Liverpool slumped to a third consecutive defeat on Saturday afternoon at The Stadium of Light. One of the most bizarre goals in Premier League history, courtesy of an assist from a large red beach ball condemded the Reds to defeat. But on reflection Liverpool’s performance – or lack of it – deserved little more.
Post-match analysis has been dominated by a ‘should-it-shouldn’t-it’ debate over whether or not Darren Bent’s freak winning goal should have been allowed to stand. But, in reality, this should not be allowed to disguise the fact that the Reds latest offering was miles below that of a top four side. The Reds seemed inadequate all over the pitch at times and, having fallen a goal behind, never truly looked capable of salvaging anything from the match.
Much of the pre-match gossip had focused on whether Rafa’s men could get their season back on track after two damaging recent defeats. Up against an in-form Sunderland side without the class of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and with little preparation time following the international break. Some had pointed to the Reds achieving some very creditable results without their star duo last season, not least the home victory over Man United last September.
The difference this time around lay in a lack of quality in other areas of the pitch to placate their absence, as well as an evident general lack of confidence within the squad. With the quality of Xabi Alonso no longer residing in midfield – exacerbated by Javier Mascherano’s inclusion only as a substitute, following his late return from international duty – Liverpool simply did not seem to possess the required quality. After falling behind the Reds failed to take control of the game in midfield or to truly cause a solid Sunderland side enough problems.
With Mascherano deemed not fit enough to start and Gerrard unavailable through injury, Rafa began the match with the inexperienced pairing of Lucas Leiva and Jay Spearing in midfield in an alerted formation. Benitez chose to diverge from his now customary 4-2-3-1; instead opting for three centre-backs – Carragher, Skrtel and Agger – with wing-backs, and Dirk Kuyt operating alone up front.
The post-match word was that this was an attempt to deal with the Black Cats potent attacking duo of Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones. But this reshuffle appeared to actually have the opposite affect. Liverpool’s backline at times seemed lost in their unaccustomed roles. And they were not helped by lack of physical presence in midfield, contributing to a generally soft centre to the Liverpool team. The likes of Steed Malbranque and Lee Cattermole seemed to find it too easy to overrun the Reds in midfield and expose them in dangerous areas.
When a cross from the right found Bent with space and time in the penalty, the ex-Tottenham man’s goalward shot averted the efforts of Glen Johnson but took a major deflection off a stray beach ball – thrown into the crowd by a Liverpool fan – diverting it past a bewildered Pepe Reina. There is no question that under the rules of the game the goal should not have stood. But referee Mike Jones and his assistant – who were quite frankly poor throughout – saw some reason fit to allow the goal to stand.
This served to give an already confident and inform Sunderland side all the impetuous they needed. Liverpool were able to dominante possession for much of the remainder of the game of the 5th minute opener. But in honesty it was the home side who always looked the more lethal, and continued to cause Liverpool’s defence problems throughout.
In fairness to the home side they did play an effective and threatening game but the Reds were too often the source of their own problems, appearing lethargic at times and too often surrendering possession in key areas. Spearing, Agger and Aurelio were all culpable of losing the ball too easily at times and could have been punished. In the second half Skrtel’s uncharacteristic lazy header back to Reina was pounced on by Bent and the striker perhaps should have done better than strike the post, before a superb block tackle was required from Carragher to repel Bent again.
As the game progressed Liverpool seemed limited, not only by enforced changes to personnel, but also by their adopted formation. With the Reds chasing the game, the selection of an extra defender left them short in attack against a dogged and resilient Black Cats defence. Spearing and Lucas don’t seem ‘attack-minded’ enough to support the front men, leaving Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel as the only genuine support for Kuyt – neither of whom had their most effective of games.
Liverpool were largely restricted to half chances, with Babel, Aurelio and Spearing putting efforts just wide. It took until the dying minutes of the match for the Reds to truly test Craig Gordon; the Scot forced to repel efforts from Kuyt and substitute David Ngog on the rebound.
I am not one to criticise Rafa too readily, but the timing of the substitutions did seem perhaps too late. It took until the 72nd minute to finally remove the surplus centre-back in place of an additional attacker – Skrtel replaced by Andriy Voronin – and also introduce Mascherano.
Whilst Liverpool seemed at their most effective as an attacking force when a true striker was introduced, in the shape of Ngog, with just 9 minutes plus stoppage time to go. The young Frenchman may be raw and inexperienced but he offered more as the central pinnacle of the front line.
Kuyt had toiled and grafted to little effect throughout, getting little change out of Michael Turner and co, and seemed far more comfortable when he reverted to his accustomed wider role towards the end.
People could, and probably will, of course point to the fact that Liverpool were lacking their two best and most influential players, and were clearly suffering from an international hangover in general. If any other side at the top end of the Premier League suffered a similar loss you can be sure that they would also be affected to some extent also. The difference between title challengers and the rest is that they have the strength in depth and the mindset to deal with such loss of personnel.
The desperate hope is that Gerrard and Torres can shake off their injuries quickly. Benitez and players must now muster an immediate up turn in form if they are to stand a chance of resurrecting their season in the coming weeks.