Redkopi Discussion Panel: Sunderland (a)

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Up for discussion in this week’s first RedKopi Discussion Panel;

  • Our mixed start to the season
  • The return of Daniel Agger
  • Jamie Carraghers form
  • Our upcoming tough fixture list
  • Good old internationals!

This week’s panel: Mark Broomy is joined by TIA columnist Tetteh Otuteye.

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“Writing off Liverpool’s title chances long before the leaves have finished falling is way out of order…”

– Liverpool legend Tommy Smith

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Mark: The Reds have made a mixed start to the 2009-10 campaign, losing three of their opening eight league matches, and sit six points behind early front runners Chelsea. Whats your theory on why Liverpool have had such a mixed start to the season so far?

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Tetteh: “Defensive instability. We’ve scored more goals after 8 games than we have done in almost every season over the last 25 years and yet we’ve leaked 12 League goals at the other end for ‘various reasons’.

Mark: To figure out what those reasons are Tetteh, what has changed this year after our impressive defensive record in recent seasons. During the 2005/06 season, Pepe conceded an average of only 0.575 goals per League game or 19 goals in 33 games and set four new club records by keeping 11 consecutive clean sheets in a row. The 2006/07 season saw Pepe retain the Golden Glove award with another 19 clean sheets in 35 games. The 2007/08 season saw him complete a treble of Golden Gloves producing 19 clean sheets while last season he kept an impressive 20 clean sheets conceding only 27 goals in the League. Tetteh, what has changed this year after we’ve had such an impressive defensive record in recent seasons.

Tetteh: ” a) Changing personnel and b) The loss of Alonso

A) Changing Personnel

I don’t think this can be overemphasized. At left back, Insua has started all our 8 games in the league so far this season – that’s 1 fewer than his entire number of starts last season. At right back Johnson has replaced Arbeloa. Both players have done very well, contributing to several goals and helping us become a tougher team to park-the-bus against. In that sense, we now look better able to tackle our traditional achilles heel under Benitez – that repeated inability to break down teams that stubbornly guard a clean sheet at Anfield by parking the team bus in the goal and trying to hold on for 90 minutes.

BabelNaturally, in making this change – 2 players is 50% of our back four personnel after all – we’ve shaken up what has been allegedly Rafa’s greatest strength, our solid defensive stability. We’ve not only looked shaky in defense in open play, but we’ve also looked weaker at set-pieces, with zonal marking being brought into question at every set-piece we concede.

The fact that with zonal-marking at set-pieces we have had one of the best defensive records under Rafa for the past 5 years when our back four has been stable has been overlooked by numerous lazy journalists. Unfortunately, it makes better headlines to repeat that old cliche about “marking empty spaces” and “men scoring goals not empty spaces”.

Mark: This season its been individual mistakes when defending corners not the zonal marking at fault, yet every time a goal is conceded by Liverpool from set play, the so-called experts all nod their head in agreement that its a result of our zonal defending…!

Tactics only provide a framework. Its up to the players to execute them successfully and this season we’ve seen key individual errors in the box which ultimately have been punished. The object of zonal marking is that players are stationed in strategic positions so that an opponent cannot penetrate the area to meet the ball first. Its vital to win the ball first and if not you’ve got to clean up the second ball. You’ve got to be organised, aware, prepared and active.

I believe the defenders have lost a bit of confidence, we’re looking uncertain every time the opposition gets a corner or a free kick around the box

Tetteh: “I’m personally not too worried about this because defensive stability improves as a back four play together more and more, and after all we’re told Rafa’s a very defensive coach and the first thing he fixed when he arrived was our defense, so solving this “problem” should be right up his alley.

The truth is, it’s less of a problem than a natural transition when half your back four is changed. It hasn’t helped that at the same time Carra’s form has dipped and Agger and Aurellio have been absent through injury (again). But these are all things that will be ironed out as Johnson and Insua bed into the team, Aurellio and Agger recover and return to the first team.

