Liverpool haven’t played all that poorly, yet this is their worst start since 1903. Jonathan Wilson analyses what’s gone wrong at Anfield this season.
Sometimes players can be annoyingly human. A coach can have all the theories in the world; he can out-think his rival manager at every turn, and then one of his players can do something stupid and it can all fall apart. Handling personalities, of course, is all part of a coach’s skill – trying to ensure that those prone to mistakes are not put in positions in which their mistakes will be costly – but even so it’s hard not to look at Liverpool’s position and sympathize with Brendan Rodgers.
To have taken two points from five games is a dismal return, but Liverpool’s worst start to a season since 1903, their joint third worst ever, hasn’t actually been that bad. For one thing, fixtures have been unkind: already they’ve faced Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal, three of the probable top four at the end of the season. Away trips to West Brom and Sunderland, meanwhile, are the sort of games that can trip any side up.
Then break down the matches game by game and it becomes apparent all of them could easily have gone the other way. Liverpool were playing well at West Brom, looking good for at least a draw when Zoltan Gera suddenly thumped a volley into the top corner from just outside the box, just before half-time. Panic was induced. Martin Skrtel, not the most natural fit for Rodgers’s desire to pass the ball out from the back, made a couple of dreadful errors; one of which led to Daniel Agger being sent off and a penalty that was missed, the other a penalty that was scored, and Liverpool fell apart to lose 3-0.
Back at Anfield, against Manchester City for the second game, Liverpool were very good. Their problem, a familiar one, was that they couldn’t score. Two chances were eventually taken, but two goals were given away as well. The first was the result of a series of gaffes. As Carlos Tevez crossed, Skrtel and Jose Reina both went for it; Skrtel got a touch, diverting it past his keeper to a startled Martin Kelly, whose attempted clearance left Yaya Toure with an open goal. Luis Suarez restored Liverpool’s lead but with ten minutes left, Skrtel played a back pass blind, leaving Tevez to run on and score. What should have been an excellent win became a frustrating draw.
The momentum didn’t carry over to the next game, though, at home to Arsenal. Liverpool were well beaten 2-0 but even in that match they enjoyed long spells of possession while both goals were to an extent self-inflicted. The first, a rapid break finished by Lukas Podolski, stemmed from a misplaced Steven Gerrard pass. The second goal, meanwhile, highlighted the vulnerability of Reina. It was not a clear error – Santi Cazorla’s shot was firmly struck – but it was yet another example of fallibility, of him not quite being the keeper he was a couple of years ago.
Liverpool then had much the better of it away at Sunderland. Again the goal they conceded was the result of defensive lapses: Craig Gardner went past Glen Johnson far too easily and then neither Reina nor Skrtel – perhaps mindful of their error against City – reacted quickly enough to his cross, allowing Steven Fletcher to score. Liverpool did find an equaliser in the second half, but they also struck the woodwork twice and missed a hatful of chances.
Sunday’s game against Manchester United was even more frustrating. Liverpool seemed in utter control, enjoying around two-thirds of possession, and creating chances. Then, six minutes before half-time, Jonjo Shelvey leapt into a challenge with Jonny Evans and was sent off. Liverpool ended the first half having completed over 100 passes more than United, but the writing was on the wall. Even then, it took defensive laxity to give United the penalty that gave them a 2-1 win, a poor pass from Suso and then missed challenges from Agger and Johnson, letting Luis Antonio Valencia run clear before Johnson got back to bundle him over.
The pattern is familiar: decent play undermined by individual errors. To an extent, the possession squandered by Gerrard and Suso in the Arsenal and United games is an inevitable consequence of playing the Rodgers way. If you pass, pass, pass then occasionally passes will go astray. The issue then is to have a structure in place that will allow players to recover; it may be that that is taking time. Reina has been fading for a couple of seasons now but, given the upheaval elsewhere in the squad, it’s perhaps not overly surprising that finding a new goalkeeper wasn’t a priority. Skrtel, meanwhile, simply doesn’t look happy passing the ball out and it may be that he needs to be replaced with a more technically gifted centre-back. Agger, of course, is ideal in the role, and it would be a major blow if the injury he picked up against United turned out to be serious.
Even more troubling is the possibility of losing Fabio Borini, who also was forced off with injury. Liverpool’s bizarre dealings on the final day of the transfer window – loaning out Andy Carroll without having secured Clint Dempsey – left them without only two forwards; losing Borini leaves them with just Luis Suarez and he, frankly, remains an enigma. He is now paying the price for crying wolf so often, with referees seemingly intent on denying him penalties even for blatant trips. He was fouled in the box by Evans on Sunday, but his flamboyant flick of the head and arch of the back presumably led Mark Halsey to conclude he was putting it on. And, just like last season, he is missing chances.
Liverpool fans know the litany of stats well: last season, only Barcelona in the top five leagues in Europe had a greater proportion of their play in the attacking third of the pitch. In only five of the 38 games did Liverpool have fewer shots than their opponents. In the Premier League, only three teams had more shots on goal than Liverpool last season. Rodgers can change the style as much as he likes. His way of playing should give his side greater control. With patience and with an easier run of form, Liverpool should get their season moving but unless they stop making defensive errors and start taking their chances, all the tactical tweaks in the world aren’t going to make any difference.