed to bolster the squad and ensure sufficient depth to be able to compete on four fronts. Moreover, the Reds’ defenders need to take a long hard look at their individual performances, which have frequently been sub-standard, while injuries have curtailed Rodgers’ options in attack.

Nonetheless, the Northern Irish manager has admitted his mistakes and understands that he is ultimately accountable for the team’s performances, which have simply been nowhere near good enough this term.

Perhaps the main reason for disappointment this season has been the fact that Liverpool have failed to live up to the elevated expectations resulting from overachieving last season.

At the start of last season I would have been happy had the Reds finished just outside the top four, as long as they were there or thereabouts at the business end of the season. Instead, they somehow managed to remain in the title race until the final day of the season, qualifying for the Champions League with three games to spare and ultimately being pipped to the post by Manchester City as they finished runners up.

Managing the team to that success was a tremendous achievement by Rodgers that must not be downplayed or forgotten quickly. To a large degree, he is a victim of his own success, as qualifying for the Champions League ahead of schedule has not only raised expectations arguably beyond what is reasonable, but also imposed additional burdens on a squad unaccustomed to the pressures of regular high level midweek football.

Some have suggested that Rafa should replace Rodgers
Furthermore, Liverpool’s alternative managerial options should they sack Rodgers are scarce. Rafael Benitez has recently hinted at a future return to Merseyside, an area he is well known for feeling at home in, but the Spaniard seems settled at Napoli and it is rarely right to re-appoint a former manager, especially one who divided the fan base so sharply. Other options are thin on the ground, and would probably only prove a stop-gap solution midway through the season.

At the end of the day, Liverpool’s owners FSG have invested a significant amount of time and resources into Brendan Rodgers because they believe in his long term vision for the club, and it would be foolish to sack him and ditch his plan for the club now in favour of starting back at square one with another manager.

Rodgers is a talented young manager with the potential to build a dynasty at Anfield, as revealed by the exceptional performances of his team last season. Jettisoning his long term plan and sacking him after a run of bad results would be short-sighted and stupid, contradicting Liverpool’s long-standing and highly-esteemed tradition of backing their managers to the hilt and giving them the time to implement their plans for the club.

Brendan Rodgers deserves to be shown the same respect, by both the owners and the supporters.


Monday, 24 November 2014

Palace put Reds to shame as pressure mounts on Rodgers

Liverpool suffered their fourth straight defeat in all competitions on a sullen Sunday afternoon in South London.

First minute aside, the Reds put in an awful performance that was duly punished by Neil Warnock’s Crystal Palace side, who evidently had far more desire than the visitors to address their recent poor run with a confidence boosting victory.

Rickie Lambert opened the scoring with his first goal for Liverpool only a minute in, but Dwight Gayle, the Reds’ nemesis in the 3-3 draw on the penultimate match day of last season that effectively extinguished their title hopes, levelled soon after.

Then, in the closing stages silly defensive errors meant that the Merseysiders conceded two avoidable goals in quick succession, as Ledley and Jedinak consigned their opponents to another confidence crushing defeat at Selhurst Park. It was a frustrating continuation of the miserable form that Liverpool had displayed entering into the international break.

With Sturridge and Balotelli both injured, Rickie Lambert was given a rare run-out as Liverpool’s lone striker. Sterling played in a central role behind the 32-year old, flanked by Coutinho and Lallana, while Allen and Gerrard sat in front of the back four, although they provided little protection to a defence that needed all the help it could get.

Surprisingly, Liverpool began the game in the perfect manner, netting with their first attack on goal, as Lallana and Lambert exploited their knowledge of each other’s games built up during their time at former employer Southampton. The former sent a fantastic pass through to the latter, who evaded the attention of ex-Red Martin Kelly, controlled the ball exquisitely and scored coolly.

Lambert was delighted to get off the mark for Liverpool
It was Lambert’s first goal for the club and Lallana’s first assist, perhaps revealing how they have both struggled to settle on Merseyside, although Lallana did pick up an injury immediately upon arrival at Anfield and Lambert has been starved of game time as Rodgers has arguably been too patient with the misfiring Mario Balotelli.

