Everything to play for at Anfield?

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Instead of the usual pre-season “hopes and wishes” article, for a change then I decided to remain circumspect, get the transfer window and early season uncertainty out of the way and try to give a considered judgement a little way into the campaign but recent events have certainly given us all, let alone me, plenty to think about.

The summer of course was the first in recent times without animosity, with the focus firmly set on getting our lads ready for the new season and sealing the transfer of others. A smiling and contented manager at the helm set the tone, basking in almost universal approval from both fans and media alike, conducting himself with dignity by doing things the Liverpool way. A strengthened backroom team around him, our blossoming academy set up, caring owners, a thriving commercial policy and with that infrastructure in place, surely we were set now for a concerted long term assault on the trophy that we have craved for so long?

Amidst great debate then, those incoming players brought about a British core to the team, though it’s fair to say approval for the manager’s signings were not met with quite the same endorsement as his own appointment with our transfer policy seemingly to recruit steady players with a good recent track record in the premiership in order to get back into the Champions league. Ignoring the clamour for perhaps the sexier, more attractive names from abroad, we earmarked arguably the best performers at their respective clubs last term with the plan presumably that Jordan, Charlie, Stuart and Jose needed less time to acclimatise to the rarefied atmosphere of English football than perhaps incoming foreign acquisitions might have done. The policy was and is sound provided they did indeed hit the ground running and maintain that level from match one over the entire season. Time and time again, dropped points to so called lesser teams at an early stage in the season have cost us dear and yes, it was hoped this strategy would address that anomaly. Hmmmm….

Andy Carroll

Of course the major focus, pre-season, was how the team was to be set up and primarily how we would go about getting the correct service to big Andy Carroll. Most people projected we would play him in front of a 4321 formation as he can give us so much if we can get him playing the right way and justifies his potential. More than anything else though, he can provide different options, provided of course, the correct type of service is delivered. The goals against City last year perfectly showcased his strengths, but now he had to get street wise and learn very quickly the ways of the premiership in order to be totally effective and become the finished article. Yes, by all means he needs to put himself about in order to maximise his physical attributes, but the contact side of the game has all but disappeared now with the merest touch resulting in a whistle, so he needs to get smart, watch the opposition and learn the skill of being a target man both in and out of the box.

Above all else he must not get the reputation, albeit unfairly earned, as a serial fouler like the last big man we had. In fact he could do worse than watch Peter Crouch as an example of how not to play. Time and time again smaller defenders counter his height and aerial ability by winning free kicks from him because they are cleverer and well versed. Either they block the run or jump into the bigger man and then appear to be fouled. Peter, being too honest for his own good, still hasn’t got cute enough to suss this all out yet but Andy needs to channel his aggression and learn how to overcome these tactics to take full advantage of his physical size. Of course he will be cleverly briefed by our coaching staff in the art of acquiring free kicks and it’s importance in the modern game. Kenny himself of course was the master at holding the ball up by sticking his arse into the defender with his arms out in order to shield the ball, lay it off to a team mate or draw the foul. By perfecting this ability, opportunities from direct free kicks twenty five yards out, he can present perfect opportunities for the likes of Luis, Charlie and in due course, hopefully Stevie too.
In the current game, Kevin Davies is excellent at the technique of winning free kicks and now he has dropped the histrionics and diving (to a certain extent) Didier Drogba remains the ultimate example of displaying raw power whilst staying, in the main, on the right side of refereeing decisions. Dead ball situations are a critical part of the game now and some teams spend the entire match trying to engineer this aspect of play purely as it is their best option to score.

Width

Traditionally we have been crap at free kicks from wide positions and corners, but this has got to be an area where we can improve. Certainly you feel that Adam and Downing have been bought in specifically to supply the service to Andy, whilst corners will suddenly bring about a new threat along with the likes of Agger and Skrtel in attendance and that second goal against Bolton perfectly illustrated the point. When all else fails, teams like to throw a big man up to get a goal at the death. We will have one there from the start so we have got to utilise that asset if we want to progress this year. Sweeping moves by our flair players over the season can be supplemented by that new found threat from dead ball situations so increasing our options for goal scoring opportunities. Furthermore, we might actually start seeing a Liverpool player, in Stuart Downing, getting to the by-line and hang up a ball to the far post for the first time since Digger in his prime. For the umpteenth time we ask ourselves, is he the missing piece in the longest running jigsaw in our history?

