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Liverpool’s Nearly Men: The players who need to shape up, or ship out

Alex Malone runs the rule over some players he thinks let themselves and Liverpool FC down in the FA Cup semi-final, and questions why Brendan Rodgers is continually correcting his own team selection mistakes.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 19, 2015: Liverpool's Alberto Moreno and Joe Allen tackle Aston Villa's Christian Benteke during the FA Cup Semi-Final match at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

What is it with this Liverpool team with their mentality and lack of passion, heart, bottle, determination?

Every big game lately has seen us go down without even the semblance of a fight. I can only imagine what the watching Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush are thinking when they watch the team they sweated blood for, roll into a proverbial little ball of surrender. Even when I played Sunday league football, I played with hundreds of lads, week in, week out, who showed fierce determination to win at all costs – and we all played for free. Why – it needs to be asked and answered – are millionaire footballers with the honour of wearing the Liver Bird on their chest, incapable of doing the same?

This latest debacle at Wembley was head-shakingly awful. This was a team – or should I say a group of individuals, because a team it was not – in a showpiece semi-final of a world renowned competition, being beamed to millions across the planet who simply failed to show up.

While absolutely no-one excelled, there were specific players who stood out from the crowd for their own personal ineptitude and woefulness, either in this game or in the other recent defeats. I’d like to analyse a few of them who I feel are real concerns not just from these last few games, but in general.

Joe Allen was once a medium sized fish in a small pond. He now resembles a Welsh cockle in the Irish Sea. Allen looks second best now against second and even third rate players. From a reasonably promising start to his Liverpool career, he’s nosedived alarmingly.

This was Aston Villa’s midfield he was up against, not Chelsea’s, not Man City’s. If you’re against Yaya Toure & David Silva, or Eden Hazard & Cesc Fabregas, then you know you have a game on your hands. But this was a midfield with Tom bloody Cleverley in it! And if you can’t compete with a Tom Cleverley midfield, then you can’t compete at this level for Liverpool Football Club. I’ve defended him up until recent times, believing that given time, he had enough about him to make the step up. But I’m afraid that the cold hard truth – one that many fans have already concluded – may be that Joe Allen simply isn’t good enough.

Jordan Henderson was – or so it said on the team sheet – next to Allen in that dismal midfield display against Villa. A few weeks back, with Henderson scoring a few goals and finally, possibly, looking the part, I held my hands up and accepted that I might have been wrong about him. Well, I’m putting my hands back down, at least for the moment.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 19, 2015: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson in action against Aston Villa's Jack Grealish during the FA Cup Semi-Final match at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

What was Henderson’s display at Wembley supposed to be? My one overriding criticism of him since the first day he pulled on the Red shirt, was that he hides on the pitch. He specifically hid behind Steven Gerrard in the early days which, I suppose, for a young lad coming from the small pond of Sunderland, was somewhat understandable. But this is a player who’s since been deemed the worthy successor to Gerrard for both the captain’s armband and the midfield general role. I just cannot see it. When the going got tough against Villa, the weak got found out, and Henderson disappeared. He went missing in action and did absolutely nothing to attempt to rescue the game. Oh, and Jordan, if you’re reading this, Harry Potter rang… he asked can he have his invisibility cloak back.

Silly jokes aside, this was NOT the performance of a leader, a captain. This was not the performance of a top class Premier League midfielder. This was the performance of a player lacking mental strength when it mattered. The club have a big decision to make regarding Jordan Henderson, and the decision needs to be to take away that armband until the day he earns it with his performances on the big stages. I know it’s outlawed to criticise Henderson in some circles of Liverpool fans, and I fully expect the World Famous Henderson Appreciation Society to place a fatwa on me for doing so, but if you look past blind loyalty to a player and focus solely on performance in these recent defeats, his absolute inability to influence the game or his team mates have left a number of big question marks which only Henderson himself can answer.

Dejan Lovren. Oh, where to begin! I recently saw a poll where Paul Konchesky was voted the worst ever Liverpool defender. Lovren might just have put himself in the running to steal the crown if he keeps churning out performance after performance of such utter incompetence. We went fishing in the small pond of Southampton, and we hooked a jellyfish. Here is a player not mentally tough enough to progress above mid-table level. Decision making.. shocking. Calmness… abysmal.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 19, 2015: Liverpool's Dejan Lovren in action against Aston Villa's Christian Benteke during the FA Cup Semi-Final match at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Positioning, horrendous. He’s not an accident waiting to happen; he’s already a train wreck. His tattered confidence transmits itself to everyone around him, wondering how to possibly anticipate when he might next go positionally AWOL, fluff his next clearance or miss his next header. The 35 yard shot at the end was the icing on the cake and smacked of a man on the brink.

This was a player who last season looked fairly assured and even dominant in the Southampton defence, so all I can put it down to is another player who’s simply out of his depth when playing for England’s most successful club. As with all of these players, I sincerely hope to be proven wrong, but as it stands, I can see no way back for him.

