Aaron Cutler

Columnist

Oldham 3-2 Liverpool: An Inquest

Aaron Cutler assesses our shock exit to League One side Oldham at Boundary Park.

oldham_defeat

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.

Raheem Sterling
Sterling – Struggling of late.

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.

Jack Robinson

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.

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.

[sws_pullquote_right]STAT:
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?

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?

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Aaron has been writing for us since 2006. He focuses on The Reds' fortunes both home and abroad with insightful, analytical and humorous input. He is also a feature writer for Country Music People Magazine. Having graduated with a degree in Multi-Media Journalism Aaron now works as a Content Manager in Dorset but still gets to Anfield frequently.

All posts are reactively-moderated and must obey the comment policy.
  • FritzCanuck

    Excellent article and spot on in every observation. The defense were at sea for most of the game because of poor performance but also because of a lack of leadership and coordination from Skrtel. Even when he is partnered with Agger, he leaves the steering of the ship to his partner. Poor team selection by BR once again and does not bode well for our upcoming tilt with the Gunners. Brad Jones needs new gloves. Or new hands . . .

  • markgore

    Allen, Coates, Borini, Suso+ Sterling (both receiving new contracts), bad choices for too much money….In the meantime Diame, Holtby, Ba could be had for peanuts or free…..Have we even approached Laudrup, Klopp and other bright minds when we needed a manager in the past summer? What are we missing between the current manager, the scouting staff etc. No wonder we have a large portion of the supporters talking mostly about our triumphs from the past. Should we celebrate we have not wasted another 35M pounds since Carrol’s debacle….If it wasn’t for Steve G., we would look like third leaguers against Oldham a club that had 1 win in 8 matches, prior to yesterday.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=679710187 Doug Burton

      Not sure I agree with your objections to Suso and Sterling getting new contracts. Nothing saves a club more money than “hiring from within”. In a nutshell, the combined weekly wages of both combined, are less than a Henderson or a Downing for example AND you save up to 25 million in transfer fees. Sterling has already surpassed Downing in the pecking order. All Suso needs to do is get physically stronger. I feel Rodgers sees Suso as the ideal #10 but he’s not ready for a weekly starting role. Lets not forget Sterling plays out on the wing whereas Suso, when depolyed, has to be amongst the trees. You stumbled on to the real problem with Liverpool with your last sentence. That’s been the problem for the last 5 years. At some point during that time you would have thought someone could’ve figured out how to deploy a team without Steven Gerrard. Rafa almost had it correct before his hubris allowed him to think a midfield of Gareth Barry instead of Xabi Alonso was a better option, forcing Xabi to leave, the firing by “The Texas Cowboys”, and subsequent loss of Mascherano. Ironically enough, it’s the inverse of the problem at Arsenal. For all the eye pleasing football Arsenal play, they are a Steven Gerrard-type away from a legit title challenge. We have an aging midfield boss, who cannot control a game nor has the legs at an advanced age to. No 33 year old should be expected to play 45-50 games a year, 90 minutes a game. When he’s off the pitch, Liverpool has a softer center than a Boston creme donut. Brendan, I feel, is on the right track but the one thing I cant figure out about him is if, regarding team selection, is it naivete or hubris? If its the latter, than this will happen over and over again and Liverpool will lose to teams who know that if you use the “Stoke model”, chances are you will get something out of the game given the current state of the Liverpool team

    • Eye Koki Magiko

      I think Suso needs to get more playing time, from his limited playing time to me seems a bigger talent than Sterling-who at this point as in the article has been overused, seems burned out, making bad decisions, inexperience is visible and needs to get a break for a few weeks

  • Adge

    Could not agree more Coates,Allen and Borini not top drawer and don’t get me started on Jones. Good incisive article Aaron.

  • Rederik

    We don,t need an inquest we need a manager to own up to his own shortcomings instead of blaming the young players, we also need the owners to own up that they left the manager well short of quality by their penny pinching, there’s no need in looking back to K.D,s signings and quoting the money that was spent there also was a lot of revenue recouped selling quality players that have yet to be replaced,

  • sideshow_bob

    Good article. I agree about the formation, since we adpoted the 4-3-3 under Rodgers, the attacking midfield role has been the position we have found hardest to fill probably evidenced by number of players he has tried in the role. I would certainly try Luis there again at Anfield, but away from home I’d mostly opt for an attacking midfielder, who is capable of dropping back deep enough to make up an extra man in midfield. Moreover the last thing we want is Suarez getting injured though tackling in midfield as nearly happened on Sunday. We certainly need more muscle in midfield. It has to be Allen or Lucas with one other, Diame, perhaps. The extra height at the back wouldn’t go a miss either. I still think Joe Allen will turn things around, but I don’t think BR has helped him with all the “Welsh Xabi” stuff. He has the capabilities to be a good defensive midfielder and if he can get stronger as Lucas has done then he can get very close to the level Mascherano was at, but an attacking force he is not. When he first came his movement was so impressive, always available and making angles for a pass, but that seems to have tailed off. The only defence I would offer us yesterday was the stange refereeing that seemed to be going on. The cameras clearly showed Stevie G remonstrating with the Ref on a couple of occassions and he did seem to be applying different standards to the two teams.

  • King_Red

    I feel sorry for my beloved Liverpool, it was a rugby match for sure. they played us in physical present rather than skills. we been push away, elbow in a face and tackled like a rugby match. I don’t blame coates because he don’t have enough games to fulfil his part. I lost my respect to robinson because he said to suarez to FO . What a c*nt, no respect to his captain.

  • JulHI

    A very shameful result! This shows the poor quality of the defenders!
    The game was totally different from the game played with Norwich. The passing was terrible, i blamed it on the mid field who couldn’t change the tempo of the game.
    BR – Is this what you call a million dollars squad??

    I hope J.H realized what direction BR is going to….

  • imoff

    We have not played very well against teams that have aggressive and physically strong and imposing midfielders .Lucas have not been in his best form and players who have been used in that position like Allen and Henderson have at most times not been upto the mark and get easily bullied in midfield.I believe this is another area of concern for us because other than Lucas we do not have an able player to take his position.