Attack

Of course we mustn’t get obsessed with just hoofing the ball at the earliest opportunity as the prospect of Downing, along with Luis and then Stevie, running at defences is a mouth watering prospect. Almost single handedly, the Uruguayan salvaged our season last year under Kenny and I can’t remember a player making such an immediate, individual impact since Kevin Keegan. Not content with revolutionising our team, the lad went on to spectacularly lead Uruguay to glory with performances that earned him the golden boot and the accolade of the player of the tournament in very good company that included Messi, Neymar and Aguero. Now when you consider that the latter has since gone to Eastlands in a reported £38 million deal, what price Luis now? I have clamoured for the signing of Aguero for years but I find myself at ease with City’s acquisition because, in my opinion, in Luis we have arguably the better all round player. The lad is first and foremost a team member and that unselfishness is like gold dust in the modern game, especially bearing in mind his ability to run with the ball with his head up, fully aware of what is going on around him.

For us to acquire two totally different types of footballer for roughly the money we got for Fernando was brilliant business and the increased options for the team will surely bring the benefits in the long run. Indeed, with our returning captain potentially dictating play and running from deeper positions to feed off the mayhem caused by the diverse skills of our front two, these can yet be exciting times. Amid much debate regarding his fitness, Stevie still remains pivotal to our aspirations on success, especially now with the latest defeats. O.K he has long standing injury concerns but if he can gain a level of fitness commensurate with his age and then adopt perhaps a more deep lying position, he can extend his career by changing that playing style.

Of course the season started without our captain though he would have enjoyed the level of performance over those first few games while watching from the stands. The opening day draw with Sunderland was, with hindsight, perhaps a predictable result with so many new faces on display but with a little bit of luck and perhaps a bit more composure in what was a good first half performance, we would have gone into the break at least three goals to the good and negated the “mackems” spirited display in that second period. The highlight of course was the display by Luis Suarez who dispelled any lethargy concerns following a strenuous summer with an imperious performance and any lingering doubts regarding the quality the lad possesses have now been long since dispelled. Indeed it was his introduction at the Emirates that was the catalyst to our finishing off a dishevelled and disheartened Arsenal side for our first win at that stadium. The display was encouraging without being spectacular but the stark contrast in quality provided by the two benches provide the backdrop to the bigger picture developing there.

Going into the Bolton game then, we thought a pattern was emerging with our new signings starting to impress and debut strikes from Jordan and Charlie capped off a marvellous team display with our number seven again proving the talisman to everything that was good on the day. We went into the international break then with hysteria surrounding the relative performances of the Manchester and north London clubs with us sitting pretty tucked in just off the pace.

The transfer widow saw the most frenetic day of activity any of us could remember. Allegedly we wiped some £30 million pounds off the wage bill whiles reducing the transfer deficit by the tune of some £20 million. At a stroke, we became a leaner outfit with the deadwood all gone and most of us were happy in general with the dealings. The only disquiet surrounded the late departure of Raul to Chelsea but the player seemed destined to go for some time now and only the inability to spend the proceeds soured the taste here. Let’s be honest, despite his appearance, the lad never really seemed up for the fight in the hardened world of the premiership and bearing in mind his age, plus the fact that he wanted to go, the deal was as good as done long before he submitted his transfer request. Though quite how he is worth less than a third of their offer for Modric is another matter, but I suppose they were being recompensed for some of what they paid over the odds for Fernando Torres? What is not up for debate was the job Damien Comolli had done again. Jesus, if anyone has earned his bonus this year it must be him with the number of transfer deals done. Indeed his final bit of incoming business after Sebastian Coates, saw Craig Bellamy return to the fold as an excellent addition, given that he provides the option of real pace up front and enhances our ability to hit teams on the break.