B) The loss of Xabi Alonso:

Although I believe Xabi’s absence has contributed to our poor start, I think this has been grossly exaggerated as contributing to our poor early form. Xabi’s greatest contribution to our team was in attack. His ability to spread the ball around the field often helped us open teams up.

If we were struggling to create chances or drawing games 1-1 or looking weaker in the opponents half, I’d be more inclined to say we’re really missing Xabi’s creativity in the center of the park.

But our problems have so far been in defense. That said, Xabi did play an important role deeper in midfield by providing extra cover in the center of the park.

What strikes me as ironic though, is that despite Xabi’s creativity and greater contribution to our attack, he was labelled one of “2 defensive midfielders” in Rafa’s formation. Naturally when you lose half of your defensive midfield, people expect your defense to be more exposed, and this isn’t entirely false.

However the same people often suggested that we’d be better off being more adventurous and it was no secret that Xabi’s lack of mobility meant he couldn’t get forward to join the attack very often and we’d often play with only our front 4 attacking our opponents box, with Xabi and Mascherano both sitting relatively deep.

Now, our attack has looked more dangerous, partly because Lucas’ greater mobility has allowed us to have an extra presence near the opponents box. Even if Lucas’ contribution was only a distraction for defenders forcing them to mark him or to cover his decoy runs, this would create more space for Torres, Gerrard, Yossi, Kuyt etc, to exploit in the final 3rd. I’m not convinced this has been Lucas’ only contribution, but I’m not going to wade into that debate here.

Certainly, Lucas’ greater mobility allows him to get further forward and to also recover in defense when needed. Hopefully Aquilani’s return from injury will provide a greater attacking presence from midfield, and as our defense stabilizes, the increase in attacking threat will soon have our results stacking up the way they should be.

Suffice it to say that I think the main cause of our problem so far has been the personnel changes in our back four.

Mark: Just two months into the season and unfortunately cracks have been routinely showing in Liverpools defence. Both Carragher and Skrtel Babelhave found their form called into question during the opening months of the season. Jamie Carragher recently ‘unfairly’ became one of the latest media scapegoats in the wake of some poor performances most notably against West Ham.

Many fans are excitedly awaiting the return of Daniel Agger from injury. In a recent poll on TIA only 18% of readers voted to see Carragher continue as our automatic first choice centre back with a number of fans prefering a Skrtel and Agger partnership.

However, Rafa has so far been reluctant to pair Agger and Skrtel together. The first and only time Skrtel and Agger have ‘started’ a match together at center back was during our 3-1 victory at Spurs on the final day of last season in May. Tetteh, how will Aggers return impact the team and where will he fit in?

Tetteh: “Carra’s form has suffered and he has been the first to hold his hand up and take responsibility for that. There is no doubt that Rafa lives and breathes LFC and will do everything in his power to get his level back to where he once was. Unfortunately, I’m a little concerned that some of his frailty is because he’s trying too hard. In that sense, a spell on the bench (or perhaps this recent international break) will do him some good.

Agger’s return will give Rafa the option to rest Carra when needed (he’s no spring chicken) and also to allow a gradual transition into what will eventually be the heart of our future back four, in Agger and Skrtel. Rafa has recently had Carra and Skrtel switch sides, undoubtedly with a view to getting Skrtel more accustomed to the RCB role he’ll be occupying eventually when Agger eventually replaces Carra in defense. Whether that will be later this season, or into next season will be Rafa’s call as he sees their levels in training daily.”

Mark:Agger recently made his comeback from back surgery in the Reserves 2-0 win over Manchester City last week and he’s also played for Denmark during the recent internationals. Its hard to believe he’s only played 6 games for Liverpool during the 2007/08 season and so far in 2009 he has only featured in 9 games…”

BabelTetteh: “I’m personally very optimistic and excited by Agger’s return because in addition to being a very solid defender, his all-round game and comfort in possession adds an extra dimension to our attack. His ability to bring the ball forward if unchallenged (especially when teams park the bus or man-mark our midfielders) and his ability to spot a pass, make a run and shoot from distance make us a far more potent attacking force.