Frustratingly, there was not enough evidence of fighting spirit from Liverpool, despite Joe Allen’s blood stained shirt following a cut to his head, and their lead only lasted 15 minutes. Man of the match Yannick Bolasie, who put in a dynamic performance and tormented Javier Manquillo, smashed a shot against the post from the edge of the box. Following in, Gayle reacted quickest to side-foot the ball against the helpless Mignolet and into the net.

Four of Gayle's nine Premier League goals have come against Liverpool
It was the sort of unlucky bounce that you always seem to be on the wrong end of when things aren’t going your way, but Gayle must also be given credit for gambling on the ball breaking to him. It is highly doubtful whether the languid Balotelli would have displayed similar desire and effort in the same circumstances.

Dangerous and unpredictable, Bolasie continued to pose the biggest threat to Liverpool. As Neil Warnock commented after the game, Palace’s number seven doesn’t even know himself what he’s going to do next, so it was a nightmare for Liverpool’s defence to try and work out how to combat him. 

Mignolet was required to produce a good save to turn away his effort, which bounced in front of the Belgian, on the half hour mark, and the 25-year old Frenchman went close to netting on two further occasions before the break.

First, Manquillo had to dive in to deflect his goal-bound strike over the bar after he’d stormed forward tremendously as part of a Palace counter-attack and then played a clever one-two with Puncheon to put himself in on goal. Puncheon found Bolasie again in injury time, negating the presence of Manquillo with a magnificent pass, but this time Bolasie’s powerful shot from a tight angle flew over the bar.

Bolasie was brilliant
At the other end, Lambert headed Allen’s decent cross over the bar and Gerrard smashed a 30-yard strike just over the bar as he attempted to roll back his glory years, but, for all their possession, Liverpool’s patient approach was yielding less in the way of goalmouth action than the hosts’ more direct style of play.

Little changed after the break; both sides, suffering a dearth of confidence, seemed uninspired and unsure as to how to win the match. Liverpool looked particularly unconvincing in front of goal, as Skrtel sliced off target after Gerrard’s corner kick fell favourably for him at the back post and Manquillo’s embarrassingly bad shot from Sterling’s pass went out for a throw in.

Unfortunately, the Reds performed even worse at the other end of the pitch, conceding two shambolic goals in the space of three minutes. First, on 78 minutes Mignolet handed possession back to Palace as he smashed a free kick out for a throw in. Liverpool failed to set themselves back up to defend swiftly enough and subsequently Palace capitalised, Bolasie leaving Lovren on the turf with some sumptuous skill before squaring to Joe Ledley, who was afforded the freedom of Selhurst Park by Liverpool’s defence, who watched on as he turned home from the penalty spot.

Ledley turns home from close range
Then, Skrtel, who had already been booked, almost got himself sent off as he foolishly pulled Gayle’s shirt. Admittedly, it was a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other as replays showed Gayle was pulling Skrtel’s shirt too, but the Slovakian was silly to give referee Jonathan Moss an excuse to award the home side a free kick.

Mile Jedinak proceeded to send an unstoppable free kick into the top corner. It was a brilliant strike, but it could so easily have been avoided if Skrtel had kept his hands to himself for once. That was that, as Liverpool weren’t going to find a way back into the game by that stage.

Jedinak's goal was the final nail in Liverpool's coffin
Liverpool now lie in twelfth position, closer to the relegation zone then the Champions League places. The Reds are in a full blown crisis, and there can be no excuses for the consistently poor performances and results so far this season. Something has got to change fast if the Reds are to arrest their decline and prevent this season being a washout.


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Reds feeling blue after Cahill and Costa strike

After a promising start, Liverpool faded away and were deservedly defeated by Chelsea at Anfield.

On the back of a brilliant display against Real on Tuesday night, Liverpool started brightly, taking the lead thanks to Emre Can’s deflected strike, but Chelsea quickly levelled and the Reds never looked like reclaiming the lead from that point on as Jose Mourinho’s table-topping Blues pinched the points courtesy of Costa’s second half strike.

It was a frustrating afternoon for the hosts, who were also scandalously denied a late penalty when referee Anthony Taylor failed to punish Chelsea centre back Gary Cahill for a blatant handball in the box.

