What’s Going Wrong This Season?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: it’s not been the start anyone wanted. But before going any further, it’s important to remember that it’s three games into the league season, and the first defeat in six games during 2006/07.

It’s been an inconsistent start, but not a disastrous one, however thoroughly depressing the defeat at Goodison was; the problem will be if the Reds don’t bounce back from it, but we know this team has character. If it can come down from terrible positions in two successive cup finals, it can come back with a massive 105 points still to play for.

It was the first time we’ve failed to score this season, and drawing blanks was a problem last time out. Keeping clean sheets is now the concern; and a genuine concern at that. But we know these are good defenders. And outstanding protective midfielders. And that a great tactician is managing the team. How many times in the past has he corrected problems?

Of course, finding a referee who can see what’s going on would help; tactics go out the window if the referees make poor calls at important stages of matches.

In the last two games both Crouch and Hyypia have been the victims of blatant shirt-tugging in the area with games standing at 0-0 ‘“ the kind that saw Chelsea get off the hook at Blackburn with the (correct) award of a penalty when the game was also scoreless. Where’s the consistency? This is supposed to be a new directive in England for all teams, not just those owned by Russian billionaires.

Everton were the beneficiaries of four crucial decisions in the derby. That said, I still can’t decide if we did enough to win the game; it’s weird, as on another day it could have finished 3-3 or even 5-3 to the Reds ‘with a bit more luck’ and a matter of millimetres in terms of accuracy where hitting the post was concerned. But with errors at the back we certainly did enough to make sure we lost it. Graham Poll’s errors merely compounded the issue.

The fixture list hasn’t been kind, either ‘“ especially when compared with Man Utd’s easy start, that looked a nailed-on 12 points before a ball was kicked. I’d be much more worried if I was an Arsenal fan; like the Reds, they’ve also only played three games, but two were at home, and both were home bankers. They’ve yet to play a really good team, or a London derby.

The last game Liverpool ever want after a two-week international break, when nearly all the players have been away to play two games across the continent, is the away derby (especially with the Blues buoyant). By contrast, Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal all had ‘easy’ home fixtures this weekend.

How the hell do you prepare for it with only a handful of senior players around? Maybe that’s why Rafa went with only one new player, in Fabio Aurelio, and even that was forced by Riise’s recent injury; it was a case of looking for the familiarity amongst the players. It was a difficult game to throw the new boys into, but one in which their talents were also missed.

For two years I’ve been pointing out how well Everton (like Bolton) do when they have time to prepare for a game, but as soon as they have two games in a week, as they did in Europe last season, they fall apart. Their game is about total effort, but the kind that cannot be sustained beyond one game a week.

Clearly Peter Crouch and Steven Gerrard ‘“ two of the fittest Reds ‘“ were less fresh and sharp than the Everton players, most of whom had been on the training ground with David Moyes, plotting Liverpool’s downfall.

It doesn’t matter how fit you are if the opposition, who should be equally fit, have not had to expend excess energy in the build-up to a big game. Andy Johnson, who proved a real handful, wasn’t training with Everton, but he also only played about ten minutes of football with England. He ran about 400 metres in those games, while Crouch and Gerrard ran marathons.

The Champions League qualifier got in the way in August, and cost Liverpool a home game (so by next week, after Chelsea away, it’ll be three tough away games to just one medium-difficulty home fixture). But if you finish 3rd or 4th the year before, that’s the price to pay. However, even defeat away to Chelsea would mean 50% of the toughest away fixtures finished for the season.

The international fixture list has been a joke, with Steve McLaren flogging key Reds in the friendly against Greece just days before the tricky away start at Sheffield United. Then two more internationals quickly followed, and more disruption. It’s been a stop-start opening to the campaign, made all the more difficult by injuries to key defenders (and neither Carragher nor Riise looked fit at Goodison, the former making an uncharacteristic error and the latter stretchered off again), and the process of bedding in new players and evolving the style of play around them. At least we now have a run of six games, four in the league, before the next irritating two-week break.

Rotation is easy to blame, but it’s worked for Rafa over the last five years. It’s a long-term strategy, based on maximising effectiveness over the course of 60 games; it cannot be judged when it goes wrong in any individual game, especially as nothing can prove that the alternative team selection would have definitely been better.

