15 minutes is a long time

jurgen-klopp

Jurgen Klopp. Picture by Dave Wood, http://www.flickr.com

I have tonsillitis. I’m not one to complain (much) but it feels rather like man flu squared. Thus I felt pretty miserable when I slumped on to the sofa on Sunday evening (Malaysia time) to watch Bournemouth v Liverpool. 90 minutes later, my misery had deepened.

It all started so well. Liverpool began the match purposefully, pressing high in the style that Klopp has drilled into them and immediately put the home team under pressure.

Liverpool were playing in their ghastly luminous lime 3rd kit, which at least made it easy for them to find each other with passes – unlike that time when Fergie blamed Manchester United’s defeat at Southampton on their grey strip. Luminous lime in HD was not the sort of tonic I was looking for.

Cheer arrived after 20 minutes though when Mane gave Liverpool the lead, aided by some uncharacteristically hesitant goalkeeping from Boruc.

Just two minutes later, Origi doubled the lead. Boruc, perhaps overcompensating for his hesitancy just moments earlier, dashed recklessly from his penalty area and gave the Belgian a simple decision to make in rounding him. The finish, from an acute angle, was far from simple but was accomplished with aplomb.

At this point, I sensed some slight recovery in my condition. There seemed very little prospect of a Bournemouth recovery.

The previous day had seen big wins in different ways for Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs – all potential title rivals. The first half at Dean Court was a dominant declaration by Liverpool, playing like a team entirely comfortable with the tag ‘title contenders.’

Apparently, there had been 1,061 occasions in the Premier League of a team leading 2-0 at half time. The team ahead at the interval had gone on to lose the match only 22 times. The 23rd such occurrence would’ve got long odds at half time on Sunday.

As I popped a few more painkillers, Jurgen Klopp must have been anticipating a painless conclusion to his day on the south coast.

Bournemouth started the second half brighter – not as bright as Liverpool’s kit, but brighter nevertheless. Then, after 55 minutes, Ryan Fraser came on.

The Scottish winger (were you watching Gordon Strachan?) upended the entire plot of this game, starting with being upended himself and winning a penalty for his side just a few minutes after coming on. Wilson converted. 2-1.

The penalty was conceded by Milner. In my opinion, he has been Liverpool’s best player this season. Yes, Coutinho has been brilliant but Milner has done an incredible job playing out of position and done it with immense professionalism.

The fact remains though; he is not a left back. Klopp clearly doesn’t fully trust Moreno and so he should buy a left back and let Milner fight for a place in the side for which he is more naturally suited, on the right side of either the midfield or front three.

Milner’s mistake was a rare one but it exposed his defensive limitations. Bigger problems lurk elsewhere in Liverpool’s defence however, especially when relying on Lucas as a stopgap centre half.

Just as things were starting to get a bit worrisome, Can curled home a very elegant third to all but put the game to bed. That is certainly the point at which I should have gone to bed for the rest of what I endured was a freakish, nightmarish horror show.

Fraser’s effervescence was causing Liverpool’s creaking rearguard more and more problems and the young Scot got his name on the scoresheet after 76 minutes. Apparently, he didn’t make it onto a single manager’s teamsheet in the official Premier League fantasy football game last weekend but I suspect that will not be the case for the next round of fixtures.

So, with just 15 minutes of the game remaining, Liverpool had led 3-1. Fraser’s goal brought renewed heart to Bournemouth’s cavalier charge but a cannier opposition (dare I say Conte’s Chelsea) would probably still have seen the game out comfortably from there.

Instead, Liverpool panicked. And boy did they panic.

Fraser scampered down the right again, exposing Milner again, and crossed for Cook to equalise. Klopp was starting to look as ill as me. Eddie Howe looked ecstatically bemused, like a drunk man who unexpectedly won some money at the casino on the way home.

But the big payout was still to come.

In the 4th minute of stoppage time, Karius played Santa and gifted all three points to the Cherries. He spilled Cook’s shot before haphazardly trying to regain the ball. His failure in that task handed Ake the early Christmas present of tapping into an empty net for a last gasp winner.

Fortunately my painkillers had kicked in by now but no pharmaceutical firm has yet developed a cure for being a football supporter.

