Although several members of the Liverpool squad - including Brendan Rodgers, who was sent back home as he was too ill to be around the squad – were suffering from illness after a bug was going around the squad, this was just what the doctor ordered. After capitulating in dramatic fashion on Wednesday against Stoke City, the Reds bounced back with a comfortable 3-0 win over a hapless QPR to end what has been a topsy-turvy 2012 on a positive note as they produced their best half of football of the season.
Luis Suarez was at his resplendent best, scoring a wonderful brace to keep him in the running for the Premier League golden boot, and Joe Allen’s suggestion that he was ‘unstoppable’ was as accurate a summation of the Uruguayan’s performance as the Welshman’s passing. But the most promising feature of Liverpool’s win was their domination of the midfield, an area where they have often struggled over the past eighteen months and most glaringly in midweek at the Britannia.
Allen returned to the starting line-up in place of Lucas, and, along with Jordan Henderson, who replaced Shelvey. It was later revealed that Henderson was up most of the night being sick, making his efficacious hour long performance all the more impressive; his constant pressing and intelligent use of the ball set the tone for Liverpool’s performance, and allowed Steven Gerrard to support Luis Suarez frequently, something that has been sorely lacking in recent months.
Gerrard, statistically, is having a fine season - he’s in top five in the Premier League for assists, key passes, total crosses and total passes. But anyone who watches him realises that he’s unable to influence games in the manner he did a few years ago, and he – and all of our midfielders – have lacked consistency, which has really hurt the rest of the side. He has played every minute of every league game this year, so his health is no longer as big a concern as it was, but he’s no spring chicken can no longer roam around the pitch all game like he did in his pomp.
Rodgers has spoken at length about the importance of having three midfielders in his formation in order to control a game and dominate the ball, and such ideology cannot be disputed given the success he had at Swansea, as well as the number of teams around Europe using a similar system. The problem, though, is that whilst Liverpool have become more effective at retaining the ball and dominating possession as the season has progressed, their game plan can still be easily disrupted if they’re constantly harried, as was proved by their performance at Stoke.
Liverpool boast an array of talented ball players in midfield, but they sorely lack physicality apart from Lucas, so they can often, quite simply, be bullied by more tenacious players. When Lucas was injured, the ease with which opposition players could glide through the midfield was alarming, and whilst his return has partly solved the problem, he has not played much football over the past twelve months so it will take time for him to return to his best form.
The Jekyll and Hyde manner of the team can be largely contributed to the performances of the midfield (as well as Liverpool’s continued profligacy, but that’s a given). Against Fulham and QPR, the opposing midfield offered little in the way of pressure or protection, allowing Liverpool to dictate the tempo of the game and penetrate the defence. In games like the losses to Stoke and Arsenal, though, the opposition manage to harry the Reds midfield, not allowing them to get in to any rhythm, whilst also exposing their defensive frailties.
I wrote a few months ago about how Rodgers should reconsider the composition of his midfield, and whilst things have improved somewhat thanks to the return of Lucas, his team selection for certain games continues to concern. Players like Henderson, Shelvey and Sahin have been underutilised or played out of position. I’m all for playing to your strengths, but given the lack of genuine quality throughout the squad, sometimes we need to adapt our game plan to counter the opposition to ensure we have the best chance of winning.
Teams like Manchester United also suffer from a similar problem – and it could be argued, have a worse set of central midfielders than Liverpool. However, United can mask such deficiencies by having a selection of world-class attacking players who can simply outscore the opposition. Liverpool, however, only have one, and therein lies the problem: with such glaring weakness offensively, the Reds must put all of their resources into acquiring help for Suarez. With plenty of options in midfield, they cannot vindicate spending substantially on another central midfielder.
Still, there are always bargains to be had, and hopefully this new scouting department of ours can pick a few up in the next month. A Cheikh Tiote or a Mohamed Diame would’ve fit the bill nicely, but that they were plucked from relative obscurity for buttons gives hope that the Reds could find a player of similar ilk that wouldn’t impact their ability to sign quality attacking players. Moussa Sissoko, who is out of contract in the summer, would be a wonderful signing and is a far more complete player than those two previous mentioned. Not that Liverpool ever make smart, prudent signings, though.
All in all a convincing win, and one that keeps us in the hunt for a Champions League place. But Liverpool are unlikely to face a team as abject as QPR were, and their midfield must prove they can slug it out with the more difficult, physical teams if the Reds are to have any chance of a top four finish.