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It is easy to say that the opening day – that promised so much – just did not quite go according to script for Liverpool. But selection of the characters in the same script remained in control of the manager. Anfield, reportedly buzzing with energy usually seen on famous European nights, would have been full of Reds rubbing their hands in anticipation of watching their new signings.
And in the first half, they were treated to a dynamic, enthusiastic Liverpool, but a Liverpool that wasn’t as organized and efficient as people made them out to be. By the end of the game, though, Liverpool’s “Jekyll and Hyde” performance did not provide any clearer picture to the world than before.
Of course, it is only the first game of the season. Last season, a ten-man Liverpool gave a great account of themselves against Arsenal on opening day; making one foresee a bright future under Roy Hodgson. We all know what happened next. But the purpose of these views is not to form a quick judgment on Liverpool’s season, but to focus solely on the two points dropped and how it could, and should, have been avoided.
It was hard to second-guess Kenny Dalglish’s first eleven but when the team selection was revealed, there were a few surprises. Although Liverpool looked like a strong side on paper, there were four new signings making their debuts. In addition to this, there was a youngster preferred to a more reliable player at right-back. The midfield – consisting of Lucas, Adam, Downing and Henderson – had three debutants; a gamble that backfired miserably. Liverpool’s reliable engine, Dirk Kuyt, was surprisingly left out. And John Flanagan was chosen over Martin Kelly – who was left on the bench. So, we can safely assume he was fit to take part in the game.
In hindsight, it’s hard to understand the right-back selection. Martin Kelly had been touted as one of the youngsters to watch this season; not in Liverpool, but in England. Apart from his solid defending, whenever Kelly had stepped onto the field, he had shown great desire to pace up and down the pitch, make overlap runs and was highly praised for his crossing ability as well. All three of the mentioned skills were missing from Flanagan’s display. And this was not a surprise, since Flanagan had been more appreciated for his defensive work, rather than his ability to lend assistance in attack. The fact that Jordan Henderson is not a natural right winger doubled up Liverpool’s woes on the right hand side and the team ended up with no width on that flank.
The midfield was a curious choice, but perhaps more understandable than the right-back selection. With Gerrard sidelined due to a groin infection and Aquilani left out, Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam were the appropriate options in centre of midfield. Stewart Downing was selected to provide much-needed width on the left, but Jordan Henderson’s selection was curious to say the least.
From the first competitive sighting of Lucas and Adam, the duo may not turn out to be a great partnership. They both like to sit back in midfield rather than make late, threatening runs into the box like Raul Meireles; a player whose box-to-box characteristic was sorely missed. Neither of the two pushed forward during build-ups. Adam, called a “quarterback”, became exactly that many times during the course of the match. He would step backwards and dwell on the ball for too long in order to look for a long diagonal ball to the forwards, instead of looking for a shorter pass and gradually building up play. Adam’s eagerness to deliver long meant that the play was moved too quickly from defense to attack, resulting in the inability of the midfield to join up in the attack.
It seemed like Jordan Henderson was given the freedom to roam around – either hug the touchline or cut inside making an extra man in the centre. His positive contributions in the match were a rare sight. He was one of the reasons why Liverpool’s second half turned out to be so narrow and terrible. In pre-season, Henderson didn’t quite look the part. At least, not an upgrade on Dirk Kuyt.
This is why the decision to leave Kuyt in favor of Henderson was extremely risky. Kuyt was an integral part of Dalglish’s wonderful Liverpool last season. If you are a manager who is giving so many debuts to players in the opening match, it should never be at the expense of a player whose performance on the pitch is always predictably reliable. On top of that, Kuyt’s link up play with Suarez has been brilliant and that was sorely missed during the opening game.
Andy Carroll is the man who suffered from two reasons – the lack of width and the fact that Suarez is not a typical striker. Liverpool’s target-man was visibly frustrated even in the first half, when Liverpool did actually create a lot of chances. Stewart Downing – who had a decent game – was the only source of regularly good crosses from the left flank for Carroll. Another source to feed Carroll was Charlie Adam, but Carroll’s knock-downs did not reach Suarez all through the match. When the two were bought, Liverpool had the famous ‘big striker-small striker’ combination. But the more you watch the two of them together, the more you worry that Crouch and Gerrard together were a better duo.
Again, one could say it’s early days for the pair, but that doesn’t change one fundamental aspect – that Suarez is not a typical striker. He is wasted if he is told to stand on the shoulders of the last defender. Against Tottenham at the back of last season, Dalglish had attempted to do the same; Suarez playing on the shoulders of the last man, while Carroll attempting to knock them down for him to latch onto. It had failed miserably.
Suarez is a player who thrives on the freedom given to him – to be on either flanks, to come deep into the centre of midfield to receive the ball. He likes to be involved in the build-up play, an aspect Liverpool has heavily benefited from, rather than solely be at the end of attacks to finish off chances. This not only left Carroll in isolation up front, but meant that Carroll became just a huge pillar to aim at rather than utilize his ability with the ball at his feet.
Stewart Downing was a huge positive for Liverpool on day one. His ability to show up on both flanks is a weapon Liverpool must utilize, but not over-utilize. In the latter stages of the game, Downing was seen on the right wing. Although one could understand why he shifted to the right – to add a goal-scoring threat to his play by cutting inside – it meant that he had compromised on his ability to cross, since his right foot isn’t the same. Sunderland were happy to let him cross on his right foot and blocked Downing’s inside route after witnessing a glimpse of his threat from the right wing in the first half. So, when Liverpool’s only move had become to hoof the ball long, their best crosser was busy on the opposite flank with no support from a right-back, who was more worried about his defensive duties at the time.
It was certainly interesting to read a flurry of opinions and tweets during half-time; people drooling all over after watching Liverpool’s performance. They may have dominated the game and created chances to score, but to call it a spectacular first half was slightly over the top. The fluidity, which was seen in Dalglish’s team last season, was missing even in the first half. Liverpool’s upper hand in the game was due to the energy of certain players.
If one analyses the clear-cut chances that were created in the first half, one will find out why Liverpool’s energy rather than the game-play was a cause for joy. Suarez created the penalty through a rugby-charge on Richardson, Carroll’s disallowed goal was a self-created chance from a long cross, Charlie Adam had no other option than to shoot on goal and the goal itself, came from a set piece.
Liverpool’s defending – even when they were mildly tested in the first half – did not breathe confidence. Headers were not being won, set pieces were not being handled with the required comfort and Sunderland were given too much space, at times. This space was not exploited till the second half, when Sunderland actually pushed men forward and put Liverpool on the back-foot. Another thing Sunderland did well is to cut out Daniel Agger as a weapon in attack. Often seen making quality runs forward through his Liverpool career, Agger was not once seen venturing forward; perhaps, due to the lack of confidence in his own defence.
In the end, whether it be ‘just the first game’ of the season, these are two crucial points dropped by Liverpool. What was turning out to be a statement of intent, with new signings on show and a lead at half-time, eventually turned out to be a damp squib in the second half; the tiredness of players showing scope for a better pre-season. Although there were plenty of positives in Downing, Enrique and Adam, a new-look Liverpool still gives Kenny Dalglish a major headache in team selection ahead of next week’s match at the Emirates.
But with Kuyt, Meireles and Kelly left on the bench against Sunderland, the King definitely went one change – and one gamble – too far on Saturday.
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