At the end of the day, though, Liverpool could have few complaints, as their underwhelming performance did not merit a share of the spoils; it was a deflating way to enter the international break, quashing any momentum that might have been built up after the Merseysiders put in one of their best performances of the season in Madrid.

Surprisingly, and arguably unfairly considering the meritocracy Rodgers claims to be developing at Liverpool, Can was the only fringe player who retained his place in the starting line-up from the Madrid game. Toure, Lucas, Lallana and Borini, whose performances persuaded many Kopites that they deserved to start against Chelsea, had to settle for a seat on the subs’ bench.

After an impeccably observed minute’s silence for Remembrance Weekend, Liverpool started the game on the front foot, Can’s long-range effort taking a deflection off Terry and looping wide after only 30 seconds had been played.

Playing in a positive manner and with a high tempo, the Reds began the game as brightly as they had done so often last season, and were rewarded with the opening goal after only eight minutes. Can, a £10 million summer signing from Bayer Leverkusen, took full advantage of the freedom Chelsea’s defence granted him to wander forward, firing a speculative effort goalwards which was decisively deflected past Courtois and into his own net by Cahill.

Crucially, rather than consolidating their lead and securing their dominance, Liverpool quickly conceded an equaliser from- you guessed it- a sloppily defended set piece. Fabregas swung in a right wing corner, which Costa glanced on and Terry headed towards goal, forcing Mignolet to make a good stop.

However, the rebound eventually fell to Cahill, who swivelled and fired the ball back at goal and Liverpool’s Belgian keeper tried desperately to stop it crossing the line but, with the help of goal line technology, the goal was given. There was a suspicion of handball from Matic during the goal mouth scramble, but when you defend a corner that poorly, leaving four Chelsea players unmarked yards from goal, you deserve to concede.

Can opened his Liverpool account early on

...but Cahill quickly equalised
Goalscorer Cahill turned out to be at the centre of all the controversial action throughout the afternoon, twice being fortunate not to concede a spot kick. Liverpool’s first penalty shout came after 20 minutes when the England defender blocked Sterling’s scuffed shot with his shoulder. It fell into the ‘seen them given category’ and, judging by Cahill’s reaction, he felt like a lucky man for getting away with it.

During the second half of the first 45 minutes Liverpool noticeably faded, as they struggled to keep the ball and Chelsea pinned them back in their own half. The Reds’ final chance of note came on 26 minutes when Coutinho, their creative heart once again, embarked on a sensational solo run through the middle before testing Courtois with a low shot. After that, it was all Chelsea.

Hazard saw shots vitally blocked by Johnson and well saved by Mignolet as the visitors grew in confidence and began to dictate the pace of the game. Up front, the Blues’ main man Diego Costa, bizarrely sporting gloves with a short-sleeved shirt before he had to swap it for a long-sleeved one due to a rip in the back, was enjoying himself winding up Martin Skrtel.

Costa grapples with Skrtel
The pair, who had to be restrained from each other as they left the pitch at half time, had previously clashed in an international match and continued their long-running feud throughout the 90 minutes. Unfortunately, Costa thrived on the tension and rivalry, as he always does, and used it as motivation during the second half; the Brazil-born Spaniard sending an ambitious overhead kick sailing over the bar five minutes after the restart.

Frustratingly, though, Costa did not have to produce a piece of magic to score the winner on 67 minutes. Instead, he was simply in the right place at the right time to exploit some shoddy defending from Liverpool.

The hopelessly out of position Glen Johnson left Coutinho one-on-one with Azpilicueta, who beat the Brazilian easily and then had acres of space to square across the box as Johnson casually sauntered back rather than busting a gut to make up for his positional error. Mignolet managed to beat the ball away but only as far as Costa via a deflection off Moreno, who should have done better and made a clearance.Costa ruthlessly punished this calamitous defending by drilling low into the back of the net.

Rodgers’ response was as baffling as the Reds’ defence was awful. Two minutes after falling behind he brought off Can and Coutinho, Liverpool’s best two performers, introducing Allen and Borini and leaving Lallana, who appeared more likely than Allen to add an extra dimension to the Reds’ attack, languishing on the bench.

