Fixin' a Hole: The Resurgence of Liverpool
As Middlesborough's Turkish striker Tuncay put away his second goal in the recent two-nil victory over Liverpool, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for thinking the race was over.
A season, which promised so much, seemed to have followed a familiar path. Liverpool was left stumbling beside a road being torn up by a Manchester United juggernaut that just kept on rolling.
Fast forward three weeks and optimism has been renewed... and how.
Beating Real Madrid 4-0, Manchester 1-4 and Aston Villa 5-0 in successive games is nothing short of phenomenal. Winning these games in the manner they have, against a backdrop of negativity and media "I told you so's" has made the victories that much sweeter.
Make no mistake about it, this has been a run of form that has put people, journalists and fans alike, on notice.
But has it been coming? Liverpool has looked capable of beating anybody this season, and yet time after time their fans have been left frustrated and bewildered by their team's failure to deliver that final blow.
Let's not forget that Liverpool has only lost two league games this season. The first, to the Spurs, only coming after 90 minutes of a game Liverpool completely dominated, and these were Harry Redknapp's words, not mine. But the draws have been damaging beyond words.
So why all of a sudden has the surge of goals and confidence, so often lacking this season, come from?
The first thing Liverpool fans point to is the fact that their undoubted stars, Torres and Gerrard, are finally getting a run of games together. It is perhaps an excuse to blame the injury problems on Liverpool not winning the title this season. Chelsea fans have just as much right to say that the presence of the hugely influential Michael Essien, as well as Ricardo Carvalho and Joe Cole, could have hugely improved their own title bid.
But the loss of Torres's goals is not the only thing that has cost Liverpool this season. When you take him out of the equation, the way Liverpool lines up and approaches a game vastly differs from when Torres is present. In my opinion, this is what has cost Liverpool the most.
Liverpool likes to play a 4-4-1-1 formation, though this is usually more of a 4-2-3-1 formation when attacking, and a 4-5-1 when defending. This formation works for Liverpool because it allows the team to get the best out of its players.
Javier Mascherano is allowed to sit and break up opposition attacks and Alonso can sit and control the pace and direction of the game, something he currently does better than any midfielder in Europe. with the possible exception of Xavi at Barcelona. Because this pairing, when playing in the favoured formation, has Gerrard bursting into the box and providing support to the striker, the team can play its natural game. In a standard 4-4-2 formation, which Liverpool had had to resort to in the absence of Torres, the players are not able to do this.
Rafa's favoured formation also brings the best out of its wide players. In a 4-4-2 formation, Jossi Bennayoun and Dirk Kuyt in particular can be incredibly frustrating. In the 4-4-1-1 formation, however, the strengths of these players are obvious. Kuyt's work-rate is unlike most players in world football. He is the epitome of the Duracell bunny with boots on. Players such as Gerrard and Alonso are allowed to play football because they have the insurance of wide players who are capable and more than willing to fill in behind them.
In the absence of Torres, when playing 4-4-2, Liverpool's wide men have to resort to a more traditional winger role, which doesn't suit any of Liverpool's midfield, with the possible exception of Albert Rieira. It often leaves them often and unimaginative in attack, and very susceptible to counter attack in defence, something Boro found out in its victory.
The final way the absence of Torres has altered Liverpool's approach has been with Steven Gerrard.
Rafa's favoured central midfield pairing is obviously Macherano and Alonso. This allows Gerrard more freedom when playing behind Torres. With this space and freedom, Gerrard can destroy most teams, a fact recently stated by Zinedine Zidane, who is no stranger to this sort of role.
When playing 4-4-2, Gerrard has often looked uncomfortable. He isn't a natural striker or wide player, and because he is not preferred in the centre of midfield, his role has seemed unclear at times. This was especially the case when playing with Robbie Keane.
In short then, the presence of Torres not only adds a greater goal threat to Liverpool, it allows the team's other stars to shine just that little bit brighter, but has it come just that little bit too late?
The run-in for the premiership has just been made that more exciting, and it remains to be seen which side of the Lancs road will be painting their side of town red.
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