This was one of the worst capitulations I’d ever witnessed.

The job of finding a remedy is Klopp’s and I was impressed by his post-match reaction. He took it on the chin, he didn’t try to make excuses (not even the kit), and he credited Bournemouth where they were rightly due. He also asserted, correctly, that his side had played very well for much of the game.

Most importantly, he resolved that Liverpool would learn from this. I think it will be a busy week for the video analysis team at Anfield.

Coutinho was missed but not in the ways that might have been expected. Liverpool still scored three in his absence and created three or four more good chances. What was missed most was his composure on the ball when the game got frantic, his ability to vary the pace of a game and slow it down when necessary.

Frantic suited Bournemouth’s scramble for an equaliser and then winner. On the touchline, Klopp is a frantic presence and he must be careful how he transmits that energy to his players. In his interview afterwards though, he was sober, serious, and restrained.

“You cannot be champions in December” Klopp correctly pointed out. It is also still too early to say if Liverpool can sustain a title challenge but to do so they will have to recover quickly from setbacks such as this one.

I’m sure many Liverpool fans made the long journey home feeling quite sick. Probably not quite as sick as me though as I made the short journey to bed.

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Losing sleep over Liverpool

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul www.flickr.com

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul
http://www.flickr.com

Why do I do it to myself? I’m still a little tired as I write this, mostly as a result of staying up until 2.30 am on Sunday morning to watch Manchester United v Liverpool. The Greater Manchester police force weren’t the only ones less than impressed at the chosen kick-off time.

I have to presume that the Liverpool players weren’t informed of my commitment in staying up late as they produced a dismal performance from early on. Gloating Manchester United fans should not get too carried away – the performance of your side was only marginally better.

In a blog post last November, I wrote that this fixture ‘is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs.’ It didn’t live up to that billing on Saturday. In fact, it came a lot closer to Gary Neville’s quip last year that watching the two sides these days resembled the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion.

Neville’s observation did not go down well with Van Gaal at the time, who promptly labelled the former Manchester United fullback an “ex-legend.” I wonder if the same now applies to Rio Ferdinand who described Van Gaal’s tactical approach as “not football I enjoy watching” due to it being “really slow going.” The first half was certainly slow going; it wasn’t just tiredness that kept me on the verge of nodding off.

It’s not just ex-Manchester United players that appear to have something of an issue with the current manager.  The build-up to the game was dominated by talk of a rebellion among senior players over training sessions that they deemed to be too structured and that were making them too robotic.

The first half did rather resemble one of those news clips where scientists from Japan unveil their latest life-size robot inventions and seek to demonstrate the dexterity of the machines by having them play football. Lovren, for instance, could certainly use a software upgrade and a bit of reprogramming to approximate the centre half that he was at Southampton.

Apparently some in the Manchester United squad are also unhappy at the amount of time they are required to spend in meetings for video analysis. They should spare a thought for their Liverpool counterparts today, because that video analysis session is not going to make for pleasant viewing.

I imagine the chief analyst gathering the squad together and saying: “we’ve just picked out the sections of the game where we believe a bit of improvement is needed lads. Just press play and I’ll see you in about 93 minutes to take any questions. There’s one small cut for Christian’s goal.”

Brendan Rodgers’ tactics deserve a bit of analysing for a start. Jamie Carragher said post-match: “I don’t understand this obsession with playing 4-3-3,” correctly pointing out that Liverpool have a lot of strikers but a severe lack of wide players. Carragher’s assessment was actually quite generous, Liverpool’s formation was 4-5-1 and Rodgers set his side up looking for a 0-0.

Liverpool also continued to employ Rodgers’ preferred method of playing the ball out from the back. The problem was that most of the time they played it out to a Manchester United player. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the manager’s desire to play possession football but the current way of doing so invites huge risks because the goalkeeper and centre backs are not comfortable enough on the ball to do it confidently or consistently.

At the other end, Liverpool lack directness and their build up play is too slow, the same issues that Rio Ferdinand identifies in the current Manchester United side. Little wonder then that the game was so ponderous for long periods.

