Liverpool FC: Takeaways from First Three Weeks of Liverpool's 2011-12 Season
With 270 minutes played in the Premier League, Liverpool has shown that they are capable of putting true quality on the pitch...but also that some of the old troubles continue to linger.
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There can be no discussion of Liverpool’s season to date that does not begin with Suarez. The man has been an absolute animal on the pitch, and has consistently shown himself to be a brilliant acquisition for Liverpool.
Second only to Chicharito, Suarez is the one of the best signings of the 2010-2011 season. To be clear, the only reason I say Chicharito is his low transfer fee of £6 million compared to the £23 million paid for Suarez. Player for player, however, Suarez is superior.
In addition to being a constant goal-scoring threat, Suarez creates an incredible number of chances. His pass to Downing in today’s game against Bolton was one of the greatest I have seen. Downing’s brilliant first touch volley was denied only through solid goalkeeping, but the pass by Suarez was sheer perfection.
Liverpool is a completely different team when Suarez is on the pitch. The tempo and the creativity that he adds to the team is absolutely brilliant. The flair that Suarez brings provides an excitement that Liverpool has not given its fans in years.
Admittedly, Suarez’s performances have consistently been so strong, and his effect on the entire team been so great, that there have been concerns raised over whether Liverpool is overly reliant upon Suarez. Admittedly, Liverpool does depend on the newest Number 7, but all teams rely on their stars.
However, the concern about Liverpool’s depth at the striker position, given Carroll’s completely ineffectiveness to date, is completely warranted. Inevitably, Suarez will need to be rested as the season progresses, and Carroll has consistently shown himself to be unable to create goals for himself or others.
The signing of a striker with pace and creativity that is capable of coming off the bench would be a boon to the team.
Liverpool’s Offense Has New Life....
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The first half of the game versus Sunderland showed the new Liverpool that fans have yearned to see. There was quick passing between the players. Downing was great down the left. His pace wreaked havoc on the Sunderland defenders, and a number of his crosses were potentially deadly.
As the team gains more experience playing with each other, those crosses will progress from potentially deadly to actually so. Downing’s cross across the box was narrowly missed by Henderson. If Henderson’s understanding of Downing’s plan had been a fraction quicker, that would have been an easy goal.
This understanding has already improved, as shown in today’s game against Bolton. Henderson opened up his scoring sheet for Liverpool with a great left foot strike. Poise like Henderson showed today is what Comolli and Dalglish have seen in the player, and hopefully we will see it for years to come.
Henderson looked uncertain at times against Sunderland, but of all of Liverpool’s newest players, he is the one who has the longest to develop. And with performances like today against Bolton, Henderson is looking like he won’t need too much time to be the player he was brought in to be.
But with goals today from Henderson, Skrtel and Adam, Liverpool clearly has many options on offense. There can be no doubt that Liverpool is capable of putting goals on the score sheet, provided they stick to the pass and move style that Dalglish seems to be successfully instilling in the team.
....but the Old Ghosts Remain
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The second half of the Sunderland game revealed a Liverpool that fans have come to know and dread. This is a team that looked uninspired and tired. They allowed Sunderland to press further up the pitch, and caused much less stress for the Sunderland defenders. Suarez’s touch seemed to fail him, and Downing was much less effective on the right.
As the game progressed, and the time ticked closer to that 90 minute mark, Liverpool moved from the pass and move tactics that had been so effective in the first half to the desperate long ball passes that have failed them since Alonso left.
The result of this game has to frustrate Liverpool players and fans alike. The first half should have seen Liverpool up 2-0 (arguably 3-0 between Carroll’s goal that was unfortunately called back and Downing’s strike off the crossbar). The Liverpool players were surely frustrated to be up by only one goal, but that is no excuse for failing to maintain the pace and enthusiasm in the second half.
The same long ball play was seen in the middle stages of the Carling Cup game against Exeter. A solid win, but nonetheless, Liverpool slipped into the same long ball tactics that have marked their rather forgettable seasons in recent years.
Liverpool must guard against the combination of desperation and complacency that results in the team devolving into this style of play.
Liverpool's Defense is Better than Expected
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Liverpool fans across the world were somewhat appalled at the defensive displays during Liverpool’s preseason run. The number of goals conceded to sub-standard teams was worrisome for the team and fans alike. This saw a quick move by the owners to acquire Enrique at left back, and likely Coates as an additional center back.
While Enrique admittedly loosed a few errant passes against Sunderland, that is to be expected as he first learns the team. The first three weeks for Liverpool’s newest left back should be considered a success.
