False nine but not false hope for Liverpool

Tactical Analysis – West Ham 2-3 Liverpool

Liverpool took the lead through Glen Johnson’s brilliant strike but went behind with a dubious penalty and an own goal. Two late goals won the game for the Reds.

Line Ups

As expected, the suspended Luis Suarez was replaced by Jonjo Shelvey, who lined up in the much-vaunted false 9 position. There is plenty of debate as to exactly what that position means, but Graeme Souness may have hit the nail on the head when he said that it is the definition of a poor transfer window. Souness knows one or two things about poor Liverpool transfers.

With Shelvey in the unfamiliar position of leading the line Rodgers knew he needed plenty of support. The manager selected Stewart Downing and Raheem Sterling either side of him. The interesting aspect of this was the fact that the left-footed Downing was positioned on the right hand side, while the right-footed Sterling was given a left-wing berth. This was clearly a ploy to play the pair quite narrowly, to support Shelvey. Rodgers clearly believed that his full backs Enrique and Johnson would provide sufficient width. Elsewhere, Lucas’ selection allowed Joe Allen play further forward. Liverpool had their awful post-Europa League record hanging over them coming into the game (yet to win following a European game), and with eight of the starting line-up featuring in Udine on Thursday night, Liverpool required a good start.

A Whirlwind Start

Glen Johnson

In spite of any perceived fatigue following the Udinese game, Liverpool made a flying start and were ahead within eleven minutes. Without Luis Suarez, there was a feeling that Liverpool required something special to score a goal. That is exactly what Glen Johnson served up, with a stunning long range strike into the top corner. It is difficult to tactically analyse a goal that was carved out of sheer individual skill.

Prior to the goal, Johnson held the unenviable record of having the most shots on goal without scoring. Johnson’s marauding runs down the right hand flank were a feature of Liverpool’s excellent start. One pleasing aspect of Liverpool’s start was the amount of bodies the Reds pushed forward. In the early stages Jonjo Shelvey had far more support than Luis Suarez has had at most stages this season. There were some worrying features however. All of Liverpool’s good play was in front of West Ham. Without Suarez, Liverpool had precious few players running behind the West Ham defence.

Reds Retreat

The turning point of the first half was the injury to Jose Enrique. It forced Liverpool into a reshuffle that broke the Reds’ momentum. Without a specialist full back on the bench (Jack Robinson was once again missing) Rodgers’ response was to move Stewart Downing to left back, with Joe Cole coming on to play on the right side.

It was a surprising decision from Rodgers given that Cole is yet to perform for him and it took some much needed height from the back four. It did not work in the first half. Frequently, Cole drifted in to the middle of the field leaving Glen Johnson badly exposed. Both of West Ham’s goals came from that side.

West Ham’s penalty was extremely harsh on Joe Allen and Liverpool. It was avoidable however. Allen’s handball came as a result of a cross from West Ham’s left hand side. Cole was caught infield, meaning Joey O’Brien could cross into the penalty area too easily.

The second goal was also a result of sloppy play down the right flank. Glen Johnson stood off Matt Jarvis far too much, allowing him the space to deliver a cross that unfortunately came off Steven Gerrard’s head.

Liverpool were put under tremendous pressure in the first half, as West Ham launched myriad high balls on top of Carlton Cole. For the most part, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger dealt admirably with them.

Brendan Rodgers likes his side to play a high line up the field, but West Ham’s excellent pressure prevented Liverpool from doing so. For example, Agger and Skrtel are usually about twenty yards up the field from Pepe Reina’s goal kicks.

In the first half, the intensity of the West Ham pressing forced them about ten yards deeper. The outstanding figure of the game was West Ham’s Diame. He set the example for his West Ham teammates, constantly pressing and driving forward. For the record, Diame could easily be a Liverpool player. Kenny Dalglish had negotiated a deal with Wigan for the player, but it fell through when the manager was sacked.

Offensively, Liverpool offered nothing from the moment of Enrique’s injury. Johnson’s forward runs became a rarity, Shelvey became isolated, Sterling struggled and Cole was anonymous.

Reds Revival / Diame’s Departure

Liverpool lost the lead having suffered an injury, and West Ham did likewise. In recent weeks, Brendan Rodgers has made substitutions that have made a huge difference for Liverpool. In this game, the introduction of Jordan Henderson gave Liverpool added impetus, but the crucial moment may well have been the departure of Diame.

Suddenly, Liverpool had more space and freedom in midfield, with Jordan Henderson having oceans of room to run in to (evident in the third goal). West Ham’s intensity dropped with the loss of their influential midfielder, and this was seen in Joe Cole’s equaliser. Raheem Sterling shares a birthday with the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Liverpool fans could feast on an immaculate assist for Cole. Had Diame been on the field the young winger may have found it intercepted by the virtually omniscient midfielder. It was a beautiful first time pass, and to his credit Cole finished superbly.

Aside from the goal however, Cole’s overall performance was poor. His goal was Liverpool’s first in the final fifteen minutes of a Premier League game this season. Typically, having waited so long for one to come along, the second came quickly.

Henderson played very well from the bench, attacking with alacrity. He broke forward frequently, and he assisted the goal. A surging run down the right hand side led to a low cross that hit James Collins and looped over Jussi Jaaskelienen into the net. It was somewhat fortuitous, but the mantra of fortune favouring the brave rang true for Shelvey. Too often we bemoan Liverpool’s reluctance to commit bodies forward, so credit to Shelvey. He may have played in an unnatural position, but he led the line well and should have won a penalty late on.

Top Half of The League.. You’re Having a Laugh

Liverpool closed out the game ever so well. Rodgers brought on Sebastian Coates in anticipation of an aerial assault. It never materialised, as Liverpool ran down the clock very well by keeping the ball. Johnson, Gerrard Sterling and Shelvey were to the fore here.

It was a fine result for Liverpool, to cap off a good week. Three wins in a row have become a rarity, and it is the first time Liverpool have won back to back league games for a year.

In truth it was a mixed performance, with Gerrard, Allen, Downing, and Cole ranging from poor to sporadically impressive. However, Liverpool’s greatest failings are a failure to win while playing badly, an over-reliance on Luis Suarez and a failure to come from behind. At Upton Park Liverpool turned a game in which they played relatively poorly around without the help of Luis Suarez.

Amazingly, Liverpool are just four points off the top 4, with a run of winnable games coming up. Suarez will return next week, Lucas is returning to his best form while the likes of Henderson, Reina, Agger, Skrtel, Enrique and Shelvey are playing exponentially better than they were in September. The squad clearly needs strengthening in January, but whisper it gently: The signs are good. Hope is in our hearts, and it may yet prove not to be false.

Follow Gavin on Twitter @gavincooney1892.

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