It’s so easy to say with hindsight that we’d have done better with omitted players. Had Crouch not played and we had lost, Rafa would have been labelled foolish to omit the man in form, who has scored seven goals for club and country already this season. Had Fowler not played and we had lost, then it would have been madness to leave out the local lad who understands these games the most ‘“ the one striker not away on international duty.

We have so many good players now, that if you leave one out he’s instantly the player who was missed if things go wrong; cue “damned rotation”. Leave out Alonso, and we’ll bemoan the absence of his passing. Leave out a winger, and we’ll miss the width he provides. Unless Rafa can sneak 14 players onto the pitch, there will be extremely effective players left out of games, and that will give fans something to blame if things go wrong.

We needed the newly purchased players ‘“ that’s clear. This is now a squad nearing completion. However, so much change can lead to instability. It takes time to make a mix, to blend the ingredients.

Players are still settling in, but yet again Dirk Kuyt showed in a brief cameo how good a footballer he is. Pennant has shown he can add pace and cross the ball, as indeed has Mark Gonzalez. Craig Bellamy, whose long-standing hamstring problems possibly prohibit him from starting three games in a week, is going to cause teams problems. Fabio Aurelio has looked more mixed, with a willingness to tackle and clear ability on the ball, without yet seeming comfortable. But as a collective it’s not hanging together properly. Yet.

Clearly there are teething problems, but at this early stage they are nothing more. We’ve seen teething problems before, such as with zonal marking, before the Reds became the most effective team in the land at defending set-pieces.

It could take another two months to get everyone on the same wavelength. Even if that is the case, it needn’t be too late for a title challenge, providing the form is good from that point onwards ‘“ like last year ‘“ and, crucially, the top teams are beaten this year, if only just at Anfield, unlike last time around. But if we kick into gear in the next week or two, that’ll mean we will do so a whole month earlier than last term ‘“ when most Reds were suicidal in October.

The overreaction to the Everton defeat is understandable; that doesn’t make it right to write off the title challenge, and (as many have) start saying we’ll finish mid-table or 30 points behind Chelsea, etc. Before last season started I predicted we’d get 80 points. Then, after the slow start, I revised it down to 75 points; at that stage I was lambasted for being an optimist. We ended with 82.

The league table needs time to settle into shape: when everyone has had a number of both tough and easy games, home and away. Rafa’s teams have gone on long unbeaten runs on a number of occasions, so we know what can happen once everything settles down. Dirk Kuyt, his most exciting signing, has hardly had a chance to feature, but that will change.

These are all extenuating circumstances, not necessarily excuses. Some might be a case of clutching at straws, but cannot be ignored all the same. It almost doesn’t matter what side you pick if the referee allows the opposition to score two early goals and denies you an even earlier penalty ‘“ the game is already shaped.

The quicker the defence is back to its best, the better. Too many individual errors are being made, from players who were so reliable last season. Based on the analysis in The Red Review, Jamie Carragher did not make one single goal-costing error in the league last season; already he’s made one this. Despite a couple of high-profile gaffs, Pepe Reina only made five serious errors last season; the year before, Dudek, Carson and Kirkland made 17 between them.

Dips in the form of certain key individuals are only confusing the issue of finding the right blend. Xabi Alonso is not at his best, and Steven Gerrard has misplaced his shooting boots. Jamie Carragher is playing with an injury and appeared to bottle his first challenge in ten years.

All of these players were at the World Cup, having featured in most of the 122 games the Reds played in the previous two seasons. They were late back to pre-season training, and having been all over Europe last week, they need to find their bearings in a Red shirt. There’s an edge, a sharpness ‘“ dulled by the efforts for their countries in the build-up to the derby ‘“ that should now be ready to start shining through.

For all the setbacks, we have to trust, based on his constant ability to solve problems and overcome tricky periods, that Rafa can get things right on the training ground, now that he has his players back for six straight weeks. There’s still plenty of time left to turn things around.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

“The Red Review” is available this week from www.paultomkins.com priced £11.99. Not in shops until November

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