So while I’m concerned about Carra’s recent dip in form (hopefully that’s all it is), I’m comforted by two thoughts. First that Carra will do his best to improve, and second, that with Agger returning to fitness we have a more than able deputy who brings a lot to the team.”

Mark: Liverpool have a big week ahead after this latest round of international fixtures, which comprises of a game at Sunderland, a Champions League tie with the Group E leaders, Lyon, and the visit of Manchester United to Anfield. Rafa will be hoping all his players return to Melwood in full fitness, however Lucas Leivas travelled with the Brazilian National side for their game against Bolivia and Venezuela while we also have Javier Mascherano and Emiliano Insúa returning from international duty in South America Friday afternoon, a day before our game with Sunderland. How confident are you as we approach our games with Sunderland, Lyon and Manchester United?”

Tetteh: “You’re right it’s going to be a tough week. There’s already talk of all 3 matches being “must wins” if we’re to “rescue our season”, and while I think that’s an exaggeration from the usual sensationalist doomsayers, it’s important we get good results in these fixtures.

BabelThe match against Sunderland is important because it will set the stage. It’ll be our first match back after the break, and we’ll want to pick up some steam immediately. The impact of a dropped points will be immeasurable in terms of damage to confidence and pressure on the players’, especially with the coin-toss that is the UTD fixture just around the corner, so in that sense we really need to beat Sunderland.

Although we may have some injury worries with Torres, Gerrard and Kuyt all picking up knocks on international duty, I think we’ll have the strength in depth to win, provided Mascherano returns fit and can put in a big performance in the center of the park.

In all these three matches, I believe Mascherano’s top form will be pivotal to success. Yes, we’ll want Torres and Gerrard to create and score goals to win the match, but if we can win the midfield in these games, I think we’ll be fine – especially with Yossi also available to provide the spark in the final third.

I’m confident we’ll win against Sunderland, especially if Torres and Gerrard are cleared fit to play. But this may be the opportunity for Voronin, Babel and Ngog to push themselves into the managers reckoning. Sunderland will be a tough match, but if we can win the midfield battle and take the chances that we’ll certainly create, I think we’re more than capable of getting 3 points.”

BabelTetteh: “Against Lyon, I think a win is well within our grasp, but the reality is that a lot will depend on the players’ confidence and mental state after the Sunderland match. Dropped points and their attention may shift to redeeming themselves on Sunday against UTD, and we’ll run the risk of adding to our pressure by not putting 100% into the Lyon match. I don’t think it’s a must win game in terms of our Champions’ league campaign this season, but it’s important to get good results when you play at home in that competition, so Rafa will be determined to get 3 points. On paper, we should do fine, but so much will depend on the mentality of their players which will be significantly influenced by our result against Sunderland.

BabelWhen UTD come to town, I’ll be satisfied with a draw. Can we win? Yes. But a draw will avoid any loss of confidence and prevent them from widening the gap between us – which would be really disastrous both in terms of the challenge of closing the gap and the damage to our confidence (and the boost to theirs).

Again, how we approach this game will depend on our result against Sunderland. 3 points against Sunderland and we’ll have the confidence to play our own game and try to boss possession and go for a win, knowing that a draw won’t be the end of the world.

But should we drop points against Sunderland, this match will suddenly become a must-win, and UTD will be able to sit-back and try to hit us on the counter attack.

So in my mind, our entire week pretty much depends on our result against Sunderland. 3 points in that match will ease the pressure and allow us to have a good mentality in the next two fixtures. In that sense, it’s vital that we win against Sunderland. Hopefully we’ll get some good news about Gerrard, Torres and Kuyt before the weekend, and I’m praying Mascherano can return in time to be available for selection against Sunderland.

No matter what it’s a very important week and we’ll need to get good results in all 3 matches. 3 wins will give us a much needed boost, whereas bad results in the league will heap the pressure on us and put us in a very precarious position with many already eager to declare our title challenge dead in the water.

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The Redkopi Discussion Panel Every Friday on TIA

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Many thanks to Tetteh Otuteye for his indepth analysis in this weeks Redkopi Discussion Panel.

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