It was a confusing substitution from Rodgers and, as a result, Liverpool looked devoid of ideas as to how to level the scoreline during the closing stages, creating only one goalscoring opportunity when Henderson’s volley took a deflection off Azpilicueta and could have gone anywhere but ended up flying over the bar.

To the ire of Kopites, referee Anthony Taylor denied Liverpool one last chance to level from the penalty spot with three minutes remaining when he inexplicably refused to award a penalty after Cahill blatantly handled Gerrard’s shot from the edge of the area. It was almost identical to the first half incident, although this time the ball clearly hit Cahill lower down his arm, rather than close to his shoulder. How Taylor refused to point to the spot, particularly with the Kop roaring in virulent protest, is beyond me.

It was an immensely frustrating way to end a very difficult week in which Liverpool have suffered three defeats, debilitating their confidence heading into the international break. Maybe a fortnight off will do the squad some good and, when they return to action, Liverpool have some winnable looking League matches against the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke City, Leicester City and Sunderland. 12 points from those four fixtures will make things much rosier for the Reds, but, after defeat by Chelsea, there’s no escaping the blues for Kopites.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

10 games in: Where do we go from here?

It’s time to take a look at the table; unfortunately, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading for the Reds.

It is a widely accepted footballing adage that the Premier League table only begins to provide a true reflection of how teams will fare over the course of the season once ten matches have been played. Although the rigid application of that principle would lead us to back Southampton to be title contenders and Big Sam’s West Ham to push for Champions League qualification, it seems sensible to suggest that a sound judgement on a team’s prospects can be made after just over a quarter of the campaign has been completed.

On that basis, things aren’t looking good for Liverpool. With only four wins and the same number of defeats, the Reds lie in 7th place. After finishing the 2013/2014 season as runners up, their fall from grace has been steep and deeply unpleasant. It feels like Liverpool have gone back a season and, after coming so close to finally clinching the Premier League title that Kopites long for, they are back at square one.

Perhaps what makes it all too difficult for Liverpool fans to take is the stark fall in the quality of performances produced by the Merseysiders. Last season, we knew we were in for a treat every week, as the SAS inspired Reds steamrolled all before them in a captivating manner reminiscent of the great Liverpool sides of the 70s and 80s.

The SAS rolled back Liverpool's glory years
Sure, they were conceding a silly amount of goals, but they were scoring an even more ludicrous number down the other end, so it didn’t matter and we were happy watching football that reminded us why we fell in love with the beautiful game, and Liverpool, in the first place.

Nowadays, dare I say, it’s almost become a chore to watch Liverpool games due to the abysmal quality of their performances. We no longer look forward to matches expecting another attacking master class from Rodgers’ Reds, but rather anticipate complaining about defensive mistakes and lamenting how much worse Balotelli is than Luis Suarez once again.

It’s all very depressing, if not entirely surprising. We always knew this was going to be a season of transition following the departure of Suarez and the arrival of a raft of new signings over the summer. It’s almost impossible for a squad containing eight new faces to gel instantly and any team would be weaker after losing a player of Suarez’s quality.

What’s important now is learning from the mistakes made in the opening ten games and working to rectify them going forward. Specifically, there are three things that manager Brendan Rodgers has to do:

1. Sort out Liverpool’s defence

According to the statistics, the Reds’ backline is as bad- or as good! - as it was last season. That might surprise some, but Liverpool have conceded an average of 1.3 goals per game this season, which is identical to the average amount that they conceded over the course of 90 minutes in the 2013/2014 campaign.

The main reason Liverpool’s defence has looked leakier this season is because the Reds have also only averaged scoring 1.3 goals per game, whereas last season they fired in 2.7 goals per game on average. Put simply, the back four has no place to hide now that Suarez has left and Sturridge is injured.

Skrtel and Lovren have disappointed as a defensive partnership
Rodgers has received a measly return on his approximately £35 million investment in his defence over the summer. Sloppy goals are routinely conceded, particularly from set pieces, and the defence looks disjointed and nervous whenever pressurised by opponents.

