Aston Villa – Loss. Ludogorets – Win via injury time penalty. West Ham – Loss.
Read that first line again. It’s not made up. That actually happened.
Should you have told me at the start of the season that this was going to happen, I’d have a had a good old chuckle and told you to sort yourself out, you’re losing the plot.
I can’t imagine any Liverpool supporter would have told you any different. These lads don’t lose those kind of games. Not Brendan Rodgers’ Tricky Reds. They’re free flowing, high octane, we don’t care how many you score we’ll score more lads.
So, where has that free flowing, tricky bunch of lads disappeared to? And why have they gone missing? It’s too simplistic to just blame it on being Suarez-less. It’s not as if he’d have been playing anyway due to his latest lengthy suspension.
Personally, I’d like to think they haven’t truly gone missing. They’re just trapped in the basement. They bashed their head on the way down and are currently lying on the floor, dazed and confused, convinced that their name is Tuesday and thinking that those things there, that look like stairs, they most definitely aren’t stairs and the way out of here. This isn’t a missing persons report, its a bout of amnesia and an identity crisis.
I’m sure it was Neil Atkinson of The Anfield Wrap that coined the phrase Brendan Rodgers’ Tricky Reds. This is a term that I wholeheartedly embraced as it summed the team up perfectly. That’s who they were and they knew it. But no longer. Everything that was great about last season, has been replaced, by everything that was bad.
I think I can pinpoint the particular moment that this happened. When the players and staff of Liverpool Football Club forgot who they were. It was Jordan Henderson’s sending off against Manchester City last season. That was it. That’s when the identity crisis began. Go back and look at the results from the closing games of the season. They’re not in-keeping with what occurred prior.
Henderson may not have been the star man in the team, grabbing headlines like Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling (for the last couple of months of the season anyway), but, he was the team’s identity. I’ve extolled the virtues of Jordan Henderson previously, so I won’t go into detail again, but I will say this. No player in that squad has the intensity of Henderson. The ability to hassle and harry opponents all day long and then the ability to break and get forward at pace when you win it back. Added to that is the appearance of a man that truly cares about what happens to Liverpool Football Club. He rallies, dictates and celebrates more than any other player in the squad.
Tactics are important but so too is mentality. Henderson has that in spades.
I’m not saying that with Henderson in the team we would have beaten Chelsea or gone on to win the league. But, I am saying that we wouldn’t have lost ourselves. We’d have been more assertive against the soon to be relegated Norwich City, the 3-3 draw against Crystal Palace wouldn’t have been allowed to happen and a 9 man Newcastle team would have been put to the sword.
The club would have finished the season on a high – Champions or not – and started this season accordingly. Instead the start of the season has found a team lacking in confidence and bereft of a winning mentality. Of course, key players have been missed (Sturridge and Allen in particular) and set pieces poorly defended, but having a winning mentality and being sure in your identity can help you overcome deficiencies. Take Leicester City and their comeback to beat Manchester United 5-3. Esteban Cambiasso, a player who knows a thing or too about winning football matches, said the following:
“I think Leicester City has this winning mentality. When you have been in the Premier League for maybe nine or 10 years, maybe you have another mentality. But you are promoted to the Premier League it’s because you have been winning matches.
“Leicester City’s manager and the players possess this winning mentality.
“It’s not possible to change the mentality you had last April or May for a totally different one in August or September.
“The mentality of my team-mates is to win because last year they needed to win most of their matches to go up.”
In my opinion, this loss of mentality/identity has acted to compound the mistakes that have been made. And there have been many.
Liverpool have made some real rookie defensive errors thus far, but it’s not as simple as blaming the goalkeeper (Mignolet is the subject of a whole other debate) or the defence individually. Mistakes have been made all over the pitch.
The midfield for example, has been woeful. They have somehow managed to combine providing little defensive cover with a complete lack of support for the front man. Something I didn’t know was possible. Surely, if you’re defence is left open and exposed, it’s because you’ve committed too many men forward? Apparently not! Mario Balotelli has often found himself alone, nobody close to him. No midfield runners getting beyond or playing a 1-2 that allows him to spin off behind the opposition defence.
Additionally, it’s been clear to see that the pressing this season is not what it was. Whether it’s a change in strategy, new players failing to adapt or that the legs simply aren’t there, it’s not happening. Jordan Henderson is effectively dong the work of 3 men and obviously failing. Who wouldn’t in the circumstances? Lucas wants to be the player that he once was and clearly knows where he’s supposed to be on the pitch, but his body simply won’t let him get there in time.
Liverpool’s midfield have looked overpowered and overrun, in both league losses (the first consecutive PL defeates since December 2013) with Steven Gerrard being targeted in particular. I’m a huge Gerrard fan, how could you not be? His performances and accolades over the years speak for themselves…. The lung busting runs and Roy of The Rover’s performances which now seem to have taken their toll. He’s beginning to look every one of his 34 years at the moment, unable to perform the role that he’s being asked to do.
It was painful to watch Stewart Downing ghosting past him, or replicating the performance of Gabriel Agbonlahor, denying Gerrard time and space on the ball. Forcing mistakes and panic. I’ve never seen Gerrard’s passing so bad, so many simple passes given away, long hopeless balls hit astray. It was noticeable that in both games Jordan Henderson was tasked with the deep lying role at various points, increasing his never ending burden (he now had to press, cover and try to dictate the play all at once) in an effort to free Gerrard. But it never happened, Stevie simply could not get himself into either game.
During the match against West Ham, I couldn’t help but feel that the Hammers looked more like Liverpool than Liverpool did. They pressed and put Liverpool under pressure. Winning the ball high up the pitch and getting men in support of the front men quickly. The result, Liverpool played more long passes than West Ham and never had a grip on the game.
Prior to that, Aston Villa had capitalised on Liverpool’s ability to break down a solid defensive unit whilst Ludogorets surprised everyone with their attractive and confident play (winning mentality as league champions 3 years in a row) and were unlucky to lose the game.
Brendan Rodgers will talk about other contributory factors. Missing key players, whilst integrating new signings and managing the lack of preparation time – courtesy of Champions League demands – was never going to be easy. It’s a big task for manager and players alike.
A task that I believe can be coped with by a team that plays with intensity, desire and belief. A team that knows it can beat all comers with it’s brand of high octane attacking football, scaring the bejeezus out of every foe it faces. A team like Brendan Rodgers’ Tricky Reds. They’ve just got to remember who they are.
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Pic courtesy of Jan Kruger/Getty Images.