Much has been made of Torres’ goal scoring, and Gerrard’s resurgence in his free role behind El Nino in Rafa’s apparently strongest formation (4-2-3-1), with Babel beginning to look dangerous, and Kuyt not seeming as terrible as he seemed earlier in the season in some people’s eyes.
We’ve discuseed the immensity of our monster Masche, and the impressive Lucas, and though Xabi hasn’t been at his normally top level this season, we’ve seen glimpses of his top quality touches since his return from injury.
But wherein lies the secret to our success? Is it our “best midfield int he world”? Or is it in attack where Gerrard and Torres are drawing comparisons with some of the greatest strike partnerships our club has ever had?
I put it to you that it’s none of the above. It’s in the heart of our defense. It’s on the shoulders of our 2 young centre backs, Agger and Skrtel, that our success will be built, and it’s in the stories of these two gems that Rafa has unearthed that this season’s roller coaster ride finally makes sense.
We began this season in good form, reaching the top of the table relatively early, and looking like we might be able to put in a run for the title – dominating chelsea at home and putting away the likes of Derby and Toulouse with 6-0 and 4-0 scorelines that we haven’t seen for sometime. There was some confidence in the team, and our possession was better and more stable.
Then Agger got injured.
We then went through a spell of bad form from mid-september through October that nearly put us out of the CL. Fortunately for us, the impending doom of an early exit from the CL, brought about some urgency, and we found another gear in November to dispatch Besiktas (8-0), Newcastle (3-0), Porto (4-1), Bolton (4-0), and Marseille (4-0) in a brief blip of good form that really only puncuated our dip in form since Agger’s injury. The fact was, faced with the possibility of an exit from europe (which may have led to Rafa’s dismissal), the fans ignited in a show of support for the team and it’s coach, and the team found a higher level of performance.
But soon thereafter, we returned to our poor form, with Mid december bringing back to back losses to UTD and Chelsea, and a narrow win to Derby, and a dissapointing draw away to City. The poor results carried on into January, with 4 draws in a row.
We then thumped Luton for 5.
Then Skrtel made his home debut, in which after a shaky start (both for him and for the team), we won 5-2 to beat Havant and Waterlooville 5-2.
Since then, we have won every game that Skrtel has started (with the exception of a pleasing goalless draw away to chelsea). (Note – our loss to Barnsely was in Skrtel’s absence, of course, along with the absence of Torres and Gerrard).
Now I know some of you are wondering if I seriously believe Skrtel has made such an impact on our results, and if I’m discounting Torres’ prolific goalscoring in the last several matches in favour of a rookie defender’s contribution.
The answer is yes, and no.
If you recall, prior to Skrtel’s arrival, one of our major crticisms of the team was the lack of composure on the ball in defense. All too often, teams would arrive at Anfield to defend, putting their strikers on our 2 central midfielders (Masche and Lucas/Xabi or Gerrard), and their wingers on our full backs, and marking everyone else in their half, knowing that Carra and Hyypia would inevitably hoof the ball forward and they’d have as good a chance at winning it back as we would. They’d sit back and we’d pass the ball around – square pass, square pass, hoof – all game, and have little to show for our possession.
What Skrtel and Agger bring to us is a certain composure on the ball at the back – something Alan Hansen offered the Liverpool of yesteryear, and Terry and Carvalho offer Chelsea, and Rio offers Utd, and Toure offers Arsenal.
That composure on the ball, and ability to carry it forward, and make a quality, precise pass up field to a striker or winger (as opposed to Carra and (to a lesser extent) Hyypia’s more trademark hoofs), has changed the way we play. In possession, teams can’t just leave our CBs unchallenged because they can contribute to our attacking possession.
Having to mark our CBs, our CMs are freed up a bit more to receive the ball unpressured, and move the ball around from wing to wing and to Torres and Gerrard.
Most notably, Gerrard doesn’t have to drop into deep midfield to bring the ball forward. Against UTD, Gerrard had to do this. Against Man City, Gerrard had to do this.
The result was our attack was isolated, and Gerrard couldn’t contribute in the final 3rd.
It is no coincidence that Gerrard and Torres seem to have suddenly gelled, now that we have Skrtel in centre back, and if not bringing the ball forward himself or making good passes to our players rather than hoofing it up, then at least forcing oppoenent’s strikers to challenge him and thereby taking some pressure of Masche and Lucas and Xabi, allowing us to keep the ball moving forward, and allowing Gerrard and Torres to receive the ball going forward and not with their back to goals as before, when the entire opponents’ team could just camp in their own half, knowing our CBs weren’t a threat.
Also the extra speed that Skrtel has, has allowed him to cover for Hyypia’s tiring legs, and this has strenghtened us in an area that we were really struggling in.
Hyypia is better with the ball than Carra is, and this is why Carra has found himself at RB. Make no mistake – Carra is a rock, and his defensive instincts will help both Skrtel and Agger improve for years to come. But our problem hasn’t been conceding too many goals, it has been in turning defense into attack, and using our possesion. In this regard, Carra falls behind Skrtel when in possession.
Ironically, with Finnan’s form below par this season, and Arbeloa not quite contributing in attack as he seemed able to last season, Carra has (as usual) filled that position superbly, contributing in attack with good crosses from right back, and still fulfilling all of his defensive duties at right back. If I remember correctly, he’s even recently gotten an assist or two from a well placed cross.
In conclusion, I’m really looking forward to Agger getting fit, as we’ll have two fit CBs who’ll be able to bring the ball forward to good effect, allowing us to use the ball far better than we did when Agger was injured and before Skrtel arrived.
Torres and Gerrard may be getting all the glory for their brilliant work infront of goal, but much of this wouldn’t be possible if we were still finding ourselves hoofing the ball upfield from defense, and Skrtel deserves a lot of credit for bringing some cool-headed possession to our play. (Rafa also deserves much credit for signing Skrtel, and having the confidence to put him in so early – even displacing the rock of ages himself Jamie Carragher – and it seems to have been for better for the team).