This has got to change if the Reds’ fortunes are to be reversed, and it must be a priority on the training field. In fact, Rodgers might want to consider bringing Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher back to the club as a defensive coach. His experience and expertise could come in handy and he’s the no-nonsense type who wouldn’t tolerate the persistently poor performances put in by the Liverpool defence.

2. Find an answer to the Balotelli question

How do you solve a problem like Balotelli? That’s the question on every Kopites lips right now, and one that Rodgers must find the answer to urgently. The £16 million summer signing from AC Milan has had to shoulder the responsibility of leading the Liverpool line in place of Suarez and Sturridge, but has failed to live up to expectations, scoring just twice.

A dejected looking Balotelli
Perhaps worst of all, he clearly has an attitude problem that Rodgers needs to resolve as a matter of first importance. If there is any chance of Balotelli being a long term success at Anfield, he must adopt the mentality of the Liverpool Way, which is currently entirely alien to the self-absorbed 24-year old.

Additionally, Balotelli has also suffered from isolation up front by himself and should be partnered with Fabio Borini, at least for a trial period while Rodgers tries to work out how to get Liverpool scoring goals again. The Italian pair linked up encouragingly against Swansea in the League Cup and it cannot do any harm to at least give them a go working together up top.

3. Work out what his best starting line-up and preferred formation are

It’s good that Liverpool have a deeper squad and that Rodgers has more options to choose from this season. While competing on four fronts, reinforcements are needed, and the benefits of having a big squad were demonstrated against Swansea in the League Cup, when Rodgers made nine changes but still had a starting eleven containing multi-million pound purchases such as Lazar Markovic and Dejan Lovren.

Markovic's Liverpool career has started slowly
However, it’s equally important that Rodgers works out what his best team is and what formation suits them best. Currently, the Northern Irishman seems most confused about his preferred midfield. Perhaps because of the array of options available to him, he seems unsure how to make the most out of them. Gerrard, Allen, Henderson, Can and Lucas are all competing for a more defensive midfield role, while Coutinho, Lallana, Sterling and Markovic fight for more attacking roles behind Balotelli and possibly Borini as well.

Rodgers has to work out which four or five out of those nine are his preferred starters and craft a system that restores the attacking verve and creativity of the Reds’ midfield last season.


Action needs to be taken to address the issues raised during the first ten games of the season and reverse the Reds’ decline. However, the situation isn’t as hopeless as many, particularly in the media, are portraying. Yes, Liverpool have started the season poorly, but they remain only three points outside the Champions League places, their European fate remains in their own hands and they have reached the quarter-finals of the League Cup.

The aim now should be to remain within touching distance of the top four and reach the knockout stages of the Champions League and the semi-finals of the League Cup by the New Year. Those are achievable targets and, if met, should see Liverpool in good stead heading into 2015. By that point, Sturridge should be back and Rodgers will be able to enter the January transfer window as well.

As depressing as the opening ten matches have been, there is still hope for the remaining 28.


This article originally appeared on This is Anfield

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Rodgers vindicated as Reds' reserves impress despite Real defeat

Liverpool’s fringe players did themselves and travelling Kopites proud in the Bernabeu last night. 

Boss Brendan Rodgers took a huge gamble by resting many of his key players ahead of a big match at home to Chelsea on the weekend, knowing that wins against Ludogorets and Basel in the Reds’ final two group stage matches will see them qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League regardless of the result against Real.

Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling, Johnson and Balotelli all started on the bench as the likes of Toure, Lucas, Can, Markovic and Borini were given a rare run out against possibly the best club side in the world right now.

It was a League Cup line up for a Champions League clash; as a result, few gave Liverpool even an outside chance of taking anything from the contest before the match, with many expecting them to suffer a confidence crushing pasting at the hands of the reigning European champions, similar to the one that Carlo Ancelotti’s men dished out at Anfield a fortnight ago.

Instead, remarkably Liverpool more than held their own and arguably deserved to take a point from a match in which many fringe players presented Rodgers with a compelling case for their inclusion in the first eleven more frequently.

Marshalled by the outstanding Kolo Toure, Liverpool’s defence was fantastic, frustrating a Madrid attack composed of the world class talents Benzema, Ronaldo, Rodriguez and Isco, who failed to find the net twice in a game for the first time since mid-September. On the right hand side, Manquillo managed to keep Ronaldo quiet, while Moreno was Liverpool’s main attacking threat down the left, working encouragingly well with Lallana, who was equally impressive.