One of the most notable take-aways from the season opener against Sunderland was how little Enrique’s name was heard while defending. This may seem counterintuitive, but the silence speaks to his stolidity as a defender. He held his position with cool confidence, and has consistently posed a threat pressing up the left flank.
One of the surprises of last season, Flanagan opened the season for Liverpool in the right back position. He showed poise that was far beyond his years and experience on the pitch, and clearly impressed Dalglish. However, young Flanagan looked more his age against Sunderland. He was twisted around and outplayed a number of times, but all in all, performed ably enough.
Dalglish made the change to Martin Kelly in the game against Arsenal, and this looked to be the right move. Kelly was very solid on defense, and he was a threat as he pressed forward into Arsenal’s third and was able to feed passes in to Suarez and Co. up front.
Carragher has been consistent at the back. He has definitely lost some of his pace, but his experience makes him a very able defender and he remains the lynchpin of the defensive team. There has been talk that Carragher will be unable to play as many minutes this season due to his advancing years.
However, it is hard to picture him being content to play the bench.
Liverpool fans have only to remember last season where Carragher clashed heads and started bleeding. Where most soccer players would have subbed themselves out, Carragher sprinted down the tunnel so he could get stitched up and back on the pitch as quickly as possible. I have nothing but respect for a man that plays with that much heart.
Skrtel has played consistently well, though he gave up an unnecessary penalty late in the match against Exeter. However, his header against Bolton was a perfect example of the constant desire he has to win the ball.
Agger remains one of the best centerbacks in the league, provided he remains healthy. With the signing of Coates looking all but certain, Liverpool finally seems to be getting settled on defense.
Who Is Right for Right Back?
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Who will play in the right back position?
Flanagan was a solid substitute in the second half of last season, but he looked shaky and uncertain against Sunderland. Kelly’s performance against Arsenal was much superior. A more physically imposing player than Flanagan, and more confident defensively, Kelly should start over the younger right back.
But with the pending return of Glen Johnson, who should be Liverpool’s number one right back?
Glen Johnson is a fearsome force pressing up the right flank, and his trickery with the ball created openings for the old Liverpool offense. However, all too often, the poise that Johnson displayed in his offensive game was absent while on defense. Johnson seemed much too fixated on his desire to press up offensively to be an effective defender.
Supporting this assertion, one has merely to look at Johnson’s defensive performances last season when he was subbed into the left back position. Feeling less confident pressing up the left flank, Johnson was more content to focus on defense. He performed the role ably, and was a much stronger player defensively.
Further, Liverpool has less need of Johnson’s pressing up the wing as the vestiges of Rafa are removed from the team. Rafa consistently favored a strong attacking center at the expense of width. Correcting this problem was a priority for Comolli and Dalglish.
Downing provides great width and pace down the left flank, while Henderson, Kuyt and the superbly free-roaming Suarez are all able to cut up the right flank. With the additions of Suarez, Carroll, Henderson, and Adam, Liverpool’s offense looks more potent than it has in years. As a result, there is less need for the backs to insert themselves deep into the offense third, and so their focus should be on preventing goals.
A goal stopped is the functional equivalent of a goal scored.
Kelly is a physical force on the pitch, and he looks primed to be Liverpool’s right back. Kelly should remain as Liverpool’s starting right back, even on Johnson’s return.
Unfortunately, Kelly left today’s game with an apparent strain to his hamstring. With the team awaiting news on the extent of his injury, it looks like Flanagan will be the starting right back in the mean time.
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Liverpool has a distinct advantage over the other top five teams competing in the EPL this year: no European games.
The Champions League and Europa Cup are a marathon that wears down players whilst Liverpool will remain fresh. Liverpool has a great opportunity to capitalize on this down the stretch of the season, and will surely have the opportunity to pick up some points.
However, Liverpool should look to these points as helping to put the team in the lead as opposed to allowing them to merely catch up to the other teams. Liverpool can’t afford to drop points against mid-table teams, and they can’t afford to rely on teams like Arsenal and Chelsea getting draws in their own games.
So far Liverpool has unfortunately dropped two points against a weaker Sunderland side. Liverpool took the full three points against Arsenal, and the game against Bolton proved to be a great success. In their strongest Premier League game this season, Liverpool soundly outplayed Bolton.
With 7 points earned out of a possible 9, and performances on the upswing, Liverpool fans have reason to celebrate.
John Henry and Fenway Sports Group: A Closing Thank You
In a quick closing, I would like to offer a sincere thank you to the new owners of Liverpool. Mr. Henry, you came to the Liverpool family asserting your desire to win. You have shown your commitment to the team, and your willingness to spend to build it up.
Watching Liverpool this season is a genuine joy so far, and so thank you for fulfilling your promises so far.