Next up is Mario Balotelli. What is it with this fella? And why is he at our football club? This is a player who may not have come from ‘small ponds’ but his mentality is one not suited to a big club. History very clearly tells us that. We gambled on him, and lost. I see players such as Danny Ings, Charlie Austin and Bobby Zamora look genuinely angst-ridden when they miss a goal-scoring opportunity for their teams languishing at the foot of the table – because they CARE! Because it MATTERS!

I see Balotelli give the cameras that brooding, self indulgent, made-for-TV sulk that suggests to me that he really, simply doesn’t give a shit. He’s lazy, he’s selfish, he makes shockingly poor footballing (and non-footballing) decisions, and he does not have the mentality – nor will he EVER have the mentality – to earn the right to wear our shirt. When we get rid, I’ll be sure not to celebrate.

Raheem Sterling – hmmm. A player who, it seems, thinks he’s too good for Liverpool FC. Well, he’s not. He’s a good young player with potential and that’s all he is right now. His left foot makes John Arne Riise’s right foot look good, and his finishing is particularly and consistently wasteful. The media seem to be in agreement that he’s waiting for a move to a money-bags club to realise his ambition of winning things. I’m sure he’ll take a pay cut to achieve it.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 19, 2015: Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard looks dejected as his side lose 2-1 to Aston Villa during the FA Cup Semi-Final match at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

If he wants out, get rid. I have recently observed a player who in my view is not now committed to the cause; and not-committed to the cause can never be acceptable. If you can’t be arsed in FA cup semi finals, when can you be? If it turns out that he does want to play for our great club and commits to it, then great, but he has much work to do to correct the flaws in his game and just as much work to do to win back the fans.

Lazar Markovic is another ‘big signing’ who is struggling, but even though he makes this list, I’m giving him some benefit of the doubt, because he’s young, in his first season, in a new country, and most tellingly, being played out of position. As a result, his confidence has gone.

He’s an attacking wide man, not a corner flag to corner flag ‘wing-back.’ Not surprisingly, not being a natural defender, he gets found out at the back; and because he’s expected to track back all the time – his advanced play is also suffering. I’m still hopeful he will come good, but whether he does or not is dependent upon the lad being given a chance playing in the position we bought him for. But unfortunately, as it stands right now, he’s one of the ‘nearly’ men.

Adam Lallana missed the recent games, but that’s not enough to exlude him from this list. Of all the recent overpriced signings, it was Lallana I had genuine hopes for. What a disappointment he’s been. Here’s a player who is lacking in both physical AND mental toughness. The physicality of the Premier League appears too much for him, and as for all players who can’t (or won’t) compete physically, they get injured more often than the full blooded players do.

Lallana is a genuinely skillful player, technically gifted, with an instinct towards creativity. That’s all well and good on paper, but as Origami once said, football isn’t played on paper. It’s on the pitch where Lallana absolutely, positively MUST show he has the bottle to put those skills to use. If he doesn’t, his time as a Liverpool player may become a small irrelevant paragraph in the history books.

And finally, to the manager…

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 19, 2015: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers during the FA Cup Semi-Final match against Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I defended him recently due to him being 42 years old, therefore prone to mistakes that any young manager can make. But age does not excuse what we saw against Aston Villa. Coming right on the heels of the Swansea, United and Arsenal games where too many mistakes were made, he made similar ones all over again.

The formation was wrong. Playing Gerrard for 90 minutes was wrong. Pissing about with the formation continually throughout the game as if it was a Lego set was wrong. Bringing on a striker in the 90th minute when you’re losing a cup semi was wrong.

Rodgers’ inability to start a game with the right players, in the right formation, with the right tactics is now becoming a recurring and worrying theme.

Last season he was (rightly) recognised for his tactical nous, changing tactics/formations/players when a game was getting away from him, and being fair it worked on quite a few occasions.

But isn’t the TRUE measure of a manager’s capabilities about getting your players/tactics/formation right from the start? Not dicking around with it several times throughout a game because you made a pig’s ear of it in the first place.

Just as his tinkering worked successfully last season, it’s worked equally as unsuccessfully this. He’s outthinking himself before attempting to outthink the opposition, and it’s a career limiting approach he must change if he is to be successful.

Teams that win titles generally play their best players in their best positions, and only rarely do they deviate from that. Rodgers is young enough to continue learning from mistakes such as those seen in the last three defeat, but he needs to learn quickly. The next year is probably the most critical 12 months of Brendan Rodgers’ career.

We nearly won the league last year and we nearly got to League Cup and FA Cup finals this season. We nearly beat Basle in the Champions League, nearly got out of the group stage, and then nearly beat Besiktas in the Europa League. We almost, nearly beat Everton at Anfield. We’ll probably nearly get top 4.

… and THAT in less than one year, is way too many nearlys!

Until the nearly men above either shape up or, in some case, ship out, there’ll be more hard luck stories ahead. And, one thing I think we can all unanimously agree on, is that Liverpool becoming a club talking only about hard luck stories, and not number of trophies won, simply cannot be allowed to happen.

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