Mignolet was also on form behind the back four, making several decent saves, including two in the first ten minutes. First, he palmed Benzema’s effort behind after Rodriguez and Isco had linked up well to set up the French striker. Then, a lapse of concentration from stand-in skipper Skrtel, one of few players who perhaps wasn’t at his best, allowed Ronaldo to side-foot goalwards from close range, with only the Belgian keeper’s brilliance preventing him opening the scoring.

Although lacking in the final third, Liverpool were performing in a composed manner, keeping the ball well and growing in confidence, as evidenced by Kolo Toure’s marauding run down the left wing midway through the first 45 minutes, which was reminiscent of the 33-year old’s glory years as a full back at Arsenal.

The only thing missing was a goal threat because, although he worked admirably hard, Borini remained isolated as Liverpool sat deep, held their shape and stayed compact. Markovic and Lallana occasionally broke forward, the former sprinting promisingly forward at one point only to be denied by Varane, but Borini was largely left to plough a lone furrow up front.

Rodgers boldly made seven changes to the team that lost at Newcastle

One of Toure's many exceptional interceptions

Benzema broke the deadlock

The travelling Kop was in fine form as always
Madrid required a moment of brilliance to break the deadlock, and left back Marcelo, who posed a constant threat throughout the encounter, produced it on 26 minutes. He whipped in a superb left wing cross that beat Skrtel and Toure before finding Benzema, who converted a chance that was more difficult than it looked from three yards out at the back post.

Importantly, at that point Liverpool didn’t cave into the immense Madrid pressure, as they had done during their first half collapse at home to the Spanish giants. Instead, they re-grouped and saw out the half, Mignolet dealing with Ronaldo’s 35-yard free kick, which was the best chance that the hosts created prior to the interval.

After the break, Liverpool were a little more adventurous, pinpointing former Liverpool right back Alvaro Arbeloa as a weak point in Madrid’s defence to exploit. Just before the hour mark, Moreno’s intelligent pass picked out Lallana, who cleverly opened up his body with a neat touch before shooting across Casillas and inches wide of the far post.

Soon after, Borini’s free kick deflected off a disintegrating wall and fizzed just wide of the target, as the Reds began to believe in their ability to execute their plan to nick a goal after keeping things tight initially.

In accord with those tactics, Rodgers brought on Gerrard and Sterling for the final 20 minutes. The former’s passing range added an extra dimension to the away side’s attack, while the latter’s pace was welcome because Markovic, despite probably putting in his best performance in a Red shirt, was becoming less effective as he tired.

Real were playing within themselves; however, they could still go up a couple of gears when they wanted to. That was demonstrated when a magnificent block from Toure was required to prevent Ronaldo doubling the hosts’ advantage after the twisting and turning Portuguese had left Skrtel on the turf. Benzema then shot off target from close range at the back post after getting on the end of Marcelo’s vicious cross, in what was almost a re-run of his first half goal.

Coutinho was brought on in place of Can to provide some more creativity in Real’s half during the final 15 minutes, but unfortunately the Merseysiders couldn’t carve open that one chance that they needed to grab a goal and steal a point, Borini’s strike into the net after clearly being called up by referee Viktor Kassai for a soft foul on Sergio Ramos the closest Liverpool came to levelling.

Nevertheless, Liverpool can be immensely proud of this terrific performance, which could prove a turning point in their season. The confidence engendered by what was essentially their B-team going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the world and only just missing out on getting a point could be what kick starts the Reds’ faltering season.


Saturday, 1 November 2014

Newcastle defeat dire Reds

Liverpool were dire as they fell to a one-goal defeat at Newcastle on Saturday lunchtime.

They produced virtually nothing in attack and made mistakes at the back which meant that Newcastle took all three points from one of the most tedious matches of the season so far. The Geordies weren’t fantastic, despite enjoying renewed confidence following back-to-back victories away to Tottenham and Manchester City, but Liverpool were simply far worse, and thus succumbed to their fourth defeat of the season after only ten games. They only lost six times throughout the whole of last season.

