If Steven Gerrard went to down to Southport for a quiet night out at the Lounge Inn yesterday to drown his sorrows, he would not have been found quarrelling over Phil Collins with the bar staff. Definitely not. On this occasion, he would be requesting Whitesnake’s "Here I go again… on my own".
Indeed, alone is an apt word to describe Gerrard’s unpleasant afternoon spent under the watchful eye of 36,000 fans at White Hart Lane. Continuously isolated from Liverpool’s deep sitting destroyers Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva, Liverpool’s captain failed to make any impact on the game and was largely anonymous in open play.
The Spurs midfield dominated the South American pairing of Mascherano and Leiva. The duo were strong in the tackle, but wasteful in possession, as they failed to find either Gerrard or Torres on numerous occasions.
Dirk Kuyt worked tirelessly on the right with his industrious attitude, earning him a couple of scarce openings. On the left wing, Ryan Babel disappointed again by refusing to take on his man, and lacked faith in his left foot with poor delivery throughout the contest.
Yossi Benayoun impressed upon his arrival in the second half and should earn a starting spot for the midweek clash with Stoke at Anfield. The Israel international darted past the Spurs defenders on several occasions and looked dangerous on the ball.
The much acclaimed Gerrard-Torres partnership failed to flourish in north London, and overall, it marks a more than disappointing start to Liverpool’s pursuit of their 19th League title. If Rafa Benitez’s side had played good football and were beaten by a better Spurs side, then the club’s fans could accept the manner of the defeat.
But sadly for Benitez’s men, they were dour and drab from the very start, and offered little resistance to a better Spurs side. There was no bite to their attacks, and in defence, they failed to keep their discipline, giving away needless fouls and inviting Tom Huddlestone to fire attempts at Reina’s goal.
Liverpool was offered a lifeline when Gomez brought Glen Johnson down after the England right back had skipped past the Spurs defence into the penalty area. Gerrard took the penalty, driving the ball high into the centre of the goal and levelling the game.
However, Liverpool still failed to take the initiative, and shortly found themselves behind again after lax marking from a free kick by Jamie Carragher. Benitez continues to persist with zonal marking, but is the system working?
Spurs went on to claim what was a deserved victory, albeit enjoying two slices of luck after Liverpool was denied two reasonable penalty claims. Phil Dowd was disinterested in the Liverpool players’ cries for a spot kick and seemed reluctant to award Liverpool with another penalty.
The loss of Xabi Alonso could prove to be Rafa Benitez’s downfall, as the Spaniard was dearly missed yesterday. Alonso pulled the strings from midfield last season, allowing Gerrard and Torres to do what they ultimately do best.
They score goals, at a prolific rate.
Lucas does not possess the vision or passing range of Alonso. He is a poor man’s Mascherano at best. It appears Liverpool could be in real trouble without their own version of Paul Scholes.
What options does Benitez have?
Alberto Aquilani won’t be fit until October at the earliest, so for now, he will have to persevere with Lucas or try a new strategy. He could put his faith in Jay Spearing, who has shown promise in the handful of appearances he made last season.
Alternatively he could drop Gerrard into midfield. This would mean deploying an additional striker up front or using Yossi Benayoun in Gerrard’s old role. Gerrard thrives on winning the ball and making bursting runs from midfield, while Benayoun’s craft would create chances for the clinical Torres.
Andriy Voronin or David N’Gog could also be used as partners for Torres in attack as Benayoun switches to the left wing while Gerrard stays in the centre. Babel could also be played just behind Torres as the Dutch player has failed to impress on either wing.
Whatever Benitez decides to do, his team needs to become more comfortable on the ball and revert back to the Liverpool of last season. Consistently last term, the Anfield side rarely surrendered possession and were as efficient as a well-oiled machine when it came to tiring the opposition into submission.
Let’s hope lessons will have been learned yesterday.
In his post match interview, Benitez was quick to blame the officials for his side’s failings. But later, in a more pensive mood, he recognised the need for his side to utilise possession and increase ball retention instead of inviting the opposition onto them.
Many critics will be writing Liverpool off, with yesterday’s performance giving them more ammunition after the sale of the vital Xabi Alonso.
But they should do so at their peril.