*UPDATE at the end*
This is a purely self-indulgent sporting post that focuses on football, and more specifically, Liverpool. PR, interactive and social media related programming will be resumed later today.
However, I can’t sit silently following as painful a defeat as Sunday’s against Arsenal.
Liverpool, the club I’ve supported for more than twenty years, are now sitting nineth in the premiership with 17 points from 12 matches. However, this belies their quite abysmal away form which has seen the team register just one point from a possible 15 – and that was an opening day of the season draw against surefire relegation candidates Sheffield Utd.
Why have the former champions of Europe (2004/5 season) performed so poorly this year? A 3-0 loss to arch-rivals Everton in the Merseyside derby was particularly painful, as was the spineless 2-0 drubbing by our nemisis, Manchester Utd. The heartbreaking 1-0 loss to championship favourites Chelsea was down to a wunder-goal from a renaissent Didier Drogba, and the 2-0 defeat at the hands of Bolton can be put down to shoddy refereeing and bad luck.
Bad luck, it seems, can be blamed for so many decisions in sport – especially in games decided at the margins. However this would ignore a root cause.
The players have lost self-belief that they can win against the big teams. Last season Liverpool consistently lost points to our rivals in the “big four” (Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal) while dominating, to an extent, the smaller teams. Flat track bully is what we’d be called in the cricketing world.
The back four of Riise, Hyypia, Carragher and Finnan are looking stale. Riise and Carra (who’s number 23 I have on my football top) are still performing well, but Hyypia has lost another yard of pace and get’s drawn out of position too easily. One pundit described him as having the turning circle of a battleship, and I would suggest he has the acceleration of one too. The two factors, dwinderling pace and poor positioning, mean that too much pressure is on his centre-back partner. Carragher would run himself into the ground each and every game, such is his commitment to the Liverpool cause, but even he can’t stem the tide without help.
Like the once-dominant Finn, Steve Finnan is also on a downward slide. His attacking instincts, once so prevalent at Fulham have been muted and his confidence on the ball is waning to an extent that he consistently cuts back to his left, and weaker, foot to cross the ball. In an age where the full-back is expected to support the winger, overlapping down the touchline, this means the momentum is taken out the attacking move.
The strikers can no longer charge into the box but need to run, check and go again, meaning any advantage from their movement is severely negated. The supporting midfielders must also show more restraint and are forced to make later and later runs into the penalty box.
Finnan and Hyypia have been great servants for the club but to move forward, to evolve, to win championships, we need to thank them for their service and move on. A more modern right back, a more mobile centre back. We already have Daniel Agger ready to step into the defence with Jamie Carragher and Sunday’s substitution, Agger for Hyypia in the 82nd minute may have signalled the changing of the guard.
In midfield there is a conundrum. Steven Gerrard, the club captain, shining star and a member of the world elite is being played out of position on the right wing. In the heart of midfield is the precocious pairing of Xabi Alonso (24) and Momo Sissoko (just 21). Out of the three, only Gerrard is equiped to play on the right, and if you look at the possible replacements for the right wing, I feel his sacrifice is a worthwhile one. The position is, after all, what you make of it.
Gerrard has a tendancy to be either totally dominant or to go missing during games. When he’s at his marauding best he’ll shrug off the defender and surge past them on the outside or cut inside, leaving the defender in his wake and often on their weaker foot. Again, to do either of these, he needs support from the right back position.
On the left wing, we’re stuggling for consistency. The Brazilian Fabio Aurelio looked good at the start of the season but is now injured. The much-heralded Mark Gonzalez seems to be struggling with the physicality of the English game and seems to have shrunk a few inches since his last season in Spain while Luis Garcia shifts from a genius at Anfield to a passenger away from our fortress.
Up front, the usually snarling, bristling Craig Bellamy, a 7million pound signing, is struggling with his form – a missed penalty against Birmingham last week would suggest not even he knows where his next goal is coming from. However Peter Crouch and Dirk Kuyt are forming a potent strike partnership, where Kuyt’s irrepressible energy is in stark contrast with former Kop here, Robbie Fowler who desperately needs some games before he is full match fit.
So what would I do, “if only” I was Rafa Benitez.
There are two things. The first would be a temporary switch to a 3-5-2 formation with Carragher, Hyypia and Agger in the back and Riise, Alonso, Sissoko, Gerrard and one from Pennant, Gonzalez or Garcia on the right wing. Crouch and Kuyt woud stay up front with Bellamy an option on the bench as an impact sub.
The three at the back would allow Agger to be gradually promoted to first team regular as well as take some pressure off Hyypia and, by extension, Carra. Agger would also provide some much needed quality on the ball – something that has been lacking with Sami “Hoof-ia” or Jamie Carragher who, for all his qualities, has never been all that comfortable with the ball at his feet.
In midfield you have your strongest three players, the core of the team, the future of the club. It also means there are two players with attacking instincts available to overload on the fullbacks. The packed midfield allows us to play to our strengths while covering our weaknesses. If the defence is underpressure, Riise can drop back to left back while Agger can slide to a nominal right back, protected by Steven Gerrard and/or the right winger.
Unfortunately, Momo is injured for the next three months but Bolo Zenden proved at Boro he is more than capable of being one of the central three.
The second would be to venture into the transfer marke. I’d buy an attacking right back in the Lauren/ Eboue/ Chimbonda mould and a rightwinger. Pennant is not, on current form, up to scratch as a Liverpool player and I’d rather spend some serious money on someone like Alves, who we were linked to in the summer.
My two cents.
Additional resources –
*UPDATE* Interesting; Liverpool won 1-0 today playing a 3-4-1-2 formation (a variation of the 3-5-2 I advocated in this post). Does this make me a footballing genius? No. But it will be interesting to note if Toronto FC are looking for a new manager. Call me!