Another round of meaningless internationals saw us doing our usual routine of praying for no injuries and those prayers were not entirely answered with news of a slight hip injury sustained by Charlie. Jordan was excused early by the teacher, whilst Andy suffered the ignominy of all and sundry discussing his fitness and alcohol levels, though I had wry smile at advice being offered from John Terry, though at least he has, as they say, bought the T shirt. Quite why Capello chose to go public was a mystery though and it would be interesting to know what Kenny thought privately. Nevertheless, as a mere fan, I bow to the Italian’s experience and if the lad comes out of this a better player, then it will have been a worthwhile, if chastening, experience.

On to the “supposedly” difficult fixture at the Britannia where I was looking for the lads to put on a display to dispel any lingering doubts that we were an improving side and a class above the outfit that performed so miserably there last year. Unfortunately, though the level of performance was better, the result was still the same and in the context of the bigger picture, this was a massive disappointment. Yet again, we suffered at the hands of the same opponents and despite a radical change in personnel, they just seem to have that ability to take points off us. You can talk all day about that we were unlucky, iffy penalty decisions and missed chances but yet again, the sad facts are that for the umpteenth time over the last twenty years, we are already playing catch up and will need to beat the top teams to have any chance of overhauling them.

Just for once, was it asking too much for us to get off to a flyer and be in alongside the pace setters? Already the fixture at White Hart Lane had become one that we dare not lose as two defeats in such a short space of time, so early in the season, would all but negate any chance of winning the premiership. O.k. I was under no illusions that we were amongst the favourites anyway, but I believed it was essential to keep up with pack though nothing could have prepared us for the horror show that was about to unfurl.

In all my fifty plus years of watching the reds, I am struggling to remember a performance that was so inept. In terms of the bigger picture, i.e. the mood around the club and the form going into this fixture, it was a bewildering and humbling experience where not one single player stood up to be counted in a display where we were outplayed from the first whistle to the last. This, lest we forget, was not Barcelona but Tottenham Hotspur, a club who had a nightmare summer, where their only world class player spent the entire duration trying to get away and were previously humbled by both of the Manchester teams, so how is it that we contrived to make this team of journeymen look so good? Indiscipline ran right through our ranks, we barely put a fair challenge in all afternoon, their goalkeeper had nothing to do and worst of all, I saw a Liverpool team that simply did not compete and that, quite frankly, was unforgivable.
Given that there was talk of subsidising the “gooners” after their Old Trafford debacle, similarly the lads that went down there to watch that should also be reimbursed but I suggest directly out of the player’s pockets? Unlike Arsenal we didn’t even put in a worthwhile attack, never mind score, it was an absolute disgrace. They say you learn more from defeat than a victory but I am struggling to find a single positive to take from that shambles.

The only saving grace is the upcoming fixture in the Carling cup where the players can get it out of their system but Kenny and his staff have a hell of a lot of work to do to get things back on track to avoid a similar demise to last year. This is certainly no time for anyone to be feeling sorry for themselves because after the Wolves game we have Everton and United in quick succession and further defeats there are unthinkable.

This whole article, then, was planned in order to try to give a feel for our early season form, a few matches in, so attempting to get an indication to decide in which direction we were heading. Already though, that worrying trend continues with dropped points courtesy of the usual suspects in Steve Bruce, Tony Pulis and Harry Redknapp, just as they did last season under Roy and the one before with Rafa. Nothing new there then you would say, except that with the massive changes at the club, this was supposed the season where we were supposed to have everything in place to progress.

Hand on heart, then, I simply don’t know which way the season will go from here but this is no time for faint hearts. Every single one of us will want to see how much “playing for the shirt” means now. We can forgive them that performance provided that we categorically see no semblance of a repetition. These are the sort of times when we need to stand together but the lead has to come from on the pitch where, without a doubt, it is time for them to stand up and be counted. Accordingly then, do you think Kenny will be tempted to put out a team, populated with scousers in midweek, led out by our number 8?

Liverpudlian

To mark the end of the 30-year wait for a league title, the ‘Liverpool Mishmash’ poster is available to order exclusively on This Is Anfield — the history of the Reds in one image!

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