Aaron Cutler assesses our shock exit to League One side Oldham at Boundary Park.
Yesterday afternoon was nothing short of a car crash for Liverpool. Any faint hopes of silverware surely dissipated on a wretched afternoon where the reds were outthought, outmuscled and outplayed by a League One side. The recriminations will run far and wide but the simple fact is collectively the team was founding wanting. Seriously wanting.
Rightly or wrongly the buck stops with the manager. Clearly, Brendan Rodgers cannot be faulted for goalkeeping howlers or terrible positioning but his team selection was certainly awry. Like a kid on Christmas the Northern Irishman jumped at the chance to utilise his newest toys – or in this case attacking options. Starting with Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini was totally understandable as both are fighting for fitness following lengthy injury lay-offs. Supplementing them with both Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling however was bold to the point of reckless. In the case of the latter it was also another step towards burn-out.
Yes, Sterling is a mere eighteen and years away from needing physical management. Nonetheless, considering this is his first full season in the top flight, the teenager has been massively overplayed. At times this may have been a necessity but the manager has also ignored ample opportunities to withdraw the starlet. Take the disappearance of Oussama Assaidi for instance – himself a left-winger craving games before taking to the African Cup of Nations earlier this month. Fit for the majority of the campaign, Assaidi has been kicking his heels awaiting a starting berth.
Both Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique’s stints in attacking roles have also come alongside Sterling as opposed to in his place. Yesterday marked the teen’s 33rd appearance of the campaign, more than any player. Physically he may be spritely but mentally he seems to be struggling. His decision making is nowhere near as sharp and decisive as the start of the season, while his overall contribution has deteriorated. Our number 31 could do with a spell on the sidelines, simply to recharge his batteries and ensure he plays a key role come the end of the season.
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The selection of Suarez meanwhile was surprising considering we travel to the Emirates on Wednesday evening. Moreover, his presence led to a formation that appeared suspiciously like 4-2-4 as opposed to 4-3-3. Deployed as a ‘number 10’, the Uruguayan was so far advanced of the midfield that it left us criminally exposed. Seldom do teams start with four strikers from the outset. This tactic is usually resorted to when chasing a game (ala Middlesbrough’s UEFA Cup run of 2006). It meant we failed to control possession early on and led to Oldham enjoying far more of the ball than they could have anticipated.
That said our major Achilles heel proved defensive. Sebastian Coates has been singled out for much of the blame but his centre back partner should not escape criticism. Whether it down to the absence of Daniel Agger or the sheer brute force of Matt Smith, Martin Skrtel seemed bewildered from kick-off. Expected to command an inexperience back four he toiled badly. Coates’ comedic impression did the Slovak no favours. The South American strikes me as an ideal fit for La Liga. With time on the ball and a decidedly slower pace he excels but the rough and tumble of English football bamboozles him. Fashioned like a lower league Stoke, Oldham were happy to pump the ball into a chaotic penalty area, where Coates looked every bit as awkward as Ryan Giggs at a family reunion.
To his left young Jack Robinson endured his toughest afternoon in a red shirt. Like Coates he struggled aerially and physically but at least he never hid – continually bombing forward to provide width when we searched (in vain) for an equaliser. Amazingly, certain sections of the fan-base have condemned his minor spat with Suarez – where as opposed to simply taking a rollicking he fired abuse from whence it came. What is the problem in that? Surely that shows the strength of character and passion needed in the pressured environment that is LFC. Robinson is 19 and an undoubted talent. He may benefit from loan experience but will surely figure long-term.
Robinson was obviously one of the players Rodgers referred to in his post-match interview. Clearly hurt by the embarrassment, Brendan criticised his younger players for their failure to stand-up. Always a media master – capable of spinning almost anything – this was a strange lapse by the boss and eerily evoked memories of Roy Hodgson’s comments following defeat to Northampton. Our youngsters should not be immune from criticism but by the same token cannot be hung out to dry either. An odd, potentially counter-productive tactic by the coach.
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Ultimately he selected the side and failed to remedy things at half-time. Our flummoxed back four was crying out for Jamie Carragher’s leadership qualities and robust approach. Usually an automatic for cup competitions Carra’s absence was striking and costly. With Coates’ future the subject of intense debate many have heralded possible replacements yet we may well have alternatives at the club. Andre Wisdom boasts the physical and athletic capabilities to revert to his favoured central role, while Martin Kelly (remember him?) is also a centre half by trade. With money scarce and continually wasted (Carroll, Downing, Borini, Allen ..) we should be looking to promote from within where we can.
Between the sticks Brad Jones may have been playing with an injury but that does not excuse basic errors. Fumbling for the second goal was inexcusable, while throughout he failed to command his area as he did at Mansfield. An able deputy he is unlikely to apply serious pressure to Pepe Reina with such indecisive showings. An alternative may be needed.
Onto midfield and the elephant in the room – Joe Allen. Christened the hairdresser by supporters who bemoan his short back and sides game, the Welsh international is faltering badly at the heart of proceedings. That limited range of passing aside, his small frame makes him an easy target for teams like Stoke, West Ham and Oldham. One of the biggest criticisms of Liverpool this season is the fact they are easily bullied out of games. Allen is one of the main reasons for that. The Reds require a Viera/Toure type to command that area and allow for the eye catching football in-front. Rodgers’ loyalty to Allen is misjudged at this time. His form has been poor for a good while, meaning Henderson and Lucas should always be favoured. Collectively however the midfield was AWOL at Boundary Park; with our passing game so careless it resembled one of Adrian Chiles TV links. Allen struggled but he was far from alone.
Liverpool have been knocked out of the FA Cup by lower division opposition more times than any other Premier League club since 1992 (8 times). [/sws_pullquote_right]Finally in attack Fabio Borini was extremely poor. Granted, he is working his way back to fitness and may take weeks to regain any kind of sharpness to his game. Nevertheless, the Italian showed precious little before his spell on the sidelines, leading many to question his £10m price tag. Industrious he does possess decent movement but rarely does he look like scoring in the way Sturridge and Suarez do. It is early days but Borini needs to come to the fore sooner rather than later. Dirk Kuyt worked tirelessly but also chipped in with a number of vital goals. Borini’s return of just one is disappointing. To earn a future at the club he needs to follow Kuyt’s example and improve his game markedly – at least contributing in other areas.
Overall then a torrid day for Liverpool. In the grand scheme of things our elimination may mean little. FSG made it perfectly clear that Kenny Dalglish would have lost his job even if he had added the FA Cup to his previous League Cup triumph. Which surely places all emphasis on the Premier League – where we currently lie seventh with Arsenal and City to come. Progress?
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Brendan Rodgers said at the start of the campaign that there will be a number of bumps along the road to success. Yesterday proved a gaping pothole and our subsequent reaction is vital. With Arsenal three points ahead Wednesday marks perhaps our last shot to stay in the Champions League reckoning. A win would ease the pain of Sunday without completely erasing it. A defeat would lead to further inquests and all but write off this campaign. Would the real Liverpool please stand up?