Rodgers made seven changes to the side that dramatically came from behind to beat Swansea City in the League Cup on Tuesday. Disappointingly, Fabio Borini was dropped to the bench as Balotelli played as the lone striker once again, even though the Italian pair seemed to strike up an understanding against the Swans, combining excellently for the equaliser. As it turned out, the disinterested Balotelli put in another underwhelming display, while Borini looked bright after coming on but didn’t have much time or support from his teammates to make a real impact on the contest.

Liverpool employed a 3-5-2 formation when they were in possession, reverting to 4-2-3-1 when the hosts had the ball, as Rodgers demonstrated his tactical flexibility. Unfortunately, this tactical flexibility did not translate into a quality performance, as both sides produced an instantly forgettable first 45 minutes.

The system also left Liverpool vulnerable down the left, as former Manchester United winger Gabriel Obertan had space to exploit behind the onrushing Alberto Moreno. In fact, until he was stretchered off with a thigh injury midway through the first half, Obertan posed the Barcodes’ biggest threat. On nine minutes the 25 year old Frenchman comfortably skinned two opponents down the right, before cutting the ball back to Moussa Sissoko, who couldn’t convince referee Andre Marriner to point to the penalty spot after going down easily under Joe Allen’s admittedly risky challenge.

Obertan pulled up injured as he ran for the ball with Lovren
Little of note occurred during the remainder of the first half until both sides had their best chances of breaking the deadlock from corner kicks during the closing stages. First, Glen Johnson was called upon to head off the line from Cisse’s header after Mignolet had flapped at the ball into the box. Two minutes later, Skrtel screwed a header wide from six yards out, as the Slovakian centre back spurned a rare gilt-edged goal scoring opportunity.

A semblance of drive, desire, passion and purpose was missing and remained conspicuous by its absence in the second half. Although admittedly he was not helped by a midfield lacking ideas as to how to unlock Newcastle’s defence, Balotelli’s body language was shocking during the second half and it said everything about his attitude when he only just made it out on to the pitch in time for the kick-off.

Newcastle keeper Tim Krul dealt with a couple of tame efforts from Balotelli comfortably after the restart, although he had to be on top form to repel Coutinho’s goal-bound header from Gerrard’s cross just before the hour mark.

Coutinho's header was the best chance Liverpool created in the second half
In a positive move, Rodgers replaced Allen with Borini on 66 minutes, and the former Sunderland striker instantly went close against the Wearsiders’ fiercest rivals, crashing a half volley wide from range after Sterling had laid the ball off for him. That was the closest Borini came to scoring, but at least he ran about diligently and showed some desire to influence proceedings and make an impression, in stark contrast to the frustratingly disengaged Balotelli.

Up to that point, Liverpool looked fairly solid at the back, at least compared to most of their matches this campaign. However, on 73 minutes they fell to pieces, and that ultimately cost the Reds. This time, Alberto Moreno was the one to blame, as his heavy touch in completely the wrong direction diverted Dummett’s cross into the path of half time substitute Ayoze Perez, who stole in and smashed home from close range to give the Geordies the all-important first goal, which proved to be the winner.

Moreno's mistake proved costly
It was very nearly even worse three minutes later, when catastrophic defending meant that Glen Johnson was left to face two Newcastle attackers all by himself on the half way line. To his teammates’ immense relief, Mignolet made a magnificent save from Remy Cabella’s shot with his ankle to bail out his defence and keep the visitors in the contest.

Lambert was brought on in place of Coutinho for the final ten minutes as Rodgers took once last throw of the dice, but the ex-Southampton striker, who is yet to score for his boyhood team, failed to change the course of a match that was slipping away from the Reds.

Liverpool’s final attempt at an equaliser was a tame one. Balotelli scooped a cross into Moreno in the box from the left hand side and the Spaniard, clearly trying to compensate for his earlier error, fluffed his lines while attempting a spectacular volley.

The fact that the Reds’ main striker was out on the left wing while their left back was in the box said it all about the disjointed nature of Liverpool’s display, which was woeful even by this season’s standards.

It doesn’t bode well heading into big matches against Real Madrid and Chelsea next week.