Benteke was an isolated figure up front and despite scoring a spectacular goal, was never given much of an opportunity to put pressure on United’s defence. The creativity of Coutinho was hugely missed (he’s now Liverpool’s most influential player by far) and so of course was the drive of Gerrard.

It was revealed this week that Gerrard almost certainly would have remained at Anfield if he had been offered a coaching post. I find it absolutely astonishing that no such offer was made. In fact, back in November 2014, with Gerrard’s contract situation still unresolved, I wrote in a post that ‘I’m sure an offer will be forthcoming (and would expect it to include the option of a coaching role).’

In Gerrard’s words: “what would have kept me at Liverpool into this season was the chance of shadowing Brendan Rodgers and his staff as well as playing. Those ideas were only mentioned to me after I had announced I was leaving.” How many clubs would have lost a player of the former skipper’s status in such circumstances? Especially a club that was once famous for promoting from within the Anfield boot room.

I wonder what he made of Saturday’s performance. The match kicked off at 2.30 am LA time so Gerrard is likely to be a little tired as well if he tuned in. The man losing sleep this week though must surely be Brendan Rodgers.

No happy return for Gerrard

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station
http://www.flickr.com

The FA Cup final will be played on 30th May 2015. Steven Gerrard celebrates his 35th birthday the same day. It will not be a cup winning party. Aston Villa’s thoroughly deserved victory over Liverpool was built on a performance of vigorous drive and aggression, the sort of drive that has defined Gerrard’s career but was sadly lacking in his and his side’s display yesterday.

The game seemed to pass Gerrard by; he was more peripheral than central to the action. All the energy and swagger was in claret and blue. Liverpool turned up in yellow strips with white towels. Afterwards, Rodgers admitted that his team had been “too passive” and that the occasion had got to them.

Ahead of the game, the Liverpool manager had spoken of a return to ‘Anfield South’ referring to a time when the club used to be very frequent visitors to Wembley. Not so much passivity in those days. Liverpool are already lacking in the leadership department and Gerrard’s departure will leave a gaping hole.

Filling it will be very difficult, especially if, as seems likely, Liverpool do not qualify for next season’s Champions League. The team needs a significant overhaul despite the number of players brought in last summer at considerable expense. As a minimum, a new goalkeeper, at least one centre half, a central midfielder, a wide right player, and a centre forward need to be added.

Rodgers started with Sterling playing at centre forward and three recognised centre forwards on the bench: Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini. Sterling is no false nine and selecting him in that position usually signifies a false start. So it was yesterday with Balotelli brought on at half time.

The Italian’s dismal season continued as he missed a header (in a very literal sense – he failed to make contact with the ball), and was caught offside with such regularity that I began to genuinely wonder if he understands how the rule works.

It would be a big surprise if Mario is still at Liverpool next season. Initially I thought that he was probably worth a £16 million gamble but I was wrong. It’s not a good combination for a centre forward to be high maintenance and low scoring.  At the other end of the pitch, Benteke offered everything that Balotelli appears capable of but so frequently delivers.

The Villa forward scored a well taken goal, constantly troubled the Liverpool defence with his power and pace, and selflessly led the defensive line from the front. Unlike Balotelli though, he was ably supported by willing runners alongside and often beyond him.

Sherwood’s side surged while Liverpool looked as though they had suffered a power cut. Gerrard, so often the repairman, appeared powerless to fix things. Coutinho, by far Liverpool’s best player this campaign, provided a small spark but it burned only briefly before being smothered by Villa’s pressing intensity.

The game was a reflection of Liverpool’s season: not performing on the big occasions, giving away soft goals, and not carrying a sufficiently sustained threat in attack. Rectifying these issues will not be easy and is unlikely to be cheap.

Rodgers must invest much more wisely than he’s done so far. Rumours today suggest that Falcao might be a part of the rebuilding work but his travails at Old Trafford this season have been such that he must now be considered a rather risky investment.

Still, he’s a player of genuine Champions League pedigree and those are in short supply at Anfield at the moment. The excitement of this time last year now seems like a long, long time ago for Liverpool fans. As those fans returned north from ‘Anfield South’ yesterday, they must have been wondering what will happen next, after Gerrard heads west.